The Business Of Adaptive Leadership (episode 2)
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In this episode, we explore transformation and how leaders can leverage complex change with a growth mindset
The second of our Adaptive Leadership episodes focuses on transformation and how leaders can leverage complex change with a growth mindset.
Part of navigating our way through crises is realising the one thing we can control is our response. Do we retreat to what’s familiar? Do we focus only on the short-term? Or, do we see this as an opportunity to reboot, rebalance and transform?
To discuss these questions and more, host Emma LoRusso is joined by Curtis Davies, Partner in Charge, Customer & Operations at KPMG Australia. Curtis has wide experience working with the leadership teams of major organisations navigating the challenges of transformation from legacy business models to ones that are 'future ready'.
Also in this episode we hear from Adele Schonhardt, AGSM alumni and Co-Director of music technology start-up Melbourne Digital Concert Hall - a truly innovative response to COVID-19 restrictions and one creating new opportunities and possibilities within the performing arts sector.
Finally, Emma speaks to Greg Joffe, Principal in Business Strategy, Public Policy and Digital Strategy at Nous Group, and Adjunct Associate Professor at UNSW Business School. Greg shares his reflections on consulting during a time of unprecedented transformation.
- Emma Lo Russo, (AGSM MBA Executive 2013), CEO and Co-founder of Digivizer
- Curtis Davies, Partner and Management Consulting at KPMG Australia
- Adele Schonhardt, (AGSM MBA Executive, 2019) Co-Director and Founder of Melbourne Digital Concert Hall
- Greg Joffe, Adjunct Faculty member at AGSM @ UNSW Business School and Principal in Business strategy, Public policy and Digital Strategy at Nous Group
Emma Lo Russo: Throughout this podcast series we’ve examined the public and private sector response to COVID-19 and the lessons in adaptive leadership afforded by this period of disruption.
As we navigate our way through this crisis, we must realise that the one thing we can control in times like this is our response. Do we retreat to what’s familiar? Do we focus only on the short-term? Or, do we see this as an opportunity to reboot, rebalance and transform?
In this episode, we’re focusing on transformation, and how leaders can leverage complex change with a growth mindset.
Joining me is Curtis Davies, Partner in Charge, Customer & Operations at KPMG Australia. Curtis has wide experience working with the leadership teams of major organisations, navigating the challenges of transformation from legacy business models to ones that are ‘future ready’.
Also in this episode we’ll hear from Adele Schonhardt, AGSM alumni and Co-Director of music technology start-up Melbourne Digital Concert Hall – a truly innovative response to COVID-19 restrictions creating new opportunities and possibilities within the performing arts sector.
Lastly, I’ll speak to Greg Joffe, Principal in Business Strategy, Public Policy and Digital Strategy at Nous Group, and Adjunct Associate Professor at UNSW Business School. Greg shares his reflections on how consulting has adapted to this need for unprecedented transformation.
Curtis, I’m delighted to have the chance to hear about how you lead organisations from transformation to legacy to future ready, welcome to The Business Of.
I like how you said when we were chatting before about particularly complex transformations, what does that mean?
Curtis Davies: Look, in my mind, actually the word transformation is used too frequently. People can think of anything as a transformation. And I suppose to the individuals involved, if there’s a lot of change they do feel like they’re transforming. But when it comes to an organisation in its entirety, transformations are actually very, very scary things. And you only really do them when you almost have no choice. You’re transforming in order to move to a condition, a situation, an arrangement that has a future. And a successful future, you hope.
The analogy I like to run is, a lot of people think you change programmes, you’re at point A and you want to move to point B. That’s great. And it only really works that way when point B is defined. And I think a lot of the challenges organisations face today is that all you really know is that point A won’t exist, and you have to go somewhere. And most organisations don’t want to close down. They’ve got plenty of ambition, and they’ve got a lot of people that they support, and people they care about. So they do want to move to another point, they just don’t always know where it is.
And the market is changing so much these days, whether it’s your competition, whether is technology change, whether it’s regulatory change, whether it’s things happening overseas, but it makes it very difficult for a leadership team to often know where they’re going. But again, they just know that where they are at the moment won’t exist. So how do you help an organisation to think about that? How do you help an organisation plan its journey? And the sorts of things in my mind, you have to make a few bets. You have to form a view of which end of the alphabet are you aiming for. Is it somewhere between B and J, or M and Z? And that at least gives you a direction off which to move, and to start making progress to a new future.
And I think giving the executives the confidence to go on that journey is one of the most rewarding parts of the work I do, helping them make that first step. And you know it’s going to change again. So my thinking of a complex transformation is one that involves that sort of decision making. It’s not a case of, we’re going to build a new factory. It’s not a case of, we’re just going to launch a new product. It’s not even a case of, we’re going to outsource a particular function.
All of those are very important. I’m not looking down on any of those, they’re often very hard to do, but often you have a very clear objective. And that really, in my mind, is a project. And there’s a lot of project management, a lot of change management, but it’s not quite the same as transformation.
Emma Lo Russo: So if the future’s state isn’t always clear, don’t fix on a point. Is it the recognition that your old model won’t survive something new? Is that the driver for the need for change?
Curtis Davies: I think it normally is. And we see plenty of examples of cost driving this. If someone’s able to turn up with a different label arrangement, or they’re able to have an internet based distribution channel rather than a physical one. You always see plenty of examples of this in the marketplace. Then the legacy organisations, the ones who have had a successful business in the past just are not ready for that. And it takes a very brave leader to stop investing in things that they’ve been successful at and start taking risks, and start investing in other things which may save them, but there’s not always a lot of certainty in that. And somehow you have to develop the confidence to go on that journey.
