THE MANAGEMENT INTERVIEW Rob McLeod – Why he’s not what you expect

It says something about Rob McLeod that some time after an hour-long interview tape has run out, we’re still talking. He’s not the easiest chap to get hold of – swag of directorships, consultancy roles and clients around the country keep him well occupied. But once pinned down, he is generous with both his time and his thoughts.
It’s unexpected.
Stereotyping might suggest that barrister and tax specialist who is former chair of Ernst & Young, adviser to governmental taskforces and chair of the NZ Business Roundtable might be bit buttoned down – professionally distant, personally diffident.
Not in the least. McLeod likes to engage. It is, he says, feature of what could be called his management style that both work and client relationships are generally predicated around friendship.
“I’ve always tended to run senior management team as friends – I have this theory that friendship equals effectiveness. Even in professional advisory capacity to clients, I’ve sought friendship as opposed to having relationship like that with dentist.”
He reckons it creates better platform for group discussion or problem resolution. But he’s also happy to admit his approach is less managerial technique than natural tendency.
“If I went looking for reasons why I operate that way then I’d say it’s turned out by accident, that it worked and gave rise to more effective outcomes. The main reason is more to do with my personal makeup – of what I am and who I am.”
You could look to his whanau for clues.
McLeod is the youngest of five siblings born and raised on the East Coast near Gisborne. Of Ngati Porou and Scottish descent, he also has strong links to the Tuhoe people through his nanny, spending lot of marae-based holidays with her in the Eastern Bay of Plenty.
He is clear that family influences have played large part in his life: in his attitudes toward education, for starters. That four kids from his family ended up with university education was not the norm – particularly in the 1960s when his oldest sister went, says McLeod. This he attributes to the influence of his father (now 93).
“He had thing about education – my theory is it’s because he missed out on senior high school. He was at Te Aute College and would have been due to matriculate when Hawkes Bay was hit by the earthquake in 1931. He got pulled out of the system having done really well up to that point. So he lectured us kids about it and the McLeod family quite unique in the broader whanau that so many of us went on to university.”
His older siblings set high standards both in sporting and academic achievements. McLeod says he was the family’s black sheep in the sense that he rather drifted through the school system – tagging behind sister who was shining example of achievement.
“When my parents went to the school they’d get completely different reports, one glowing and the other… well, he’s bit of chore. My father even said when I got married – ‘Rob exceeded our expectations in terms of how he got on in later life’. But I did discover that when I developed keen interest in something, I was able to differentiate myself, to perform.”
There is, says McLeod, story about expectations around all this. It’s something he is hot about.
“I’ve observed that when people are put into positions of responsibility, they have reasonable prospect of rising to it. But there’s whole lot of conditioning that goes on in your environment – to large extent you do what you’re conditioned to do in terms of the expectations that are developed around you.
“It’s theme of mine in Business Roundtable terms that expectations are so crucial in human development. They have huge conditioning force and effect and sometimes, if we get that wrong as community, we can sub-optimise outcomes.”
It’s also something he talks about in relation to Moridom and why, as people, as families, they should aim high. “If people’s expectations are low then their performance is invariably low and I urge Mori to have broader and more optimistic expectations.”
His own career path reflects the benefits of being trusted with early responsibility.
“A lot of expectations were sort of forced on me by circumstances – first by my family, then by being given early opportunities [for senior roles] and by other events. So I guess there’s an element of randomness in it.”
Going back bit – McLeod discovered keen interest in accounting at senior school level, took commerce at university, included some law papers which he also enjoyed and consequently took professor’s advice to add law degree to his academic credentials. This he did while working as chartered accountant in small Auckland firm.
This employment choice did involve certain amount of happenstance but in hindsight McLeod believes it was much better being trained across the spectrum of accounting activity rather than being cloistered in speciality division at larger firm.
“I was thrown in the deep end across whole range of topics and was given more responsibility. When [later] I was hiring graduates and could compare experiences, I’m aware that in the more structured almost military hierarchy of large firms, there is more dependency, much more of parent-child dynamic. That didn’t happen at the firm I worked for. Also they thought I was smart young thing because back then there was an element of novelty attached to qualified graduate.
His dual degree not only broadened his educational horizons but his commercial ones. He became tax specialist at what was to become Peat Marwick and when two senior partners made the leap into corporate world that (in the mid-1980s) was offering some exciting new opportunities – McLeod found himself precipitated into partner status at the tender age of 27.
It was time when speciality tax partners were few and far between and, as an emerging breed, he and his colleagues in that area were able to make their mark little more easily, says McLeod.
“There wasn’t exactly crowd of us and when commerce began to take note of us and when the government formed consultative committees on the subject, they came to very shallow pool of expertise. So I formed connections with government officials and politicians, got onto various consultative committees and moved into more public space.”
He subsequently left Peat Marwick to form specialised tax practice with Susan Lojkine (later to become president of the NZ Commerce Commission) and, two years later in September 1989, joined Arthur Andersen first as head of tax practice, then as its managing partner – role he held for 10 years.
In 2002, he went on to become chair of Ernst & Young until commencing practice on his own account in 2004.
During these years he’s also held appointments ranging from the Todd Taskforce on Tertiary Education, to the 2001 Government Tax Review and Treaty of Waitangi Fisheries Commission of which he’s still member. Current appointments run to page of his CV and include Aotearoa Fisheries chair, Telecom director, Law & Economic Association vice president and Tainui Group Holdings director as well as Business Roundtable chair.
He is also frequent speaker on tax subjects at conferences or lectures and has written bunch of articles and papers. As he notes – when he applies his mind to something, he can do very well. He describes it as an ability to differentiate himself.
The relationship aspects of his management style may be instinctive but the process side is keenly analytical.
“A lot of people see me as being very theoretical or academic. I don’t know where that comes from but it’s true I put great deal of emphasis on frameworks. I think that is what attracted me to the Business Roundtable and why Roger Kerr and I are kindred spirits in the way we think.”
It’s kind of “top-down” thinking – without which he believes people are rudderless.
“My belief is that if you don’t have framework in which to debate reforms or principles then you’re essentially just making it all up as you go along. It puzzles me

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