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Leading change from the top



The hardest leadership work in business is often experienced when leading transformations, turnarounds and recoveries - particularly in companies who are floundering and at risk of going under, being taken over, or dying a long slow death unless something changes. The job of a leader in these situations is to mobilise people around a purpose and a difficult mission; to influence them to commit to do very hard but important work.  Some leaders tend to do it better than others.


I’ve had the pleasure of seeing business leaders who have been outstanding at it. These include Ian McLeod at Coles, John McFarlane at ANZ, Andrew McKenzie at BHP and more recently Mike Clarke at Treasury Wine Estates.


No two leaders do it exactly the same but I have seen three things that all the successful leaders pay attention to. They always:

  1. clarify the mission and recognise that it will be hard work. They confront the harsh reality of the current situation and state with absolute clarity that the status quo must change
  2. instil a sense of hope that the mission, whilst hard, is achievable – think Obama “yes we can”; and
  3. let people know what the single most important thing is that they should do to help them get there, and let them know that they will expect nothing less of them. For Mike Clarke at Treasury Wine Estates it was teamwork.

When Mike Clarke stepped into the CEO role at Treasury Wine Estates in in March 2014, he was inheriting a business that was a far cry from where it is today. It had made bad bets on wine trends and massive write downs had left the share price reeling and the former CEO sacked.  


Mike knew that team morale was low and the culture unhealthy with lots infighting, silos, and low levels of trust between executives. He knew that unless his leaders found a way of delivering results together, the mission would be impossible. 


On his very first day as the new CEO he called together all of his employees at their Melbourne head office for a Town Talk.  This is part of what he said:


Thanks for the kind introduction.  What you should know about me is that I am open, straightforward and collaborative.  I love getting teams to win and deliver results.  Nothing pleases me more than a team going from the bottom of the ladder to the top by delivering and winning. To do that you need trust in the team. There are two experiences I have had in my life that have taught me this.  


Six years ago I was part of team that took on a non-stop charity bike ride from London to Paris. That’s about 500 kilometres, which is a long way for a group of overweight, unfit and poorly trained business leaders! It was a lot of hard work to get there but we supported each other and pushed each other to keep going. You can’t imagine how sweet it was to cycle up the Champs Elysee with your teammates and have a well-deserved beer at the end. It was only because we had committed to each other as a team that we got there.


More recently this same group committed to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.  None of us are climbers or had any climbing experience, but we knew from our Paris ride that together we could do it.  


We met in Amsterdam and flew on to Tanzania together to start the climb.  And climb we did, with headaches from the altitude, blisters and sore legs.  Right to the top.  


The feeling you get, when you get to the top and the headaches go and you look across the plains is incredible. When you take on a challenge there is always pain and hardship. But when you achieve it…  


There is going to be some hard work to turn our business around. It is going to be challenging, especially in the early stages but we will get there.  We will find that sweet spot, and we will enjoy it. You will enjoy it.   


Mike used the power of storytelling to signal the value of teamwork and how important it would be for the team at Treasury to climb the mountain ahead of them.  He also painted a picture of what would await them when they summited, instilling hope that “yes they could”.  


Most importantly, his executive team understood that infighting and siloism, the cancer of organisational performance, would not be tolerated.  


So, the next time you need to mobilise a group of people to do something hard but worthwhile, think hard about these three things: 

  1. what is the hard but oh so important mission?
  2. how can you instil a sense of hope that it can be achieved?; and finally,
  3. what can people do right away to make a contribution?