Emma Lo Russo: So where those, I guess, changes might look like they’re coming, and you’ve got some sense of when it may impact you, what happens when something like COVID... And we hear people talking about six years of transformation in six weeks, and six months deadlines. What have you seen of organisation making change? How has that hit them? Where did they get exposed? Where have they championed?
Curtis Davies: I think most organisations have just responded to what they see in front of them.. It’s either been short term survival for those that are backed against the wall, or it’s been about pivoting and meeting their customer expectations where there’s been increased demand. And the obvious comparisons there would be something like a Qantas versus a Woolworths. One has had to find a way of scaling back and protecting its position as long as it can, and the other has had to ramp up enormously. So I think we’re still in that stage where a lot of people are just responding. And you take your hats off to people who’ve made very quick decisions, often with very little information, but they’ve been decisions they’ve had to make for survival, or to maintain their brand promise.
So that’s the stage we’ve been through so far. We are increasingly seeing a lot of people now making that next stage. Not just, how do I respond to survive, but how do I start to recover? That fits very nicely into the typical transformation cycle. You still don’t know quite where this is going. You are seeing a number of opportunities laid out for you. We hear some commentators saying, we’ve had five years worth of change in five weeks. Well, I hope that’s true because it will position us all very well, but we’ve got to keep that momentum going. And whether that changes to the cashless society, or whether that changes to all of us working from home like I am today, or whether that goes through to everything from telehealth, to tele justice, to far greater online shopping, society will change enormously because of this.
And that is the sort of conversation that’s been going on probably for a few years now. Innovate, fail fast, have a group of people who are trialling things, and piloting things and see where it goes. Again, it’s probably another trend that was starting which has been accelerated by COVID, and we all need to become much better at doing that.
Emma Lo Russo: What have you seen, because I know you support both in your work, the difference in attitudes towards transformation, public versus private?
Curtis Davies: I think traditionally, the private sector had a different set of demands on it. Clearly it had that external stakeholder, whether it’s an individual owner, or stock market moms and dads, and investors who expect returns. They’ve always had a drive for clear payback, clear development of a future agenda, a real compelling story of where we’re going, and where we’re investing, and the return that we’ll get for it. Increasingly, that is coming into the public sector. The public sector, and I can certainly speak for the New South Wales side, they’ve taken in an awful lot of very capable private sector individuals into leadership positions there. And that has brought a discipline and a focus, which our venture is much stronger now on that return on the investment.
I suppose the big difference is, they’re not sitting there saying, what money will I make out of this? They are very, very focused on what return can I give to my citizens? And the decisions that are being made there to have a big infrastructure play to not only create jobs in this COVID time, but also to support and provide a platform for growth of the cities and the regions going forward, is fantastic. They are recognising that they need to become more efficient because they need to fund all this investment, so there is still an efficiency agenda being driven, as you would in a private sector. But it’s certainly more focused on, what can I give for the citizens? How can we use our money better to create a better society in which we all live. And I think that additional discipline has been fantastic to see, and I do take my hat off to this new group of leaders who are coming through, who really do have this at the forefront of their mind.
Emma Lo Russo: When you’re looking to leaders to embrace transformation, what characteristics help them be successful?
Curtis Davies: I think the really good leaders, certainly at the moment, are the ones who are comfortable talking to their people, are transparent in what the challenges are, are willing to engage in admitting that they don’t always know the answers, and move forward. That’s very much an internal view. As soon as you go to the external side, it has totally accelerated this idea of a social licence, and how you as a leader manage your external stakeholders and give them comfort that the way your organisation is working supports the needs of your customers, but your community as well.
And I’ve loved reading those notes that Brad Banducci from Woolworth sends out to all of us who are loyal Woolworth customers. And not knocking the opposition, but every week he was sending out a note, it was beautifully written. It was honest, it was engaging, sharing the problems. We had this many people wanting to buy toilet paper last week, yet we could only source this much. We’ve doubled our supply chain. And over time, he just explained very carefully as to how they were positioning themselves, and he built up that level of trust beautifully. So I think that’s an example of that.
You’d probably hear the same when you look at how the train system is working. They could’ve very easily cut a lot of the services, but they didn’t. They didn’t for a couple of reasons. One, to keep people in work, to keep people employed. And equally, to ensure there was plenty of capacity on the network so that social distancing could be maintained. So I think when we see leaders making those sorts of decisions, communicating it quite broadly, you know that they understand what the society is expecting of them.
Emma Lo Russo: How much of this is actually the way we’ll need to engage moving forward, employee expectations, customer expectations, stakeholder expectation?
Curtis Davies: It has always been important. It has gone up in its importance. It isn’t the only thing you can do. We’ve all met and heard about the autocratic leader who just drives it through and doesn’t really care. And if their business model’s good enough then they can survive with that. Everything we’re hearing about the importance of social media, providing service to individuals, customising what you do, if you’ve got that level of trust with the individuals that you’re working with, or you’re supplying, or you’re dealing with, you’ve got to build it on trust because you’ll get ripped down very quickly if you don’t. So yes it has increased its importance, absolutely Emma. Will everybody have to do it? No, they never did. I think we’ve got to be pragmatic on that, but it is important that most leaders will have to behave in that sort of way. And frankly, the really good ones, the ones people enjoyed working for, the ones people enjoyed interacting with as an outsider, were the ones who had that ability to engage.
