Bruce Cotterill Talk, talk talk to get mes­sage across

Bay of Plenty Times - - BUSINESS - Na­tional Busi­ness Re­view The Best Lead­ers Don’t Shout Woman’s Day

Vet­eran man­ager has a tip: Al­ways as­sume no one knows what the boss does. By

Bruce Cotterill doesn’t do start-ups, or “uni­corns”, or any of the other types of cor­po­rate ve­hi­cles with a funky name. If any­thing, through much of his ca­reer as a chief ex­ec­u­tive and se­nior cor­po­rate ad­viser since the late 1990s, he’s spe­cialised in fix­ing slow-mov­ing train wrecks.

As chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Aus­tralasian op­er­a­tions of prop­erty group Col­liers, he led it out of the now long-for­got­ten prop­erty re­ces­sion of the 1990s. He spent time lead­ing the iconic, but trou­bled, New Zealand brand Can­ter­bury In­ter­na­tional.

In 1998 he turned up at ACP Me­dia, to a fail­ing stable of trade and pop­u­lar mag­a­zines, a toxic cul­ture and an ul­ti­ma­tum from then-owner Kerry Packer to make them work.

He did, and within three years “the won­der­ful Mr Packer” had gone from ask­ing “why the hell have we got a busi­ness in New Zealand?” to buy­ing the Prop­erty Press mast­head from then- pub­lisher Barry Col­man.

In 2007, he set­tled into the big chair at Yel­low Pages, a com­pany that had been flogged to Uni­tas Cap­i­tal and Canada’s Teach­ers’ Pri­vate Cap­i­tal for $2.24 bil­lion.

While some on what was then the Tele­com board had wanted to keep pub­lish­ing a big, fat cash cow of com­mer­cial phone list­ings for­ever, oth­ers saw Yel­low Pages as a di­nosaur wan­der­ing into a Google-in­fested swamp.

Look­ing back, the deal looks bananas.

“The sale price was 14 times earn­ings, debt was 11 times,” says Cotterill, still shak­ing his head more than a decade later. By the time he got there, no fewer than 41 banks were hold­ing $1.8b in debt.

In the tor­rid ne­go­ti­a­tions re­quired to re­cap­i­talise the banks “never came alone”.

“Ev­ery time I had a meet­ing with bankers, there were 82 peo­ple in the room, plus me and the CFO”.

As he’d done be­fore, he mopped up and moved on.

“I’d love to write a book about it,” he says. “I’ve done my share of tough busi­nesses, un­der­per­form­ing rel­a­tive to bankers’ ex­pec­ta­tions and all that, but oh boy, the be­hav­iour of the banks on Yel­low Pages . . .” He trails off. There will be no book on that any­time soon.

In­stead, Cotterill has de­cided he’s suc­cess­fully led enough com­pa­nies that he can add to the al­ready-groan­ing pile of man­age­ment ad­vice books by for­mer chief ex­ec­u­tives.

But, as this small busi­ness owner dis­cov­ered,

im­me­di­ately proved to be a dis­arm­ingly use­ful tome.

Flick­ing through it on re­turn­ing from hol­i­day to an un­set­tled team after a se­nior de­par­ture, a high­lighted quote caught my eye: “this ques­tion should haunt ev­ery man­ager”, it said: “‘can you please tell me what we do?’” Hav­ing been asked ex­actly that ques­tion an hour ear­lier, it rang fright­en­ingly true.

Em­ploy­ees’ un­cer­tainty about their pur­pose is far more com­mon than most busi­ness own­ers would like to think, says Cotterill.

If it’s true that 85 per cent of busi­nesses don’t have a plan, he says it’s hardly sur­pris­ing if most em­ploy­ees don’t have a clue about what you re­ally want from them.

This is at the core of Cotterill’s ap­proach and it’s re­ally no more com­pli­cated than as­sum­ing that “no one knows what the boss ac­tu­ally does” and that you should “al­ways as­sume the mes­sage doesn’t get through”.

Talk, talk, talk. Rather than as­sume that it’s ev­ery­one else’s fault, a suc­cess­ful leader takes those as­sump­tions on the chin and com­mits to the “big three Cs of man­age­ment: clar­ity, con­sis­tency, and com­mu­ni­ca­tion”, Cotterill says.

“Be clear about what you want to achieve. Get that mes­sage through to your peo­ple. And then act in a man­ner that’s con­sis­tent with that. That last point is crit­i­cal.” Too of­ten he sees lead­ers who make heavy de­mands on their peo­ple and then dis­ap­pear, either to the golf course or be­hind their of­fice door.

