The Management Interview: Jon Mayson – Leading with heart and soul

Jon Mayson is kit bag of contradictions. Born of Christian pacifist parents in 1945 he learned, from an early age, that society is intolerant of difference and therefore he needed to stick up for himself. He chose difficult options and despite opposition joined the merchant navy where he acquired host of other survival and personal skills. His keenly developed social conscience found expression in the political philosophies of the ’70s-germinated Values Party. He successfully rode the party ticket on to the Bay of Plenty Harbour Board.

Mayson’s pattern of personal success is consistent but definitely not cut from the traditional corporate cloth. Almost 26 years at sea, interrupted only by short stint on the waterfront in 1972 after which he disembarked from tankers and signed on first as tugmaster and then Tauranga’s port pilot, bequeathed him weathered features and rugged good looks.

Today it is impossible to separate the Port’s success from Mayson’s personal rack of achievements since he stepped ashore to become the Port’s assistant operations manager in 1988. From 1997 when he took over as chief executive, his career has become classic leadership-in-action story that unfolds with each year’s annual result. Mayson explains it differently. “Our story is about people. We simply let our performance speak for itself.”

His management philosophy is unquestionably people, rather than systems, focused. “We allow individuals to achieve whatever they want in life and work,” he adds. “I believe we are here [on earth] for good reason and we come equipped with talents.” Then it’s up to individuals to explore the potential of their talents and up to employers like him to provide the opportunities.

His personal success story begins with self-belief. “I had to accept that I could make difference by leading team to achieve. You need ‘why not’ approach to life. If you are attitudinally in tune with yourself you will be in tune with others,” he rationalises. His personal credo is articulated in George Bernard Shaw quote which features on his business card: “Some men see things as they are and say ‘why?’ I dream of things that never were and say ‘Why not?’.”

Mayson concedes that his life got off to testing start. His parents’ Christian pacifist convictions meant he was sometimes ostracised at school. He was, for instance, forbidden to take part in military cadet training. The experience taught him “valuable life lessons”. At age nine he decided that he wanted to go to sea and did. “The more people opposed me the more determined I was about it.”

The merchant navy’s hierarchical structure also taught him some basic leadership and management skills based on discipline, result-oriented behaviour and the need to get on with people.

He enjoyed life at sea and his stint as the Port’s pilot, but in the end it wasn’t sufficiently fulfilling so he “got involved in politics” and then moved in to management. “When I refocused on where I was going with my life I decided I would re-learn, go back and do some management training and apply all my efforts to [more demanding] career.” In quick succession after his career switch to management Mayson completed the NZIM’s Diploma in Management and an MBA in International Management. And he learned from his time in Values Party national and local body politics that he had “some leadership potential that others recognised”. Mayson stood for the Values Party in 1975, ’78 and ’81. He was elected on to the local Harbour Board and, in his words, “recognised that I could stand up against those that had different point of view”.

In 1989 the Harbour Board fingered him to manage the difficult industrial conflict that engulfed the Port as it confronted the changes needed to meet the challenges of New Zealand’s deregulated economy and reconfigured port and transport infrastructure. It was tough, nine-month induction to the realities of management but his successful handling of the bitter dispute and his apparent empathy with people marked him as contender for the top slot when the CEO’s job came up for grabs eight years later.

Management might not offer quite the same adrenalin-driving opportunities of life at sea, but the career transition has delivered “more fulfilling” personal opportunities. “It’s allowed me to live out the dream and to see tangible results. It is not case of feeding my ego. It is about helping others reach their potential,” he explains.

Intuition, according to Mayson, is critical and managers should listen to it. “Don’t get driven by numbers,” he warns. He consults his “gut” feel about opportunities or directions because he believes he is intuitively sound. He subscribes to the theory of emotional intelligence – EQ. “People who make difference are in tune with their feelings and with the feelings of others,” he offers. “But as prudent business people we test the intuition and the emotion with all the analysis that is appropriate – the financial analysis, cost benefits, customer feedback and consultation.”

There are no doubt exceptions but Mayson maintains that his management team reaches consensus. But he also concedes that one of his managers recently observed that; “I was hard bastard but would change my mind if he put up convincing case. That’s the way it should be.”

Whether or not his intuition serves him well when decision making, Mayson believes communication, particularly the ability to listen, is the key to lasting management success. “You really need to listen, not just with your ears but with your whole body, heart and soul. By listening you can recognise talents that are currently untapped – to see ourselves as others see us,” he adds reflectively.

“The [life] turnaround for me was the ability to accept myself. In emotional terms, to learn to love myself before I could love others. My ability to transmit that through my relationships with others has helped us built the business we have.” He credits the late Sir Robert Owen, founder of the Owens Group, with recognising his talents and mentoring him. “We used to clash like there was no tomorrow when we were on the Harbour Board together. He was master mariner and didn’t particularly like some young turkey on his patch. But out of that grew mutual respect. It [his time on the board] was turning point for me. I recognised there was nothing I couldn’t do.”

The components of successful leadership are, according to Mayson: vision, intuition, integrity/humility, relationships (the ability to build them), analysis (dot the i’s and cross the t’s) and transparency.

He is disarmingly open about what he thinks constitutes his personal leadership approach. “I’m aware of my own failings and my ability to look back into old behaviours of blame and judgement – of calling someone prick without actually dealing with the issues, and of having to work on the relationship and seeing all the good in what’s around me. You have to accentuate the positive.

“It is important in leadership role to be supportive. To be there and polish the egos that need polishing and to give direction and encouragement where it is needed. To lift people up and dust them off when they have been knocked down. But sometimes it is fairly lonely task and people are not there for me – well they are, but I don’t recognise it.”

While on personal basis Mayson ranks integrity and humility very high on the leadership list of needs, he thinks relationships play an important part in helping his organisation accomplish its vision and mission. “And we look for people who have the ability to act on their feet and be decisive. We delegate responsibility, but expect accountability. We forgive mistakes, provided people learn from the process and openly acknowledge where things come unstuck. The worst thing anyone can do with me is make mistake and try to cover it up. Eventually they will be found out and when that happens they have eroded the most important relationship bond of

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