Emma Lo Russo: I think that honesty and transparency in the mission, I think you said, when you don’t always know, or going back to your people to find the answers within, I don’t know. It would be interesting to see how that works.
Curtis Davies: You do try and make those short decisions which are no regret decisions. There may be an investment in a particular platform you need because you know you’re going to need that no matter where you’re going. It may be removing a team that you know is not going to be a part of the long term future. You make those decisions, and that enables you often to fund the continued investment through that cycle of the transformation. A lot of your long term changes might take two or three years to make them happen. And it could take that long because you’ve got to build something, it’s a complex implementation, it may require loads of staff engagement, it might require an EVA change.
The one I always think about it is, you’re always looking on through your horizons, you’re doing things now that will pay off immediately. You’re planning things now that you’ll do next year that will pay off at that time. And at the same time, you’re thinking about things that you’ll plan next year, that you’ll implement after that. So I always talk about having these three stages in your mind. And it’s one of the reasons why people who lead transformations are a little different from normal people. I’m not saying better, I’m just saying they’re different because they’re people who can switch between those three stages. They may not be perfect at any one of them, but they’re able to change their focus depending on the topic at hand, who they’re talking to, and they’re able to create the energy behind an immediate implementation while at the same time spreading that out into the strategic thinking around a longer term problem.
Emma Lo Russo: Apart from maybe the also, you need to for survival,, is there a psychological factor in transformation across those three horizons? Yes, we need to be in the game to make this change, that third horizon. But this progress along the way is essential to keep that momentum. Have you seen that?
Curtis Davies: It very, very much is. You have to be showing progress, that’s why you’ve got to be doing something now, otherwise you lose the interest and the support of people. I think it gets harder in the public sector when you have elections every four years or so. A new leader is potentially coming in. Maintaining that momentum is very hard. But in corporations, if you aren’t showing some immediate success, the leadership gets changed as well. So you have to manage the expectations of whether it’s the citizens, or the board and the shareholders, as to what does your plan look like? What value will be generated at what time period?
So you’re able to look at key operational indicators that show that you are making progress. You can celebrate those, you can celebrate them with the team, you can celebrate them with the relevant stakeholders, and maintain momentum that you’re going towards the vision that you’ve got. But you have to call it out in advance. And I said, you don’t always know what that end vision is. So you have to have those milestones and at different points we’re going to finish this piece, that provides us with options as to going here or here. And that’s very much all I think of the transformation journey.
Emma Lo Russo: So I don’t want to, at all, trivialise the complexity in managing large scale transformation, or even fast transformation, or the need to transform. Is there some basic tool kit, as leaders who are facing the need to change, whether being thrust upon them it’s survival or it’s opportunity driven, what do you think of the essential must haves in the tool kit that will end up with that successful outcome?
Curtis Davies: Being very clear in your mind what the journey looks like. And by that I do not mean you know what the outcome is. But being very clear in your mind of the sorts of challenges you’re going to face, and staying resolute on the journey. The people who are good at this are pretty comfortable with ambiguity. They are people who don’t always know the answer, and they’re big enough to say that, but they are transparent enough to explain why you have to go on this journey.
Something I do say to sometimes create a bit of an impact is, some time in the first six months you need to make an example of someone who doesn’t drink the Kool-Aid. You do, because people have to realise that we are all in this. It’s where we’re going. And if someone is just not playing ball, you just can’t afford to have them in the team. It’s meant as a way of prompting people to think differently, but it’s not a bad story.
What every transformation has is a handful of moments of truth, and that’s what I particularly call them. And you won’t actually know it was a moment of truth necessarily until afterwards, but it was a point at which a leader could’ve easily backed down. A leader could’ve easily said, you know what? Yeah. It is going to be too hard. Or yes, I take your argument. It shouldn’t apply to you, but it does apply to everybody else. No. They can’t. They have to stay strong, stay very focused on what they’re trying to achieve. And those moments of truth make or break a transformation journey.
Emma Lo Russo: It’s interesting you touched on that Curtis, because I think when I talked to other leaders, and even from a personal example, that sometimes trying to accommodate a very talented, high value person that might’ve delivered amazingly in the old model but doesn’t get on board with the change that needs to happen into the future. You hang on for maybe too long, and the second you let that person choose to go back to whichever way they want to go, your path is set.
Curtis Davies: Yeah.
Emma Lo Russo: It’s liberating. Liberating for the team, it gives an extra momentum, and I think I loved your moment of truth. It becomes, you’re either on the bus and we’re all going in the same direction or not.
Curtis Davies: And maybe put that in a slightly different way. Probably the most important job of that transformation leader is to give their executives and their team the confidence to move forward. I won’t mention the organisation, but I remember working very closely with the leadership team of one organisation, and the people in the leadership roles were there because of some fantastic work they’d done 15, 20 years ago. And they were famous because of it. They’d been very successful, they’d become reasonably wealthy, but they were, to a great extent, living on that old model that they had created. And it was dying. And for that individual to have the confidence to admit that when a lot of the team below them were probably agitating for the new way of working which they didn’t fully understand, took an awful lot for the individual.
One of the jobs of that transformation leader was to work with that individual to say, you can do it. I’ll go with you. I’ll stand with you. I’ll help you, albeit behind the scenes. You’re the boss, you’re the leader. You’re the one who has to make the speech. I can’t stand up and do it for you, but I’ll help you, I’ll write the speech for you. These are the sorts of things you need to say, and you need to do it with confidence.
