Leading the charge against Covid
Five ways that Struan Abernethy and his marketing solutions company are surviving Covid-19 and building a high-performance business in response. Story by Gemma Ede. A deserted looking office building with a barren concrete wall down one side and industrial warehouse is a common sight in Auckland’s Mount Wellington. The hot pink signage on the building is […]
Five ways that Struan Abernethy and his marketing solutions company are surviving Covid-19 and building a high-performance business in response.
Story by Gemma Ede.
A deserted looking office building with a barren concrete wall down one side and industrial warehouse is a common sight in Auckland’s Mount Wellington. The hot pink signage on the building is the only sign of real life.
A few lonely cars park up with lots of breathing room. A stark contrast to the pre-Covid ‘first in-first served’ car parking arrangement linked to a usually crowded office.
Inside, a funky entrance is livelier and smacks of being brand new. There’re polished concrete floors, living plant walls and edgy artwork adorning the walls. And noises: banter, laughter, music. People, standing, sitting, leaning. Collaborating casually on freestyle whiteboard walls in jeans and jumpers, their trainers up resting on boardroom tables.
This is the world right now at ReachMedia. Like many other businesses in New Zealand, Reach got smacked in the face by Covid and had a choice to come back fighting, or clutch to old ways.
ReachMedia’s picture in bullet points looks a bit like this:
- They have halved in size.
- They run a dual work environment – half virtually, half in the office.
- Being in the advertising industry, their revenues plunged off the cliff at record speed.
- The team reduced their pay to 60 percent for more than two months – which has only just righted itself.
- Level 4 lockdown hit right in the middle of a critical evolutionary period for the company – stalling new product launches, marketing campaigns and halting a critical workforce network of more than 3500 people who would normally fulfil marketing campaigns for more than 2500 New Zealand companies.
Today ReachMedia are about to have their best month in the past 18 months and on top of that:
- They’re hiring new talent to drive their evolutionary digital and mobile ad space.
- Their revenue lines are stabilising rapidly through careful management and education with clients.
- They’re generating new leads through effective marketing and relevant communications.
- And, they’re right back working on their mission to be a multi-channel marketing solutions business.
So what’s the secret?
I had a straight-up chat to CEO Struan Abernethy (pictured) at one of their weekly ‘Connect’ team sessions, about his modern-day leadership toolkit. He surprised me by starting with a moment of honest reflection about the past few months.
“Let’s just say that I’ve consumed far too much wine, had moments of serious doubt and a number of very sobering decisions to make especially regarding people and livelihoods,” he said.
“I’ve been a keynote speaker on this stuff in the past, but this year’s challenges got me digging even deeper into the arsenal. What I didn’t do was hide all these vulnerabilities from my team. There were times I thought maybe I should, but I’ve been around the traps long enough to know that the best leadership toolkit is an honest one.
“It’s about balancing vulnerability with confident decision making, and showing empathy, alongside encouraging resilience. And that’s been a journey for me spanning 30-plus years in leadership roles, to hone the balance.”
When asked what he thinks are the contributing factors to being effective – in general and through the epic challenges that a pandemic presents – Struan has some interesting views:
“Connect is our weekly face-to-face get together. It’s held on one of just two days we expect people to be in the actual office and its purpose is exactly as the name states – to Connect, but not superficially, with real honest reflection,” he says.
“We use the afternoon to get right under the hood, understanding the wins, the current challenges, and having the uncomfortable conversations. And nothing’s off limits when it comes to sharing about the current state of the business and how people are actually feeling.
“Connect has been hugely successful. The key thing with the concept is that it isn’t your textbook company update for all hands – it’s a bit creative, a bit unexpected and there is no judgment,” he says.
You be the CEO
“For example, right in the thick of it during the last lockdown, the team all were given the task of being the CEO. It wasn’t just a throwaway conference-type exercise that would result in a bit of banter and a few beers afterwards. It was serious stuff. S%#t was getting real, and so we asked the team to put on the CEO hat to generate ideas for some difficult decisions. There certainly was no pre-cooked solution waiting in the wings and what resulted from this exercise blew me away. The ideas, the determination, the ownership to be brave and to fix things truly blindsided me.
“I look at the team and what we’re building and I’m proud. I’m their leader sure, but the journey we’ve been on together is really centred on the whole ‘it takes a village’ approach to building resilience and a high performing culture.”
- Good humans.
“This is one of our values. It’s not about being a stand-up guy or gal, it’s about making the tough decisions, demonstrating courage but also taking the time to try on a different perspective.
