Bo­ral CEO Mike Kane works hard at fu­ture-proof­ing him­self

The one-time fac­tory fore­man has scaled back on the pro­fan­i­ties but re­fuses to give up the emo­tion. The other se­cret to his suc­cess? The CEO of Bo­ral spends more than half of his time strate­gis­ing for the next 10 to 20 years, writes Kirsten Gal­liott.

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How do you de­fine good lead­er­ship?

I’ve been at this for 45 years and the longer I’m at it, the less con­vinced I am there’s any best def­i­ni­tion. The big­gest mis­take lead­ers make is to try to pre­tend they’re per­fect, that they’ve got all the an­swers. No­body be­lieves that. What you have to do [as a leader] is de­cide you’re not the cen­tre of the uni­verse and it’s not all about you. It’s a coach­ing role in well­run or­gan­i­sa­tions. For those that are in deep trou­ble, it’s com­mand and con­trol – you’ve got to get in and get things fixed fairly quickly. At Bo­ral in 2012, there were a lot of things that needed to be fixed but you quickly have to get to a point where you’re stand­ing on the side­line, coach­ing. You’re not a player.

So has your lead­er­ship style changed at Bo­ral?

I haven’t changed a bit but the way I man­age has. I came here in 2012 and or­ches­trated a 1000-per­son re­duc­tion in the Aus­tralian or­gan­i­sa­tion, from the cen­tre. I wiped out three-quar­ters of my man­age­ment team. You’d have to say that was com­plete com­mand and con­trol. That’s what you must do when you have to turn the ship. But you can’t keep do­ing that. The fa­tal flaw with a lot of lead­ers is they see how that works and they think that’s the medicine for all prob­lems.

Have you failed of­ten in your ca­reer?

I’ll use the anal­ogy of base­ball. To be a world-class base­ball player, 70 per cent of the time, when you go to the plate, you strike out. Thirty per cent of the time, you get a hit. In busi­ness, you don’t get to fail 70 per cent of the time but I’d ar­gue that you’ll fail 30 per cent of the time. Big fail­ure is tough to come back from; small fail­ures are the things you need to learn from. You don’t learn a lot from con­tin­u­ous suc­cess.

What do you take the most pride in?

In the past 40-odd years, every com­pany I’ve been in has had a worse safety per­for­mance when I ar­rived than when I left. It’s the most mean­ing­ful thing. It’s im­por­tant that you pro­vide em­ploy­ment for peo­ple; it’s im­por­tant that you have a prof­itable com­pany so peo­ple can take care of their fam­i­lies. I don’t dis­count that at all. But a lot of peo­ple can do that; not every­body can fix in­dus­trial safety is­sues.

You split your time be­tween Syd­ney and At­lanta.

Syd­ney and the rest of the world. It’s two months here, two months back, two months here and then off to Asia. Ac­tu­ally, I try to stay out of At­lanta.

It’s the head­quar­ters for the Amer­i­can busi­ness and I’ve got a CEO run­ning that. If I’m there, peo­ple are go­ing to walk by his of­fice and into mine for the “bet­ter” an­swer. So I can’t do that to him; I can’t un­der­mine him.

That comes down to self-aware­ness, doesn’t it?

Hi­er­ar­chies are not bad; they’ve been with us for­ever. How you man­age them is im­por­tant.

But some CEOs are still caught up in the cult of the CEO.

Some of the worst ex­am­ples I’ve seen are in Sil­i­con Val­ley. The founder of a startup I was in­volved in told me in the first month, “You know, Mike, CEOs out here are rock stars.” I thought, “Re­ally? They shouldn’t be.”

How much of your strate­gis­ing is for longer-term plans?