Emma Lo Russo: Yeah.
Curtis Davies: And you need to admit that you don’t use X, Y, and Z, but you know it’s the future. That’s a great leader who can get people to go on that journey when they personally don’t feel comfortable with it. But they know it’s right.
Emma Lo Russo: I guess it’s also honesty, right? There’s some fear here. There is unknown ahead. We think this is the play, and it’s going to take me to learn just like we’re asking you to learn as well.
Curtis Davies: Yeah.
Emma Lo Russo: We talked about some of the things that are essential that leads to good transformation. Where have you seen it really not go well? When has it failed? When have organisations really not got this right? What were the mistakes?
Curtis Davies: I don’t know which firm came up with the number, but I think they say 50 per cent, 60 per cent of transformations don’t succeed.
Emma Lo Russo: Wow. That means many that started didn’t actually finish.
Curtis Davies: Yeah. That’s right. That’s probably all that I should say. It’s very difficult. Often it will be because they didn’t manage the expectations of the people who’ve kept them in the job.
They weren’t able to make it clear what their journey was. Again, not saying they knew the outcome, but at least the journey, the milestones, where they were going to go on this transformation. Yeah. And that probably is the main one, when you don’t keep those powerful people connected. As you may know, I spent many, many years at Qantas. And after I’d left there, Alan Joyce was the new CEO, and he was challenged in the newspapers and the media an awful lot for what was he doing. But he had the board’s support all the way because he knew what he was doing, he was communicating with them, and they supported him.
And look at the fantastic journey he’s been able to take the organisation on. But he managed that. And I’m sure there were plenty of discussions behind closed doors about is this right, is this not? And spending quite a bit of time with him over the years, but the style he’s got, the way he would’ve shared that information would’ve kept people’s trust. And I’ve seen other organisations where a leader did not do that. They just said no, I’m going to do it my way. I don’t really care what you think. And it was much harder for them. Clearly, if you don’t take your staff on the journey, you get a lot of unrest, you’ve got to keep people informed and aware. If you’ve got a clear story of why you’re doing it – you’re okay.
Emma Lo Russo: Curtis, I could talk to you for hours. There’s so many lessons in what you shared today. Thank you for joining us on The Business Of.
Curtis Davies: Thank you Emma. I thoroughly enjoyed that, and hopefully provided some insights.
Emma Lo Russo: So valuable to hear from someone with Curtis’s expertise on where uncertainty fits in a typical transformation cycle. A key part of innovation is allowing yourself and your organisation the permission to fail, but fail fast and learn. And the most effective and adaptive leaders will find opportunity amidst the chaos.
That’s certainly true of my next guest. When COVID-19 took a wrecking ball to the performing arts sector, essentially overnight, Adele Schonhardt knew she’d have to find a way to do her part in keeping the industry alive. Let’s hear from Adele on the transformative success of Melbourne Digital Concert Hall.
So Adele, welcome to The Business Of. Can you share some background on Melbourne Digital Concert Hall and your motivations for starting that platform?
Adele Schonhardt: Yes, certainly. Well, Melbourne Digital Concert Hall is a startup that co-director Chris Hallett and I founded back in mid-March. We both come from the classical music industry. I’ve been working in arts management for a long time and he directs festivals, and is a cellist. And as COVID-19 hit, we found that many of our colleagues and friends in the music industry were losing all of their work. And there was this dramatic situation where the venues were closing, where the concert halls were closing, where orchestras were having to cancel their seasons. And nobody knew how long this was going to pan out for. And that had an absolutely devastating impact on our sector because of course, a lot about people being the original gig economy live from one gig to another, or have a season of things lined up, but they’re all individual jobs and therefore they’re not eligible for job keeper.
So it had a devastating effect. We saw it panning out amongst our friends and colleagues. It wasn’t just a financial issue, it was also about the mental health and wellbeing of our friends. And we thought, well, we can’t let this happen. We have to do something about this, even if it’s just a small thing. We can’t just sit back. Particularly given that I am chair of the board of a classical music radio station, and he was chair before me. And those musicians for many years have given their time to help us raise funds for our station. So we felt a real responsibility towards these musicians, and we decided over the course of a phone call on a weekend, “Well, we’re going to try and do something about this.”
And as it so happened, Chris was great friends with a guy called Tim Kelly at university. Tim is a tuba player, but perhaps realising that tuba wasn’t going to necessarily be the thing for his career, founded a company called 5stream, and they’ve become a national streaming company who work with everything from sporting organisations right through to very fine classical music ensembles, to stream their music often live. And they had a platform. And we went to Tim and said, “Hey, Tim, would you be willing to help us out with this? We’d like to try this idea of live streaming concerts and charging a ticket fee so that people can sit home, watch their favourite musicians in small COVID-friendly groups, and can help them to continue to earn a living during this time.” And so the concept of Melbourne Digital Concert Hall was born. That was, I think on the 16th of March, and within 10 days we were up and running.
So we had our first concert on the 27th of March. We’ve just passed the five month mark now, and it has just become bigger and bigger. We’ve been blown away by the level of support shown by the community for this idea. We started out thinking, “Oh, we might be lucky enough to raise 20, $30,000 for the local musicians here in Melbourne.” And it just proved so popular that we’ve since gone national and we’ve scaled it up and we’ve been streaming from many cities, both around Australia and the world to support Australian musicians, and have now just exceeded $600,000 raised for those artists so far.
