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Geoff Bascand is the Chief Executive of Statistics New Zealand.
The first piece of advice Geoff Bascand offers someone aspiring to be a chief executive is, be yourself. Know yourself and be true to yourself.
"We are all different. Don't try to be something you're not." He says. "You've got to be genuine. Trust your own core values. Have confidence in the strengths you bring to the task. Accept that your not going to be all things to everyone. The important thing is to work with others and bring together their complementarities."
One of the special things about working with Geoff is his sense of humility. Only people who know themselves and are big enough are willing to admit both their strengths and weaknesses in public.
Geoff shows vulnerability in front of his people. As a result he is more real and they trust him.
I've been privileged to witness this vulnerability and bigness. On the day that Geoff was appointed chief executive I was with him, facilitating a strategic planning session with about 40 of his managers. The process had arrived at a critical point. A wrong decision would have led Statistics down the wrong track for the future. Half the managers were arguing for one position. Half were arguing for the opposite position. As a strategist I was sure one position would lead to more success than the other. Unfortunately Geoff was standing with the group that was arguing the other position.
After at least an hour of deep arguing and discussion Geoff changed his position. To this day I don't know whether Geoff was arguing the Devil's Advocate or whether he truly believed in the other position to start with.
What I do know is that this simple act, of changing his mind publicly, communicated extremely important messages to his managers. It showed that Geoff had listened, rethought his position and was big enough to change his mind. It also showed that Geoff was prepared to put the success of the organisation ahead of his own ego.
Vulnerability like this takes real courage and in my experience is rare in chief executives.
Geoff says that there are some key calls the chief needs 'smarts' about. These include judgements about: How far you can push? What's the tolerance level? What is the resistance? What needs to be driven through?
Geoff says you don't need to be everything. There's a dose of perspective that goes with the job. He says, "I have a role. It's an honour and a privilege. But it is just a role. It doesn't make me the best statistician, which clearly I am not, or the best at a whole lot of other things. What I need to be is the conductor."
As the conductor Geoff needs to know his instruments and which tunes each will play. "It's about getting the most out of yourself and out of others," he says.
It's important to make strategy compelling. It has to touch hearts and souls. It has to give meaning, purpose and context to people at the front-line.
Geoff is very passionate about Statistics New Zealand and how it helps the country. It helps New Zealanders understand its environmental issues. It helps us understand where the economy is heading in these critical times. It even helps define the way New Zealanders think of themselves by the stories it chooses to tell and the things it decides to measure. Geoff knows how important it is to communicate this strategic context to his people.
Some time ago we were talking about the importance of networking at one of the workshops on leadership that I facilitated at Statistics New Zealand. I asked the group of about 30 managers to think of someone who in their mind was the embodiment of a good networker. Almost without exception they chose Geoff. Later I was doing the same workshop at Child, Youth and Family. The people in this group chose Chris Harvey, their Regional Manager. When the workshop was run at The Correspondence School they chose Mike Hollings, their Chief Executive. I realise that three groups is a small sample but I'm starting to wonder whether people who are good at networking tend to rise to the top of their organisation.
There is no doubt that Geoff is a great networker. Go to lunch with Geoff and the conversation will be interrupted many times by people who want to talk to him or say hello. Geoff has an open presence that makes it easy to approach him. He has an interest in people that is genuine.
I asked Geoff, what's the single most important thing to share with someone aspiring to be a chief executive. He said, "You can't communicate enough." Even though Geoff is a good communicator and he thought he was communicating a great deal, he was told he wasn't communicating enough. "You've just got to keep the flow going. What I thought was a lot still wasn't enough! You can't over-communicate. You need tons and tons and tons of it."
Geoff's advice is to expect that it's going to be tough. Tougher than they think.
Geoff found the role bigger than he thought it would be. "I knew I'd get confronted with tough decisions. But it was bigger than I expected," he said.
I had several meetings with him during some of the toughest times, when he was agonising over-restructuring issues that involved people. I know how many hours he was putting in. I know how deeply he thought about these issues. I know how it affected his sleep and his personal life.
The job was also broader than he expected. "Statistics is a big business. There's always parts you don't know about, as a second-tier manager. You have to understand how they fit and how they are doing."
The jobs also broader externally. It includes networking with other public sector chief executives, suppliers and the public both within New Zealand and internationally.
Geoff's last comment was, "Know that you'll grow. I said explicitly, and I think I'm on track, that hopefully I'll be a better Chief Executive in the second and third year than I was in the first year."
For me this took our interview full-circle, starting and ending with the endearing quality of humility and bigness that's so much the character of Geoff Bascand.
Listen to Geoff's first thoughts. I think top of mind, what comes out first, is often the most telling.
Interviewed by Bruce Holland, Virtual Group Business Consultants. January 2009.