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Elizabeth Valentine


Elizabeth Valentine is the Chief Executive of the Aviation Tourism Travel Training Organisation. Previously she was the Chief Executive of another ITO and has held a range of senior management roles in the private and public sectors.

As I entered her office, my first impression of Elizabeth was one of energy. She greeted me warmly with a wide smile, a firm handshake and strong eye contact. One gets a sense of energy and straight-shooting that is engaging.

Know your motives

At the top of the list of Elizabeth's advice to someone aspiring to be a chief executive is: "You have to want to lead. Spend a lot of time examining your motives, because, if you only want it for the money, the status or the power, I don't think you will be a great leader. You also need to do some study. There are too many senior leaders in New Zealand with gaps in their management skills," she says.

"For me, I like to lead. I get enormous personal satisfaction in working with people. I like to create workplaces where people find their potential and achieve things they had no idea they were capable of doing. To gain the confidence to apply for Chief Executive roles, I completed an MBA. And while I don't think everyone needs a masters degree even a diploma of business expands awareness and skill."

The gift of encouragement

Creating an environment where people learn and grow is important to Elizabeth.

"Sometimes people say, 'I'm just the administration person'. I say to them: 'Can you imagine what it would feel like to be a superstar at what you do?' Take Sue, my Assistant, she is 'Sue Superstar'! She just received an award for outstanding customer service for the whole organisation.

"Can you imagine the difference in feeling and approach, enjoyment and overall fun in the role when someone is a superstar rather than a 'just a ...'? People tend to flourish when you help them remove their self limitations, coach them with high quality feedback and help them change their perception of what's possible.

"Too few organisations value their 'unsung heros' yet they are vital because they have a 'line of sight' to the customer."

When I asked Elizabeth if it was more important to think people are superstars or say it, she said: "As a leader you have to first believe that everyone has that potential and of course you've got to communicate that in a wide range of ways, through your words and your actions. You've got to tell people what they're doing well, sometimes repeatedly; reinforce, clarify. In the end it comes down to a couple of very simple things: being clear about what you want and giving lots of encouragement, a gift we all need and thrive on."

Take difficult decisions but do it with heart

When I asked Elizabeth what lessons she would share she said: "Good leaders are able to make excruciatingly difficult decisions but do it with heart. Sometimes helping someone move on to a better, 'what next' is hard. But if there's not a good fit of motivation and values, a leader has to make the call."

The difficult decisions include confronting bad behaviour. "If you've got performance problems, deal with them."

The first 90 days are especially important. "There's no better time than at the start. When you come in never be afraid to conduct a deep, probing situational analysis; find out the good and the not so good. Then you know what to retain and where you may need to make tough calls if necessary.

"It's more than just the facts. You can go into an organisation and there is just the 'feel'. When people have been working in a less than effective culture, where there is a culture of control and fear, there is a different energy compared with an organisation where people bring their best.

"My goal as a leader is to create that climate where people want to bring their best. At ATTTO we have a value of manaakitanga which roughly translates into: 'If you bring your best and I bring my best we enhance each other's mana."

Find the sparkiest around

Elizabeth's second lesson was: "Good leaders are not always good at everything so don't be afraid to get the smartest, sparkiest people around you and build a great team. In doing this you will always keep learning and growing."

Work to be lucky

Elizabeth told me, when she was younger, she used to think of herself as 'just a lucky person'; today she sees her luck as synchronicity in a highly connected world that her own efforts feed into. 'I have a strong sense of connectedness in all things; intrinsic and deep.'

For example Elizabeth told me how she happened to sit beside and start talking to the second in command of PostBank on an airplane. This led to an interview with Lindsay Pyne the new CEO of PostBank who became one of her strongest role models and influencers in leadership. Lindsay put her in charge of the Investment in Excellence Program. "That was seminal in my thinking. It changed everything for me." she said.

Today Elizabeth realises her luck is far more than happenstance, it's something that she works at every day. "I have a lot of energy and a mind that goes at a million miles an hour all the time. I've had to learn to temper this energy: to balance the energy with a more reflective approach. I work on it. I live quite a disciplined life. I meditate for balance and relaxation. I practice yoga (sitting meditation) and Tai-chi (moving meditation). I have cold showers every day to boost my immune system. I eat mostly organic food for physical and mental nourishment.

"It's a replenishing process. CEOs need to be able to cope with extremes, high pressure, difficulty and emotions. If we're not well nourished, balanced and focused we become overloaded. Our adrenaline becomes depleted. For me it's about being more measured."

Elizabeth's legacy

When I asked Elizabeth what she would like written on her gravestone she said: "Here rests a woman who created environments where others discovered their greatness."

Imagine our world if every manager had that ambition!


Now listen to Elizabeth in her own words:

Listen to Elizabeth talk about super stars and unsung heros. (3m31s)

Listen to Elizabeth talk about how she works on her inner strength and connectedness. 5m02s

Interviewed by Bruce Holland
Virtual Group Business Consultants
Phone +6421620456 or Skype Bruce.Holland

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