Emma Lo Russo: Wow. That is incredibly impressive.. So how did you overcome the decision to maybe resign from your day job to focus entirely on this... With that risk right? It’s built around the opportunity. Will this continue to grow? What are you envisioning for the future?
Adele Schonhardt: We certainly hope so. Well that decision didn’t happen immediately. However, as it continued to grow, we realised the potential that this idea had because we started getting messages from people not only in metropolitan cities who were missing their favourite musicians, but also in regional areas. And we recently conducted a survey of our audience and discovered to our surprise that almost a third of the people in our audience don’t actually attend concert halls in real life at all. And that might be because they live regionally or they might have a disability or a health issue, or they might have caring responsibilities. But whatever the case may be, they may well have been symphony orchestra attendees in the past, or have enjoyed going to a concert in the past and cannot do so at the moment. And they started begging us, “Please continue this beyond COVID-19. Please make it part of the recovery package for the Australian arts, because it’s just so important and it means that we can sit in our regional town and we can see this high quality music played live and feel like we’re directly supporting those musicians who are important to us.”
And therefore it became quite a simple decision for me at a certain point to say, “Well, look, I’m going to have to focus on this fully. I can’t possibly devote myself to my day job as well, and therefore it’s important that I step away now and continue on as an independent.” And who knows what the future will look like? But so far it’s been the right decision. I’m excited about the opportunities that are arising now through this.
Emma Lo Russo: So you leave the safety, you start your own business with Chris. Tell us how that works. There’s only two of you with such a big ambition to meet.
Adele Schonhardt: Look, it’s been incredible working together with Chris. We have known each other for eight or nine years now through the radio station that we’ve both been heavily involved in. And I knew that he was capable of great feats of imagination because every year he presents a marathon event for us, which helps to fundraise for 3MBS and for the radio station. And for that, he draws together a cast of thousands of all the musicians around Melbourne and puts on an entire day of live broadcast concerts with the audience. So I knew he would, he was very good at that.
And this in a way is a very long version of that marathon. It’s just night, after night, after night of concerts that he’s helping to curate. So it’s been wonderful to work together with him more closely, because I think we’re very, very well aligned on where we see the priorities, which of course in our case are the musicians and the wellbeing of the community around our musicians. And we both have our strengths and weaknesses. I’m the one who is more accurate in writing. He’s the one who has the speed, so we compliment each other very well. Generally the partnership falls along the lines of him being the artistic director of the organisation. So he is the one curating the programmes and has that main contact with the artists. I tend to be the one behind the scenes, writing the funding applications and doing the PR work and the marketing and then keeping it all ticking along.
And it’s just been amazing actually how quickly you can work and how agile you can be when there are just two of you, because you don’t need to consult with the marketing department and the finance department and the operations team and everyone else when you’re wanting to get an idea off the ground. You just go, “Should we do this? Okay, great idea. Let’s do it.” And off you go. So it’s been really wonderful and refreshing, and I’m extremely lucky and fortunate to have him as a business partner. So looking forward to what the future brings for us both.
Emma Lo Russo: Sounds like very powerful playing to strengths combination there.
Adele Schonhardt: Yes, absolutely. I think that’s a good way of putting it.
Emma Lo Russo: You touched on overseas markets there too. How big are you thinking? How far has your reach already been?
Adele Schonhardt: Well, we have streamed concerts now from Berlin and London and Singapore. Now integral to our concept is that we want to support Australian musicians. So it’s always about the Australian artists. However, we’re finding that there are many, particularly in London who are stranded. They are Aussies, but they can’t get home. Or they may have had performances on the West End lined up or wonderful things they were planning on doing over there that have now all been cancelled. And they’re stuck there, but this is a way of bringing them home. So we’re starting to see the enormous opportunities provided by this online platform to really connect Australians, not only here in our country, but internationally with the people who care about them, who have seen their careers grow. So I think the sky’s the limit in terms of what we can achieve.
We also had a wonderful case where we hosted a world premier recently. It was of a piece of music called Return to Sender by Katy Abbott, and it was performed by the Flinders Quartet. And the amazing thing about this work that she has created is that it was based on 2000 letters. The barrister Julian Burnside had encouraged Australians to write letters to asylum seekers on Nauru a few years back. And those letters were all bundled up and sent over to Nauru. But for some reason, whichever government agent was involved or whoever else was responsible for delivering them, never gave them to those intended recipients. And so those letters were left unsent. They were at a later stage returned to Julian Burnside in that box. And he realised to his dismay that these 2000 letters had never reached the intended recipients.
And Katy Abbott got wind of this story and asked him, “Look, do you think it would be possible for me to have a look at these letters and to create a work of art around them?” And she wrote this wonderful piece of music called Return to Sender, which has a narrator reading out excerpts from some of these most powerful letters. And we were able to premiere that on our platform. It had been intended for the Canberra festival that had to be cancelled. And in some ways it was more powerful to have them on our empty stage in the Athenaeum theatre in Melbourne performing that work. And the most brilliant thing of all about that is that we were able to invite some of those intended recipients on Nauru, so they were watching it with us as were the letter writers.
Emma Lo Russo: Wow, that’s amazing.
Adele Schonhardt: When you think of a story like that, you start to see the potential of this as an instrument to connect people together.
Emma Lo Russo: I mean, it’s an interesting thing. That’s a whole new creative opportunity that you’ve kind of designed and created and implemented that might not have even been foreseen before. What does this period offer leaders, other businesses to think about how they can use digital transformation and change, and create these new opportunities?
