Brent Powell says there is a lot of discussion of what makes a great leader in books (“theoretical perfection” he terms it), but you can only choose your leadership style “after having the practical experience and seeing those skills in action and applying them”. That has certainly been the case for Powell, general manager business systems at Fletcher Distribution, who says he had the good fortune to enjoy the “luxury” of working with business leaders who served as vital role models on handling people and change management issues.
His leadership style, he says, was shaped both by the people that he worked with and the businesses he “worked on”. He stresses the last two words, because he believes this change of perspective makes a big difference as you go up the management tier. “The goal for successful executives has to be their willingness and their ability and capability to work on the business and know it. If you are working in the business, you tend to be focused on just keeping things running.”
Powell’s IS career has led him to British Airways, Marks & Spencer (M&S), Farmers, Pacific Retail Group and now Fletcher Distribution. But it was in his 12-year-plus stint at retailer M&S that he picked up a lot of leadership lessons and pointers.
He cites his experience working with Neil Cameron, now global CIO for Unilever. “He created an environment where an individual could learn and grow,” says Powell. “His style and his approach were to provide honest feedback and he would give it straightaway. He would not embarrass you in front of others... He took you to one side and provided that day to day advice. He really taught me the ability to stop, think, put yourself in the recipients’ shoes and look at it from that perspective.”
Powell also worked with David Spikesley, who was in charge of operations and network for M&S. Powell describes him as a “willing teacher” who played a role in his development as a business leader.
“These guys were able to move across what you might see as boundaries but they turned out to not be boundaries at all because of their business skills. They spoke with confidence and inspired confidence in people that worked for them.”
Today, he says, a lot of his successes are “the sum total of the people I worked with and who worked with me”. He stresses, “I work with them, they don’t work for me.”
“Overall, what I try to do is get the team to have a ‘can do culture’”. And he sees the irony in this given PlaceMakers’ well-known tagline!
Supply chain decisions and challenges
Communication skills are vital. “You have to make sure you have open communications. It is not just about being able to talk bits and bytes, you need to go and understand them. It has to be at a conversational level. Equally, you have to be able to talk about supply chain decisions and challenges to your executive peers. And you have to do it confidently and in a manner that allows both parties to express themselves.
“I have met too many IT management people whose response to the business is, ‘This is technology so you wouldn’t understand.’ And that doesn’t work.”
This is an insight he clearly took to heart when assigned to Hong Kong, taking charge of IT in Asia for M&S. He and two other expat managers decided they would learn to speak the local language. A local university staff member taught them Cantonese for an hour-and-a-half each day after work. This went on for about eight months, and made a lot of difference in his dealings with the staff and suppliers. “They were proud to be associated with someone who was prepared to take the effort” to learn the language.
But mastering the language was just one of the hurdles Powell had to undergo at that time. Prior to the move to Hong Kong, he was involved in largely operational roles for M&S. With his new post, though, he was propelled to become a strategically-focused manager working on the business. “That was it,” he says, “You are the top of the tree. You have all the directors sitting on the table looking at you, looking for decisive actions, strong answers, firm commitment.”
Thus, he says, there are three things he would say to someone who wants to be a “business leader lucky enough to be responsible for IS”.
First, don’t be an IS leader, be a business leader. “Your ability to understand and to help others understand is what will make you a useful member of an executive team and a business leader.”
The second is to treat people with respect and “it will come back to you in multiples”.
The third involves relationships with suppliers. New Zealand is a very small environment, he says. “It worries me when I see suppliers and customers relationships that are being too close.”
“You need to make sure you keep your suppliers at an appropriate arm’s length,” he stresses. “Work with suppliers who can display, provide and have active empathy for your business and enduring understanding of what your business problems are. Together as a partnership, you work on common business challenges but always, with integrity.”
For himself, though, the best advice he got came not from management books or in the workplace, but right at home, from his parents who are now retired and living in Cambridge in the Waikato region. His father, an engineer, told him as a youngster, “There is no such thing as a practice run or a dress rehearsal. You only get one shot at things. Make sure you give it your best shot because no one will criticise you or knock you down for doing that.”
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