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Conservative and risk averse: NZ CEOs revealed

Tuesday 2nd April 2019

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New Zealand’s business leaders are disrupted, not disruptors. They cultivate a conservative, risk-averse persona, which doesn’t necessarily fit well with today’s young customers and employees.

And they don’t want a bar of social media.

That’s the finding of a new survey from Sydney-based media intelligence company Isentia.

Isentia’s second Leadership Index report, published today, found New Zealand - and Australian - business leaders were positioning themselves as conservative, committed and methodical, rather than disruptive, creative or agile.

To put it bluntly, they are boring.

And while this might be seen as a positive when it comes to a board or investors, it’s not necessarily great in terms of selling products or attracting staff.

Isentia’s head of insights, Ngaire Crawford, says disruptive leaders tend to cultivate an almost celebrity personality, often with social media followings that are “massive and influential”.

Think SpaceX’s Elon Musk, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos or Alibaba’s Jack Marr.

And while Kiwi boards might shy away from these sorts of superstar CEOs, “we found there is value in these connections,” Crawford says. “People are going to follow companies and want to work for companies based not just on the products they sell but on the person who leads them.”

In New Zealand, close to 80 percent of CEOs don’t have a social media presence at all, the survey found. But Crawford says that’s a mistake, particularly when dealing with younger consumers and employees.

“In our corporate environment, leaders answer to the board, which is comfortable with them being low-risk and under the radar. But there is value to putting a leadership face on innovation.”

The Insentia survey looked at how CEOs are portrayed in the media in the October-December 2018 period. They found 57 percent of coverage of New Zealand CEOs involved them talking about financial results or the share price. In Australia, CEOs were quoted on regulation and remuneration - hardly surprising given the recent focus on financial irregularities.

“Even in the context of the Royal Commission, CEOs were not positioned as gregarious, colourful or even overtly villainous characters in the coverage analysed,” the report says. “The language used alongside them is relatively neutral, deflamatory and encourages minimal fanfare.”

And while CEOs keeping their head down could be seen as an advantage, dull CEOs also miss the opportunity to bring some interest and excitement into coverage of their company.

“They are potentially not getting the opportunity to tell great stories,” Crawford says. “They are not talking about innovation unless it is in the context of financial results.  

“There’s a tendency to not talk about innovation, or not to talk about it in the same way as a disrupter would. It’s much more about investment strategy.”

Exciting Kiwi CEOs aren’t unknown - think former Air New Zealand boss Rob Fyfe, who appeared in an airline safety video clad only in body paint, or Xero founder Rod Drury, who was a big fan of social media. We’ve still got Rocket Lab’s Peter Beck.

The Insentia report links disruption and innovation and says being a disruptive leader isn’t always easy.

“Personality and creativity represent potential risk. Disruptors are still given celebrity status and there is little connection made between the decisions corporate leaders have to make in response to disruption (restructuring, transformation) and the disruptor.”

However, being a boring leader also has its downsides.

“The established corporation is left with a story of contraction and reduction, compared with a disruptor’s story of growth and change.”


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