Adele Schonhardt: I think crucial to that is actually stripping your product and your purpose right down to its core and thinking about, well, why do we exist? In our case, what’s fundamental to us is the musicians and the audience, and some way to connect the two. Everything else is superfluous in a way. Yes, it’s great to have a big marketing team or an ops director or whatever else within your company, but you don’t need those things in a time of crisis. What you do need is to be able to be very agile, to forget about your perfect product. You can’t spend weeks running surveys or tweaking it or making it look brilliant. You need to grab your minimum viable product, and the sky’s the limit in terms of what you can do, and just run with it. So, in a way, what we have done is a design thinking process.
As we learned in our final year in the MBA, it’s a design thinking process in action, whereby we created this product. Of course, it wasn’t perfect, particularly for our first concert, and there are still some rough edges that we’re working on. But we’ve since hosted 150 concerts on our platform and all the way through that, we’ve been trialling different ways of delivering. We’ve had subscription series, we’ve had different pricing points, and the speed at which we’ve been able to deliver those performances has given us a lot of time to experiment and to gather data and to survey people about what they prefer about the look and feel of the product and the way the ticketing system works and everything.
So I think just go for it is really the advice I would give, regardless of which field you work in. Don’t get yourself hung up as you normally would in consultation processes and designing the product. Just try something. People are very forgiving at the moment. So as long as the heart of your product is there, and you’re very clear about your purpose and why you’re doing it. The sky’s the limit.
Emma Lo Russo: I mean, it’s a good point, isn’t it? If your purpose is really strong, when people are quite forgiving, the digital environment allows for that ultimate test and learn environment. What do you feel you yourself have learned as a leader in this period? And is it different from how you might’ve approached things previously?
Adele Schonhardt: Certainly. And I think one element that we learned in the MBA was about T-shaped leadership or enterprise leadership, which is where you perceive yourself as a leader, not only within your one company. So I came from a role at Musica Viva, which is a big performing arts company, where I was media and public affairs manager. And really my job there was to look after our relationship with journalists to secure publicity for us, and also to look after our funding partnerships and government partnerships. But that was a fabulous role, I loved working there. But when it came to this situation, I started to see very quickly, well, if you work in a big company, you are in a way hampered by the fact that you need to carry that whole infrastructure with you. It becomes unviable when you’re looking for a lean solution to fix a problem.
And you have to think very much about the broader industry and think, “Well, I’m lucky enough to work in this sector with these brilliant musicians.” They are hurting now, and therefore it is my responsibility as an arts manager, regardless of what my title is, to get in there and to find a way to help them. And that is what then led me to step away from Musica Viva and to focus fully on this organisation. And the other thing I’ve learned is about, I guess, human nature. It really brings characteristics of people to the fore. We’ve had some incredibly generous organisations and people who’ve really got behind us right from the start and have just believed in us. A couple I’d like to mention here are obviously 5stream, our streaming partner. The Athenaeum Theatre in Melbourne has been incredible. They answered our call straight away. They are a huge old theatre in Collin Street in the inner city built in 1839, Australia’s oldest mainland theatre, and they’ve got about 800 seats.
And they immediately said, “Well, of course you can borrow our stage in our theatre. You can use it for as long as you like. Come on in, set up your cameras in there and just do what you need to do. And we’ll provide somebody to turn on the lights for you and to open the doors.” And that was astonishing that they would do that. And similarly for Kawai Australia, the piano maker, they provided us with a concert grand piano. They just said, “Sure, you need a piano. Where would you like it delivered?” And within a day or two of us opening up, there was this beautiful piano, which is still there on the stage. And that generosity has enabled us to enable these musicians to earn a living. So I think that’s extraordinary. There are those who are the gatekeepers and would just immediately say no. And there are others who see what you’re trying to achieve and see the urgency and say, “Yes, of course.” And it’s not always the people you expect. So I think that’s been an interesting learning.
Emma Lo Russo: I’m curious,? What are you imagining the future is going to look like for the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall?
Adele Schonhardt: Well, we have a vision that we should become hopefully part of the recovery process for the arts as a whole across Australia. And indeed we’re talking with a number of government partners and other funding bodies at the moment about how we might achieve that, so that we have a mobile digital concert hall in a box, we call it. It’s a set of high quality audio and video equipment that we can send to any location in Australia. And so we can start to stream from regional centres and showcase their music to a metropolitan audience and vice versa. And that really, we have something going on every night from regardless where. We’ve just entered into a partnership with the Darwin Symphony, which is going to be fabulous, so we’ll be showing some of their work very soon, that we draw Australia together on this platform.
Adele Schonhardt: And every night you can go online and you can see something wonderful from a different city. So that’s where we hope to go with this. And we hope that it then supports the organisations and the soloists and the artists who are trying to recover from this devastating COVID situation, be it through showcasing them online or in some kind of a hybrid delivery model where they can have a small physical audience in the venue again. And that we continue to reach those audience members who can’t get into a venue for whatever reason and draw them into our community. That’s our vision for the future.
Emma Lo Russo: It sounds amazing to new audiences, new experiences, something wonderful that changes the way we think and feel and helping our artists. Adele, I wish you all the best. Thank you for joining us on The Business Of.
Adele Schonhardt: Thank you for having me.
Emma Lo Russo: Wow – what a fantastic digital transformation case study, and under such constraining circumstances.. It’s a great example of a crisis forcing a transformation, and I love the passion Adele brings to this.
My final guest for today is Greg Joffe, Principal in Business Strategy, Public Policy and Digital Strategy at Nous Group, and Adjunct Associate Professor at UNSW Business School. Let’s hear from Greg on how he and the team at Nous group are helping clients weather this crisis and prepare for recovery.