“High performance, entrepreneurial thinking, and a code of trust are base expectations within the team. And getting that trust comes out of having the awkward conversations, in an environment where people feel safe and unjudged,” says Struan.
Plus we’re all about the Dad jokes…
“Most of the time at work there’s no reason why you can’t be having a laugh. We take humour very seriously. Giving each other a hard time is par for the course around here, so too are fines for all sorts of ludicrous things that build up to a healthy bar tab.
“You’ve got to keep reminding yourself that regardless of whether it’s work or personal – these are our lives, happening right here, right now. So to have fun in a trusted environment makes things bloody enjoyable.
“On balance, we appreciate that we are each going to have a bad day. We let each other have a bad day, but we’ll jump all over a sustained bad attitude,” says Struan.
- Freedom and responsibility.
“I’ve understood for years that you cannot build true high-performance without trust. Trust is the foundation for another one of our values and what is proving to be a game changer for us – freedom and responsibility,” explains Struan .
“Coming out of lockdown level 1, similar to many organisations, we reviewed our ways of working after the entire team worked from home due to Covid.
“With the team’s feedback and some well constructed productivity measures, we made the decision to move to a hybrid model where people can choose where they work, either from home or the office. The only exception to this freedom is Wednesdays, which is our agreed collaboration-day in the office, to connect and drive the workstreams.
“It’s simply not about managing the inputs, i.e. the time you arrive at work, but about what’s being delivered and having success measures for each role. The leaders at ReachMedia are learning and gaining increasing clarity on the most effective measures of performance, feedback systems and creating a whole culture of stepping up,” says Struan.
Happy team, happy life…
“Happy people work harder, work better and are more balanced. We’ve discovered that around 60 percent of the team prefer to work from home and around 40 percent in the office. The choice in itself was welcomed, as was taking people on the journey. There’re also flow-on effects to this shift in how we work – to things like adjusting our property strategy in the future.”
- Turning up for New Zealand.
Leadership development can be pretty cookie-cutter even at CEO level and much of it doesn’t suit the New Zealand market, psyche or business environment. says Struan.
“I undertook a very disruptive leadership program last year called Hiakai, which draws from a creative range of sporting and Ivy League thinking. Think tin shed in Northland meets academia!
“This program really did its job of challenging me to look at who I am and what I want, at a juncture in my career.”
“One of the key questions I answered during that program – and something that I’ve since implemented across my life, my role and my team at ReachMedia is “How am I turning up for New Zealand”? At the time, it turned out I wasn’t doing a great job of this.
“Answering this question motivated me to expand my board positions to cover not for profit, sport and commercial and take a look at my contribution in my personal life, work life, society and the economy as a whole.
“I’m constantly encouraging my team to think in a higher, more creative way, asking ‘What are we building and why?’, rather than ‘what is my job here?’.
“It may sound a bit happy-clappy, but it’s the opposite. We’re 100 percent aware that we’re running a business and we need to step up and perform at a high level. If not because more than 2500 customers rely on us to grow their business. Many of our customers are experiencing tough times, so to let ourselves down is to let them down.”
- 5. Breaking down the walls of ego.
“Does the ability to be vulnerable come naturally to me? It does now, but only after making lots of ego-driven mistakes over a career of more than 30 years,” says Struan.
I am a typical Kiwi male but I am now 100 percent comfortable with who I am and I’m highly invested in the mastery of this, because I’ve seen first-hand how it can change a business for the better. Let’s be honest it can change your life for the better.
“I look around at many of my peers and I think showing vulnerability and weakness is something that a lot of Kiwi leaders struggle with, even though most of them when asked know that it’s critical to their success.
“We build up an armour over time and now many of us ‘contemporary types’ are breaking it all down.
“You’ll find vulnerability listed in most robust research studies on the ‘top traits a modern CEO should have’. Sitting alongside it: being curious, managing ego and adaptability.
“The tough part is how each individual leader demonstrates or adopts these traits and skills, without losing their authentic self. You’ve got to be curious and most importantly demonstrate with conviction that it’s the right way to lead. Because it is.
“People relate to flaws much more than they relate to successes. So you gain huge respect from your team and inspire them to become more self-aware. Strength is in showing vulnerability with conviction.
“I don’t beat up on myself over not achieving perfection of these leadership elements. The focus is the pursuit,” says Struan.
“Traction fuels traction and we still have a lot to do in all areas. From hiring new talent, to launching new products and a significantly improved customer experience all scheduled for pre-Christmas – we’ll keep trucking at pace.
“No-one can rest on any laurels in business now; we’ll continue cultivating our environment of adaptation as much as staying focused on the mission. We’re poised. We’re ready.”
Click here for more about ReachMedia.