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Sharing success stories is one of the best ways to encourage business success. To achieve this I (Bruce Holland) actively search out local leaders who do things I'd like others to do also. Rob Forlong, CEO, Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) is definitely a success story worth sharing.
I interviewed Rob Forlong in February 2013 and started by asking him what advice he had for someone else aspiring to his position.
Rob said: "I think a senior manager needs to be very honest with themself and self aware. I try to constantly question my own biases and my own ways of thinking; have other people question these and be open to those questions. Because, once you think you know it all, you can get into trouble quickly."
When I asked him how well he knew Rob Forlong, he said: "I'm learning. When I stop scrutinising myself and my own performance, I'm not going to go forward." It means knowing your strengths and weaknesses and knowing whether the top job is a position for you. He said, "Being me is very important!"
Rob says he still gets feedback about himself that makes him stop and think why he does things the way he does. Over the years he has learnt things about himself that can cause issues with other people.
For example, Rob says he tests ideas by arguing them through. Some people think Rob raising the arguments means that he is (or is not) in favour of a particular idea. In fact, it's just his way of understanding and testing the idea. "I come from a family where there's much arguing around the dinner table and blunt opinions; so I have to be careful of this trait and clarify that I'm testing the issue and not pushing the person, particularly when that person is a relatively inexperienced staff member."
Rob says he needs to be constantly aware of the diversity of thinking of people and that his is just one perspective out of many. There are some issues that don't worry him at all but are hugely important to others. He needs to be careful not to dismiss these. For example, the EPA has recently moved into a new building which has given a boost to staff morale. For Rob a new building wasn't very important but for others the better work environment made a major difference.
Rob says it is probably his training as a scientist but he likes to see the numbers and independent evidence, like finances and staff surveys, to support results and progress. When I suggested that the scientist also seems to have plenty of intuition he said he also recognizes that we are emotional human beings; and scientists are as emotional as anyone. "Going with the gut is really important. As humans we don't always make rational decisions - therefore the rational answer is not always the "right answer" particularly where human behavior is involved. In personal decisions, sometimes data might telling me something different but I'll still go with my gut." At work I tend to be more circumspect."
Rob also has to watch his enthusiasm. He says, "When I get excited about something I get quite excited about it." I observed that this should be a plus, since in my experience there aren't many chief executives who get really excited about their work. On reflection, Rob said it is less about moderating excitement and more about lifting excitement in areas that have a lower profile. Often results bubble up in certain areas and Rob has to be careful that he recognises all the areas that have contributed to the success (e.g. internal support functions), not just where it surfaces.
Rob says humility is important. "I'm just part of the team and the managers are just part of the team. None of us would be successful without all the other people around us."
Rob grew up playing team sports as a tight forward in a rugby team where "you do lots of the work but don't see much glory." Sometimes teams work hard but don't get much notice. "You can't run a team with a bunch of stars who all want to do their own thing and show off as individuals." It's the same with a symphony orchestra, if one person is out of time or playing too loud, the whole thing is a mess. He wants a culture where people don't think of support people as servants but as active participants in the success of the organisation. In staff meetings he tries hard to build respect throughout the organisation for areas that are less visible, less sexy and less obviously linked to the results.
Rob wants the organisation to be as good as it possibly can be and have the numbers to test this independently. He is a team player who enjoys working in a group of people to get a result (or at least make progress). Progress is important in the work EPA does because, the outcomes are usually long term rather than short.
It's Rob's belief, based on earlier experiences when he was in charge of regional parks in Wellington, that: "Just because it seems impossible, doesn't mean it is impossible and we can achieve things we didn't think we could."
His satisfaction from working in teams comes from seeing people get results. Rob said: "It's a massive privilege to see people do things they didn't think they could do and achieve things we didn't think we could achieve."
Rob tries to be easily approachable and works at approaching other people directly. He says he makes a habit of walking around the office and gets to every floor at least once a day and sometimes several times a day. He said there are two reasons for this: a personal reason and a management reason.
The personal reason is that he likes to be socially connected to others and likes talking to people. He has a target to be able to stop at every desk and have a chat about something beyond the work they do. Therefore, if he wants to say something to someone, or deliver something, he tries to do it by going to see them.
The management reason is so he can be close to the ground and know what motivates people. As a senior manager there can be significant power differentials and he tries hard to reduce these. He says: "If I don't know the people personally then there's no way I can get the best out of them or know what motivates them."
Rob spends a significant amount of time focused externally. He said it is important to form relationships across the wider sector so EPA can achieve its results. He sees other organisations in the sector as part of the broader team that form and un-form regularly. He works at maintaining these relationships so EPA can quickly form teams to deal with wider issues.
It's also important to get unfiltered external feedback from customers and stakeholders. This can be difficult since EPA is seen as a regulator with significant power; he says, "some of our customers start from a position of 'don't offend the referee'." As soon as he gets feedback, he actions it immediately, to encourage more.
Rob is not very concerned what others say about him. "My motivations are internal. It's how I feel about my life that's most important. I'd like to be able to say I left the place in a better condition than I found it. I'd like to be honest enough to know I did not get it perfectly right, but comfortable that I got enough of it right for my satisfaction. And I'd like the numbers to prove what I say!"
Although Rob dresses powerfully and looks every inch like a chief executive, he has an easy, open, approachable stance. I like the way he is vulnerable enough to share so much of himself, good and bad; and how laughter comes easily to him.
On the way out, in the lift, I spoke to a young woman who had joined EPA only three weeks before as a scientist. She said the culture was great and she really liked the way Rob was so visible on her floor and how he knew her name and some things about her family. Please share this with any of your networks in government and local government who may have dealings with Rob.
Have a look at our other Favourite Managers including Geoff Bascand, Statistics NZ; Mike Hollings, Te Kura; and Bryan Jackson, Director and business person.
Virtual Group Business Consultants
16 Kauri Street, Woburn, Hutt City, New Zealand.
Phone +6421 620 456 or Skype Bruce.Holland
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Key words: Leadership, leadership development, leadership management, leadership training, leadership program, leadership skills.