So Greg, welcome to The Business Of. I’m very curious, please share an overview of your work with the Nous Group and the work that you do for your clients.
Greg Joffe: Sure. Hi, Emma. Nous Group’s a 400-person management consulting firm. It was about 20 people when I started 17 years ago. We work pretty broadly. So we work across strategy, public policy, organisation alignment.
I co-lead the business and digital strategy practise and also the financial services work. And to give you a sense of the sort of work we do, we work mainly with highly regulated industries, so financial services, healthcare utilities, and also a lot of work directly for government including regulators. Some of my work at the moment, just to give you a sense of it at the moment I’m working with a government regulator or with a regulator who’s obviously government, to develop their data strategy and operating model. So everybody’s thinking about how do I use data better? They’ve given us that work to help them think that through, but equally I’m also working with a big global defence contractor on the Australian and New Zealand operations. Again, looking at sort of what’s their strategy for the next five to 10 years, how do they position themselves? How will they compete to succeed?
Emma Lo Russo: And the challenging COVID world that we’re in, how has that impacted your work and what your clients are asking for?
Greg Joffe: So at a Nous’s level, it’s been as for most businesses pretty confronting, particularly at the front end, we’ve found that some clients have just sailed through it and kept giving us work in the same way as always, but others there’s been dramatic shifts. For some of those where there’s been dramatic shifts in the work coming to us, it’s either been a much greater focus on cost cutting. So some industries, there’s a lot of pressure now on driving down costs because revenues have gone down so much. And so we’re ending up doing a lot of work, particularly in these complex, highly regulated industries, trying to take out costs often to the scale of tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars. But then other clients as well have just cut back on consulting work. So that’s obviously meant that our revenues have been lower than they would have been pre COVID, but so far we’ve been able to get through without having to cut any jobs. And that’s been very important to us because yeah, it’s not something anybody likes to do.
Emma Lo Russo: So what’s your view of learning how to do strategy well, and seeing those opportunities in time of planning forward, good times and challenging times. Is it something you’d learn or is it something that you have to practise?
Greg Joffe: No, I think you don’t have time to learn anymore. You’re going to be learning by doing. So there are frameworks for thinking about strategy in what’s been called a VUCA world in the last few years.. But some of the tools that leaders can use, it’s really important that as a leader, people are looking to you to come up with, well, where are you taking our organisation? And how much do I trust that you’ve actually thought this through and you’re not just flying by the seat of your pants? So one of the best tools that I find in the space is scenario planning.
It comes out of Shell in the 1980s, but it basically says, what might the world look like? And in this case you might say in a year’s time. So choose any industry that you work in, but you could say, what are the drivers of our industry and what are two to four really different scenarios of what the world might look like that we’re operating in, in a year’s time? And then you can kind of look across those four scenarios and say, “Well, what would we do in each of those scenarios and what should we do now to be ready for that scenario?” And it’s a really useful way. It’s not just the exercise to get the answers, but the actual working on it tends to bring the executive team thinking about, well, gee, the world could actually be quite different.
That’s what scenarios should do. They should put you in that quite uncomfortable space about the future and then force you to say, “So what do we need to do to the organisation to be ready for that now?” So I think scenarios are a great tool. That’s not the kind of, how do you think about strategy as a leader? I think leaders also have a really important role in setting the emotional tone in their organisation at this time.
So in normal times you get your usual spectrum of sort of the people who are incredibly happy and they roll through to people who are always unhappy, no matter what’s going on. But I think in these times, people are much more nervous and therefore a key role of a leader is to give people confidence that they have thought about the future and are actively working to position the organisation to continue to succeed. Because people worry about their jobs. And if they know that you’re doing that, you’re thinking really hard to get the right answers, to position the organisation for success going forward. That gives them some confidence.
I also think it’s giving people spaces to talk to each other and talk to the senior leadership about this is how I feel, and this is what’s going on for me, because a lot of people are very unsettled by current times as they should be, they’re pretty bizarre times. And creating space so people can feel supported by each other and by the organisation is really important. So it’s both the kind of get your strategy right but also understand where your people are emotionally and make sure you give them space and enable them to feel supported by being part of the organisation.
Emma Lo Russo: I really like that you touched on that scenario playing, I often found that it’s a great tool to manage stress in organisations. If you actually can think all those scenarios, what would we do? You see amazing innovation, that arms them with the confidence that actually everyone will be okay.
So you talked about tools that organisations could use and there’s responsibility in the organisation. So my question to you is, where have you seen it play out best? Does it start at the CEO? Is it the leadership team? Is it something you teach right throughout your organisation? What have you seen really equips an organisation at all levels to win?
Greg Joffe: So thinking about what equips an organisation to win and to play successfully, just running through, there are three or four different levels we probably need to talk about. I am a big believer that it all starts with the CEO. And so both having a good strategy, but also as we’re talking about people understanding their role within that strategy and then people feeling that their role makes sense and they’re supported to do the best they can. If you don’t have a CEO who supports that, everything sort of below that then tends to be a problem. So Daniel Goldman sort of says those people that are high EQ and a really tuned into their people are the people that are most successful. I’d have to say my experience working in Australia and a little bit internationally has been, I haven’t seen that consistently.
