FACE TO FACE : Tim Miles – Head and Heart

There are two sides to Tim Miles. There’s the head. And there’s the heart.
Clearly the head is pretty bright. His CV reads like Who’s Who of global businesses. Less public is the heart and the passion it contains.
How does self-confessed straight-talking storyteller from dairy-farming background near Levin get invited on to the executive board of Vodafone, top-10 global company?
“As leader I’m very upfront – I basically tell it how it is. I’m straight up. I’m very honest. I’ve got good integrity.”
He’s also very driven, is passionate about his staff, and passionate about his customers. He may not know “the most” about anything, and having never met an employee with any sense that wants to be managed, he doesn’t “do managing”, says Miles. “You’re leading people. If you’re managing people you’re controlling what they do.”
Miles claims to be astonished whenever he’s asked to new position – as he was when Vodafone Group CEO Arun Sarin asked him to move from Vodafone New Zealand to Vodafone UK in 2005. And again when just year later he was asked to become chief technology officer for the whole group. It’s hard to believe that much of Tim Miles’ career path has happened entirely by chance, but it’s concept he calls “an accidental competence”.
He’s also disarmingly modest and grounded. “If I’ve got one ability it’s to take something that’s complex and distil it into something that’s quite simple and accessible for people.”
Miles joined Vodafone New Zealand as chief executive in 2001, at time when the company was “young and funky, hip and cool – and I wasn’t”. What he, and the regional manager who appointed him knew, though, is that you can’t run business like that forever. On the surface, he may have seemed strange choice to the people who were already working at Vodafone, and he admits he needed to chill out. However he says the change wasn’t all one-sided, adding that at the time, the Vodafone staff needed to grow up – because their customers were growing up.
He feels turning point in the relationship with his staff was when he was presented with plastic carrot in pet coffin for Christmas. Attached to the carrot message read ‘Congratulations on your Carrot-ectomy’. “Which basically meant, in their words, I had pulled the carrot out of my rear end. That was their way of telling me I was okay.”
His local success (doubling market share in three years) and his leadership style attracted the attention of head office, and he was invited to take over as chief executive of Vodafone UK – and team of 12,000 staff. This wasn’t Miles’ first international foray: his work at Data General lead to stay in Singapore in the early 1990s as director of sales and marketing for the Asia Pacific operation, and his work as general manager, sales and marketing, then managing director of Unisys New Zealand took him and his family to the East Coast of the United States in 2001, where he was vice president, operations, global industries at Unisys Corporation.
Uprooting the family from home and schools once again was joint family decision, and not one taken lightly. But it’s also important “that our kids have seen lot of the other side of life. And that we see the other side of life.”
To make the big decisions like this, he has what he calls the “oh shit” test. It would be wrong, he says, for him to say yes to things he knows he can already do.
“If I have real butterflies in my stomach; if I’ve got that queasy feeling; if I’m thinking to myself ‘Why me – can I really do this?’ – they are the things to say yes to. Because I’m going to have to stretch myself and grow, accelerate what I’m doing to be able to meet the demands or requirements of whatever the new thing is.”
He applies this theory to himself, and to others he has mentored along the way (do the thing that scares you most then reap the rewards). The outcome is personal growth. “Grow your skills faster than what’s required at the market rate, [and] the world opens up to you.” Fall behind, and watch the doors close in your face.
“I think the people that get ahead have had disproportionate [number] of experiences that they can draw on that have stretched them. And organisations that are high performing have disproportionate number of people who are going through rapid personal growth. Organisations that aren’t performing very well are ones that don’t have good number of people who are trying to move ahead.”
You can tell the state of company, he says, by listening to the way employees talk. When they talk about themselves as being outside the organisation, they’re not engaged. They’re orbiting, and are not part of, the core business. But customers don’t make the distinction. If you represent the company, whether as CEO or someone at call centre, to the customer, you are the company. bad experience at any level and the ‘company’ is to blame, not the individual.
He tells story to illustrate the point, and how the Vodafone New Zealand employees felt part of the company. When an Accident Compensation Corporation auditor asked employees to name the three parties to the company’s contract with ACC, they could only name two – ACC and Vodafone. They didn’t see themselves as being separate from the company, connection the auditor didn’t understand.
This “being on the inside” can have its unexpected downside for the employees if the company is perceived to have done something wrong. Miles relates that when two streakers, wearing nothing but Vodafone (Australia) logos, invaded Telstra Stadium in 2002, just as Andrew Mehrtens was about to kick the winning goal in Bledisloe Cup match, (which he subsequently missed), the New Zealand call centre staff took hammering. But because the Vodafone staff here felt so closely aligned with, and inside, the organisation, he says, the attacks felt personal – even though it had nothing to do with Vodafone New Zealand. Miles spent week phoning everyone who had complained.
It was different story at Vodafone UK. “I don’t think they’d ever seen anyone operate quite like me. Ever.”
With Arun Sarin’s approval, Miles took his personal style of leadership with him and resisted the pressure to conform, which came from his army of minders paranoid about what he was going to say. “They thought I was complete liability for the first two weeks. Because I actually said what I thought.” And he won’t say something he doesn’t believe. In the end, Miles won.
With massive call centres, very demanding customers and the cream of the customer base, “I didn’t think we were delivering good enough service for our customers”. How could Miles convince call centre workers and managers to do what was right for the customer when they were more used to working to rules and reporting metrics such as average call times?
He told them story, as he so often does to make point – technique he uses to humanise management theory.
He told them about something that happened here – where customer phoned in on Sunday night to the call centre. The caller was going overseas. Because of family emergency they needed new mobile phone and wanted to know where to buy one. But at nine o’clock on Sunday night, all retail outlets were closed. “What did this employee do? They met the customer out at the airport. They drove to the airport, and handed over their own company-supplied Vodafone phone. They handed it over to the customer. Was it the right thing to do? Yes.”
It wasn’t too good for the operator’s average handling time. But it was the right thing to do for the customer. Staff in the UK were stunned that their new CEO was telling them that sometimes it’s okay to bend the rules.
Just as he tells stories to illustrate his point, he also recommends letting staff tell you their stories – and by doing so you make heroes of them.
Another time he was interviewed on stage in front of 500 of the company’s top sales people. “It was personal. I told them what I thought about things, mistakes I’ve made, and all about family. I w

Visited 14 times, 1 visit(s) today
Close Search Window