The permission to take risks has to come from leadership
“I have made a lot of mistakes and critical decisions along the way. Even if I got things wrong, these were the defining moments for me in my career.
“The times of adversity define you as a leader far more than the easy times,” says Icebreaker CEO Rob Fyfe.
These “failures” are also where he learned the most lessons, says Fyfe, who spoke at the AUT Breakfast Forum last week.
Thus, he says, “You must have the courage to be a bit different, to take risks and be prepared to make mistakes.”
He says this has been a critical element in his business methodology throughout his career.
Fyfe joined Icebreaker, a merino wool outdoor and sport clothing designer and manufacturer, more than two years ago. He came from Air New Zealand, where he was CEO for nine years, and before that, its general manager and CIO. He is also a director at jeweller Michael Hill and Antarctica New Zealand.
On career choices, he says some of the really defining moments for him were choosing roles where he believed he could excel and perform to the best of his ability, and “not chase on the surface what was the best paying job or hierarchy''.
“The worst reason to take a job is because it pays more than another job,” he says. “And nine out of 10 people who ignore that advice regret it.”
He remembers a time when he was offered a chief of staff role at National Australia Bank. It meant going to executive meetings and taking notes. “It was a great job and if you did that, you could choose the next job you like.”
While he says it was a privilege to be offered the role, he can not imagine being in a meeting, taking notes and not being able to say anything.
“Looking back, that was the best decision. I would not have been good at that job,” says Fyfe. “Rather than be a springboard for my career, it would have been an impediment.”
When he was with Telecom (now Spark), he was again confronted with another choice, running one of the divisions, or becoming chief operating officer for ITV Digital in the UK. He chose the latter.
The UK company created an ad campaign for the new service and recruited staff at an average of 50 a week.
He says at the time, all the television executives were driven around in luxury cars. So as a challenger brand, they did things differently. They got a fleet of scooters the staff could use and the company paid for the licenses.
“We really changed the vibe,” he says. But the business did not flourish, and the operations were shut down.
“The most rewarding thing for me was the number of people that came up to me and said, ‘If I knew at the outset that this would be the outcome, I still would have wanted to be part of the journey,’” he states.
“As I reflect, I did learn a heck of a lot” from the experience, he says.
If you don’t have scale in the business, the only antidote you have is agility. You have to move faster and adapt quicker.
The knowledge he gained he took first to Air New Zealand and now Icebreaker.
Air New Zealand was the 45th largest airline in the world. “If you don’t have scale in the business, the only antidote you have is agility. You have to move faster and adapt quicker,” he says.
“If you can get to a point faster than your competitor, you can make and create either the opportunities to grow market faster or have competitive edge faster. Or, you can turn that position into enhanced profit margins until the competition catches up.”
“Agility is everything,” he says. “We did not [have] scale so we have to create agility. You have to try risks that are unproven. If you are going to take risks, you have to accept sometimes you have to fail.”
At Air New Zealand, the company is risk averse and safety oriented in parts of the business like engineering and flight operations.
But it also had a huge amount of scope to try new things that will not endanger its clients and staff. These include introducing products like Grab a Seat and some innovative flight safety videos. One of these videos featured Fyfe and staff wearing body paint.
He was then chairman of Star Alliance, the international association of airlines. One of the CEOs there told him that if he ever gets his clothes off for a TV campaign, he will get sacked.
He was also forthright about the need to pull out of a marketing campaign that had as prizes free tickets to women aged 35 and above (‘cougars’) to promote a Wellington Sevens Rugby Tournament.
They had a couple of thousand responses, but the campaign elicited negative feedback from some community groups. “The airline personally apologised for our misjudgement,” he says.
Talking about helming Icebreaker, he says, “We are a tiny company in the apparel space, so agility is key.”
Icebreaker sells about 80 per cent of its products in the Northern Hemisphere. They sell through their own shops and through third party retailers.
“I need to be in the Northern Hemisphere three to four months a year,” he says.
“You just have to be with consumers who are walking around our stores, talking to to people on the shop floor, seeing what is selling or what is not.”
“I am constantly challenging everyone across the business how we will become more consumer insight rich, and how we gather all the knowledge that sits in our organisations, around us, and all our partners.
When someone picks a garment out of the shelf and takes it into the changing room and walks out and chooses not to buy the garment, typically this means it did not fit right, he states.
“The POS [point of sale] system does not pick up the garment that went into the changing room that did not get sold.
“You have to be on the ground, and send the senior product design team to get that information first-hand.''
''We are doing a lot of that. We are getting our people to think from a consumer perspective rather than thinking from the product perspective.”
Making a difference as a leader
''In any leadership role, you will need to determine how you can get people to work each day and really make a difference, and have them make the right decisions,” he says.
“Business is all about understanding people, what motivates them, how they work in teams, how you incentivise people.”
“One of the things I work really hard at is accessibility,” he says. “If you can be accessible to people and you can demonstrate as an organisation you are humanistic in terms of how you engage with people, then you will have different conversations with people.”
His advice for those who will find themselves leading teams or organisations is this:
“The permission to take risks has to come from leadership,” he states.
“If you find yourself in leadership positions and you genuinely believe in this notion of agility, then alongside that you have to embrace the notion of allowing people to take risks.
“And when people get the wrong outcome, but they are trying things for the right reason and they have done the right work, but just happened to have the wrong outcome because the assumptions are wrong or whatever... You have to take these people, support them and pick them up and push them to have another go.
“If they believe they have your support and confidence, they will keep pushing it.”
“Invariably they will find the breakthroughs.”
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