He re­lates the story of a large Aus­tralian com­pany that asked for his help.

“Talk­ing to the CEO, I dis­cov­ered that he caught the goods lift to his of­fice each day to avoid meet­ing his peo­ple”, whereas the Cotterill Doc­trine ad­vo­cates com­mu­ni­cat­ing un­til it hurts.

“A lot of peo­ple won’t read an email but they’ll get a lot out of bump­ing into you in re­cep­tion. A lot of peo­ple pre­fer a for­mal man­age­ment meet­ing sit-down, some pre­fer to sit down with cof­fee and talk over morn­ing tea. Some need to have it drawn on a white­board.” He’s a big fan of morn­ing teas and of carv­ing out time ev­ery week to do some “man­age­ment by walk­ing around”. PHOTO / SUP­PLIED

Fail­ure to end­lessly ex­plain has con­se­quences. Within weeks of leav­ing Yel­low Pages, he found him­self field­ing a call a week from for­mer staff want­ing ref­er­ences as they bailed from a com­pany that had just been set back on its feet.

When yet an­other “ter­rific young guy” rang to tell Cotterill he was bail­ing, they met for a beer.

“I said: ‘what’s go­ing on in there? Why are so many peo­ple, good peo­ple, leav­ing?’ And he said: ‘you re­mem­ber when you were there we al­ways had those big Mon­day morn­ing meet­ings that you ran and ev­ery­one knew what was go­ing on? Well, we haven’t seen any­body from up­stairs since you walked out the door’.”

Some­times, he says, man­agers are scared of what peo­ple will ask for, but his ex­pe­ri­ence is that they usu­ally just want rea­son­able an­swers to rea­son­able ques­tions.

He claims the most ex­pen­sive thing to come out of a staff meet­ing was a $1500 spot­light to make a carpark safe for staff leav­ing late on the day of the weekly dead­line.

It’s also im­por­tant to deal with peo­ple whose be­hav­iour is block­ing the lines of com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Es­pe­cially dif­fi­cult is the of­fice bully.

“I can give you four or five ex­am­ples of or­gan­i­sa­tions that I’ve gone into fresh where I’ve had a high per­former, a high-pro­file per­son who, cul­tur­ally, has been a dis­as­ter.

“You ag­o­nise over whether to keep them or let them go,” he says. “And ul­ti­mately, you let them go and you worry like hell. And yet what hap­pens when the cul­tural dis­as­ter leaves? As soon as you get rid of that per­son, the team can flour­ish.”

Im­pos­ing a “no dick­heads” ap­proach to man­age­ment is im­por­tant to im­prov­ing the cul­ture.

“As a 50-some­thing, it’s a lot more ob­vi­ous to me now than it was as a 30-some­thing.”

How­ever, fo­cus­ing on cul­ture rather than per­for­mance is a trap, he sug­gests.

“I al­ways smile when I hear peo­ple say: ‘oh, we’ve gotta change the cul­ture’. You heard it at the War­riors, you’re hear­ing it with Fletcher Build­ing. Well, you can’t just turn up and say: ‘I’m the guy who’s go­ing to change the cul­ture’.

“What you can do is go in and say: ‘I’m the guy who’s here to help us be­come a bet­ter em­ployer, or help us get our prod­uct out on time, or help us gen­er­ate hap­pier cus­tomers, or man­age our fi­nan­cial per­for­mance bet­ter’.

“If you do all that, the cul­ture change will fol­low.”

As a baby boomer in his late 50s, Cotterill also has firm views about the dif­fer­ent gen­er­a­tions of work­ers.

“My fa­ther’s gen­er­a­tion prob­a­bly saw that things were wrong in a busi­ness but they would never con­tem­plate telling the boss.

“My gen­er­a­tion would have talked in the pub af­ter­wards about ‘these stupid bug­gers’.” Mil­len­ni­als will tell you to your face what’s wrong.

“There’s a gen­er­a­tion of man­agers and lead­ers who aren’t very com­fort­able with it, but we’d bet­ter be, be­cause these kids are fan­tas­tic. They’ve got a bet­ter ed­u­ca­tion than us, they’re more ca­pa­ble than we were, they’re dig­i­tally un­be­liev­able.” And they’ve been brought up in a world where they ex­pect an­swers and will find their own if the boss won’t tell them.

If there’s a chink in their ar­mour, it’s that “they’re des­per­ate to be ap­pre­ci­ated more than to suc­ceed”.

Too many man­agers make de­mands of their staff and then van­ish, says Bruce Cotterill.

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