So I’ve seen some incredibly supportive and high EQ managers, and I’ve seen others who are CEOs, and I’ve seen others who are just there because they really want to be CEO and they want the title, but I don’t see those attributes. So what are the things that make a difference to a great CEO, particularly in these sort of circumstances? Again, I think a third of it at least is you need to be smart enough and work hard enough and listen to your customers and listen to your staff enough to come up with a strategy to win. If you can’t define why you should win, you’re probably not going to, and it needs to be valid. You see these glib statements about, “We’ll be customer focused, we’ll be this, we’ll be that.” But it’s not that. It’s if I’m UNSW, why am I going to keep getting students and not the other universities? If I’m Porsche, why are people going to continue to buy my cars and not all the other hundreds of car manufacturers around the world?”
So no matter what your business, if you can’t say why you should win against your competitors, you’re probably not going to. So that’s a chunk of the work. The second is you need to then give people an understanding of how they fit within the delivery of that. In the old days, there were sort of sometimes laborious business planning and sort of cascade of business plans down to division plans, down to team plans, down to individual plans with KPIs being cascaded along the way. I still think that’s valid. I think now you have to move very quickly. So you have to look for tools that allow you to put this stuff online, let people comment, and then do it in three days, not three weeks. But you still need a business plan so that people understand where they fit in the biggest picture.
And you should be able to talk to anyone in the business and go, “Do you understand how, what you do does feeds into what we’re trying to achieve here and feeds into that thing about, well, what’s our competitive edge?” So the business planning and an understanding of KPIs and how they fit together is really important. And then the third part for me is still the people part, which is, are you actually supporting your people to grow? Are you supporting your people to move up over time and continue to progress? Are you supporting your people to take risks? So we do quite a lot of work in the public sector. And sometimes in the public sector, people say but you don’t understand if I do these innovative and risky things. And it goes, well, everyone will say so what, and if I fail, I’ll lose my job and the minister will scream at me. Why would I take that risk?
So it really is, I think it’s up to leaders to say, well, you should take the risk. So as an example, when I was at Austrade, before I joined Nous, we put in an initiative to double the number of exporters in Australia, because we understood that was really important from a macroeconomic perspective. But I ended up having to brief the trade minister and say, “Well, this is quite risky because you’re putting a name to this really out there target. But if we do it, and even if we only get 80 per cent of the way, that’s a huge benefit for Australia, but the downside is the press may still go, “Well, you only achieved 80 per cent of your target.”
And to his credit the then trade minister was very supportive and said, “I think it’s worth us doing things like that. Let’s go for it.” But many people don’t choose to do that. So I think that creating a space where people can do the best to achieve the objectives can have the ability to fail, not repeatedly for the same reason, but fail and supporting people to keep learning and thinking about where am I developing a critical components of what leaders at all levels need to do.
Emma Lo Russo: And if we touch on like the pursuit in ensuring inclusion and diversity as a foundation to success, what do you think is important? And how does that drive value, particularly in these challenging times within the context and framework that you’ve shared today?
Greg Joffe: Nous thinks diversity or inclusion is very important and we’ve put a lot of effort into it, including we have our own reconciliation action plan. We attend Garma and we think that the shift, particularly in Australia, for Australians to recognise the importance of indigenous Australians, to who we are as Australians generally is important.
Some of the things particularly that we do or that I think CEOs can do to improve inclusion in their organisations, one is using data. So I was always sceptical about this in the old days. Because I always thought who wants to tick the box that says I’m a black person or I am female. But actually having spoken to some of my colleagues, including, Abigail Nduva, Basically Abigail’s argument is, well, if you don’t track the data, how do you even know if you are actually being inclusive? Let people at least have the option. So yes, give people the option to identify by the groups they’re in, track that data and make sure that you have conversations at a management level that say, well, are we actually making sure that we do have decent gender representation, that we do have decent diversity of people’s backgrounds?
So I think the data is worthwhile and it is worth tracking and people can choose not to do it, but at least it gives them the option to do it.? So at Nous for instance we choose a very small number of people from the people who apply to us. But we realised at one point that we were getting tonnes of really great applicants from Sydney University and University of New South Wales and Melbourne University and Monash.
And at one point I actually said, we need to actively recruit a bit more broadly than this because I think we’re getting a particular socioeconomic background. And the work we do is important. We’re doing stuff with the NDIA, we’re doing stuff in health. You don’t just want to have rich upper-class people doing all the problem solving. So we actively chose other universities that had brought a diversity and through our recruiting people went and approached them and said, “We are actually very keen to speak to your top students.” Which has allowed us to have a fabulous flow of super smart students with greater diversity than we otherwise would have had. Now that was driven from the top. And I think that’s worked incredibly well for us. And it’s made us deliver better projects for our clients because we bring a broader view.
Emma Lo Russo: I love that you connected it back to the extra value that you deliver to clients by having that diversity within the makeup of the team and the way that they might be bringing their experiences to better your customers as well.
We’re going to have to wrap up. So thank you Greg, for your time today.
Greg Joffe: Pleasure. Thanks very much.
Emma Lo Russo: It was great to speak with Greg and hear all about the work he’s doing with clients at Nous Group. I love his point about what makes an effective CEO in times of crisis: you need to be smart enough,work hard enough and listen to your customers and staff enough to come up with a strategy to win. If you can’t define why you should win, you’re probably not going to.
I hope you enjoyed my conversations with today’s guests.
One thing was clear to me. If you want to survive and thrive in periods of challenge and beyond you need to engage and empower all your stakeholders to contribute and always be guided by your purpose and your why.
I’ll talk to you next time on AGSM’s The Business Of I’m Emma Lo Russo, Thanks for listening.