Face to face: McLeay’s Way

As he strides across the New Zealand Lotteries Commission’s reception area with hand outstretched, Todd McLeay already looks enviably alert an hour before the business day officially begins.
We’re meeting early because he’s got an unusually hectic week. It includes two presentations at Human Synergistics’ 7th NZ Conference on Culture and Leadership, and meeting with an 18-strong delegation from Thailand. They’re turning up at nine this morning to try to glean what makes the business he’s led for the past five years so successful.
Dressed in sharp dark suit with open-neck checked shirt, in conversation McLeay manages the neat trick of coming across as both casual and measured, speaking with drawl and turn of phrase that are redolent of his Invercargill roots.
Asked whether his current position represents realisation of his early career aspirations, he good-naturedly scoffs at the thought.
“You can’t really predict the future, you just need to have some general idea about what you want to do,” he says. He readily admits that when, in the late ’80s, he “rolled out of school and took the well trodden path of loading everything you own into small bag and heading up to Dunedin”, he only signed up for the commerce course at Otago University because he couldn’t think of anything else to study.
He calls it “quite boring sort of degree” and reckons “it gets you ready for the first six months of your first job and that’s about it”. But it did furnish him with an insight that evidently remains fundamental to the way he approaches business today.
“I really liked marketing subjects, because basically it came down to the philosophy of trying to really get inside the head of the person you’re dealing with, whether they’re customer, or another person in negotiation, or whatever.
“The better you can see the world through their eyes, the more likely you are to manage good outcome.
“Once I got that, it made the subject seem quite enjoyable. And it wasn’t too taxing either, which is quite important to students,” he laughs.
He also took some accounting papers, “because as someone told me at the time, accounting is the language of business and you’ll reach point where, if you don’t know it, you’ll have some problems”, and later picked up postgraduate qualification in finance.
McLeay left Otago with an ambition to run “a decent-sized company”, because surely that was the point of getting commerce degree, and spent year in graduate programme at Unisys in Philadelphia. He followed that with some time in the UK, before fetching up back in Invercargill due to family circumstances.
After five years back in his hometown his appetite for fresh challenge was well and truly whetted. Happily one materialised in the form of job running product management area for telco BellSouth, which soon evolved into Vodafone.
“It was quite catalyst for me,” McLeay recalls. “It was very fast growth, dynamic industry, and Vodafone in particular was very aggressive, with lot of young people. There was real attitude that it was better to ask for forgiveness than permission, and it was all about the accelerator and really nothing about all the other pedals.
“That approach worked for years but then it reached the point it had to change. I think Vodafone has now become much more reflective of what you’d describe as global business standards.
“But back then it was very entrepreneurial, and it was great environment to learn in – you could do lot of things, make some mistakes, and have lot of success, which really encouraged you to try new things.
“And there were some great leaders there, so it was also good opportunity to learn both by talking and watching how people operated.”
One of the key observations McLeay took from his Vodafone experience was that, in such an environment, experience was less important than talent and cultural fit.
“I still think that, when you’re building an organisation, those qualities count for more in terms of your long-term advantage,” he says.
Next stop on McLeay’s career path was three years in senior marketing position at NZ Post, an organisation moving in the opposite direction to the one he’d just left.
“That was really interesting experience, and very different one from Vodafone, as NZ Post started to change with the way consumers’ lives were being affected by technology.
“There was lot of change management involved and I wouldn’t say it was all beer and skittles,” he says, “because it’s always challenging when an organisation like that has to start thinking differently after doing one thing for long time.
By this stage McLeay had also been involved in various ventures as director, and when he left NZ Post became involved “as director in materials handling and solution business of all things”.
Before too long the role of CEO of the NZ Lotteries Commission came up, although initially he wasn’t too sure it was for him.
“I thought, ‘Oh, that sounds bit government-y’,” he says, “but I liked the board and I immediately realised I could learn lot off chairman Sir John Goulter; there’s no substitute for the level of experience someone like him had to offer someone like me, going into my first CEO role.
“I just soaked up as much information from him as I could. That’s not to say I just became clone. We’re very different and I’ve got my own style, but he was really helpful.”
The key lesson he learnt from Goulter? “It was around understanding what’s really important. Some things you’ve got to nail 100 percent and other things are not so important, and it’s matter of getting clear about what those priorities are.
McLeay is also quick to pay tribute to Judy Kirk, Lotteries’ chair for the past three years and someone with “very affiliative style” that he’s naturally inclined to practise himself.
At the time McLeay took up the mantle of Lotteries CEO, the organisation had just experienced seven to nine years of flat or declining revenues, “though the performance had already started to lift thanks to the leadership of the previous CEO, Trevor Hall, really great guy”, he notes.
“That turnaround had been pretty project-driven – it had to be, because it’d been quite crisis situation – with the expansion of the retail network and introduction of midweek game, Big Wednesday, amongst other things.
“So when I arrived, I thought, ‘Wow, there’s much greater likelihood that I’ll just stuff things up than improve it anytime soon,’” he laughs. “And it also looked to me like the low-hanging fruit may well have been plucked.
“So my approach for pretty much the first six months, as the business ticked over, was to have lots of conversations with the people here to try and understand how they thought the business might be better and where the opportunities to continue to grow were.”
This half-year of due diligence played to the first of what McLeay sees as his two strengths: “getting lots of information from different sources and putting it together in order to work out what the business needs to do”.
His conclusion? “We needed all the staff to start using bit more initiative in every part of the business, rather than senior management lining up people around some goals. So my focus was to try and create more inclusive, collaborative culture where people could do more and perform better, although clearly we still needed to have some overall goals around that.”
Then it was matter of explaining the goal and motivating staff to achieve it – McLeay’s second strength as leader.
“To do that I spend most of my effort trying to understand two things. The way I look at it, everyone’s got natural strengths, things they’re better at than other people or that just seem easy to them. So, first thing is, what are they really good at?
“The second thing I do is try to understand what it is they want. Once you understand both those things, then hopefully you can find an alignment with what it is as an organisation that you’re trying to achieve. And I’ll move peo

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