Sixty per cent of what I do is long-term fo­cus – 10 to 20 years. Forty per cent of the time, we’re re­view­ing op­er­a­tional re­sults on a month-to-month ba­sis but the most im­por­tant de­ci­sions I’m mak­ing have to do with cap­i­tal in­vest­ments with a 30-year life span, such as the [$3.5 bil­lion] ac­qui­si­tion of [Amer­i­can build­ing prod­ucts man­u­fac­turer] Head­wa­ters. The ben­e­fit of that will come in the next cou­ple of decades but the work has to be done now – and well.

Some lead­ers don’t con­cen­trate on such long-term strat­egy.

If you lis­ten to cer­tain – not all – el­e­ments in the in­vest­ment com­mu­nity, you’d think your en­tire pur­pose is to im­prove the share price in the near term only, even at the dis­ad­van­tage of the long term. I’ve al­ways seen my job as pre­par­ing for the fu­ture.

Is there work to be done ed­u­cat­ing share­hold­ers?

There is. When we did the Head­wa­ters deal [in 2016 and 2017], I had in­vestors say­ing it didn’t fit their in­vest­ment the­sis. My an­swer to that was, “Well, that’s in­ter­est­ing but our strat­egy isn’t built on your in­vest­ment the­sis; it’s built on what is in the best in­ter­ests of Bo­ral in the long run. If you don’t like that, then you have a choice to make.”

You’re a straight shooter. Is that a help or a hin­drance?

What’s my al­ter­na­tive? I grew up in the Bronx [New York City] in a cul­ture where peo­ple say ex­actly what they think, per­haps too much. I try to tell peo­ple who work with me, “Ar­gue with me!” It’s dif­fi­cult for peo­ple to ar­gue with the CEO, I un­der­stand that, but I want peo­ple to chal­lenge me. I put peo­ple in roles be­cause I re­spect them and I want their opin­ion.

What ad­vice would you give to a new CEO?

Find a hand­ful of ad­vis­ers, in­side and out­side the com­pany, whose judge­ment you trust so you can go to them in a cri­sis and say, “What do you think?” If you’re do­ing it by your­self in the closet some­where, you’re go­ing to con­fuse your­self and there’s a dan­ger that you’ll be­lieve your own head­lines.

Are there gaps in your lead­er­ship?

The bal­ance be­tween strength and too much strength is the tough­est thing to man­age. You need to have a pretty tough eye to do this job, which means you can be very in­tim­i­dat­ing. Some­times in this role, you need to be in­tim­i­dat­ing – not with the peo­ple who work for you but with out­side au­di­ences; some­times in­vestors, the me­dia, unions, other third par­ties, gov­ern­ment. We had a big stoush with the ACCC [Aus­tralian Com­pe­ti­tion and Con­sumer Com­mis­sion] over the bricks busi­ness a few years ago and I had the head of the ACCC telling me that I mis­han­dled the sit­u­a­tion. I said, “Well, that’s your opin­ion but I don’t agree with you” [laughs].

I read that your fa­ther ad­vised you to take an Amer­i­can civil ser­vice exam and be­come a fire­fighter or po­lice of­fi­cer.

I thought, “Nah, they’re not mak­ing a lot of money” [laughs]. I de­vel­oped my ed­u­ca­tion through work. My big­gest tran­si­tion was un­der­stand­ing how to deal with se­nior man­age­ment. In my early years, I would sprin­kle my lan­guage with a lot of ex­ple­tives, on a con­sis­tent ba­sis, and peo­ple would tell me, “Mike, you can’t talk like that!” I cleaned up the lan­guage but I never cleaned up the emo­tion. Peo­ple need to be­lieve you. No­body wants to fol­low a cold fish and no­body wants to fol­low some­one who looks un­cer­tain. Peo­ple have to be­lieve you’re com­mit­ted. At work they think, “Well, he might be a lit­tle crazy from time to time but he’s our guy and he ap­pears to have my best in­ter­ests at heart.” That’s an im­por­tant con­clu­sion I want peo­ple who work for me to have. What are you ex­pect­ing out of peo­ple? To sac­ri­fice them­selves for you? They will. They will if they be­lieve in you.

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