THE MANAGEMENT INTERVIEW Tim Gibson – Life in a goldfish bowl

It’s three years since New Zealand Trade & Enterprise flung open its doors for business. politically expedient merger of previously overlapping services, NZTE was charged with taking knife to the costs and confusion that reigned under the old regime. At the time, Tim Gibson, its first and only chief executive, had been hurriedly brought over from his job as managing director of Kapiti Cheeses. He was given just three months to meld together Jim Anderton’s so-called “jobs machine” Industry New Zealand and its older and, more internationally focused cousin, Trade New Zealand.
Sitting now in NZTE’s Auckland offices he’s happy to admit that when he stepped into the new role he hadn’t foreseen some of the problems ahead. “I underestimated, to be perfectly frank, how different the two cultures were, so it was quite difficult to create NZTE culture,” he says. It took some time, he acknowledges, for the more than 500 people to wrap their heads round the notion that they worked for Trade & Enterprise and not for either of their former organisations.
Ever the diplomat, Gibson shies away from providing personal definition of the two previous cultures. Other people, he says carefully, have described the then three- year-old Industry New Zealand as the new kid on the block. “They were moving fast whereas Trade New Zealand may have been seen as bit staid and old worldy.”
In any case, there wasn’t lot of time. “Come 1 July 2003,” recalls Gibson, “there was an expectation that the phones would be answered, the IT systems would work and the service delivery would continue. It wasn’t without its fraught moments but we went live on 1 July and it worked.”
From management perspective, the ticking clock meant Gibson had to forego the luxury of lengthy processes to identify his ideal team at the top. He pulled together team within matter of weeks, handpicking people to cover specific functions and following up with formalities later.
All this amidst intense tongue wagging about the nature of the new organisation. Symptomatic of the feverish interest was huge speculation before he even started about where he would be based. “In Wellington there were three offices – Industry New Zealand’s main office and regional one plus Trade New Zealand – and whichever one I chose, people were going to interpret it as sign that that was the dominant organisation.”
In the end, he says, he plumped for the office that was most convenient for him – which happened to be Industry New Zealand – and energetically traipsed between other bases to still the wagging tongues.
“One of the best things we’ve since done,” he says, “is to merge into one building and relocate into mutual territory. That’s had huge impact on our culture.”
Gibson kickstarted his plans to break down old cultural barriers by holding planning session in which he paired the key executive from each organisation with their counterpart from the other and charged them with making joint presentations to the whole group.
“It sounds trite,” he acknowledges, “but it was very useful first step to get people working together and to start thinking collectively about the new organisation.”
Looking back, he says untangling the duplication of roles in any organisation will always be stressful and unpleasant. Transparency around processes, and providing help lines and career counselling, helped.
“Having said that, it’s really debilitating to have people going through the pro-cess of having to apply for their jobs,” he says. “Try and avoid it at all costs because it’s just cruel and if you are forced to do it, work as quickly as you possibly can.”
The fast-track merger also tested the mettle of man whose natural inclination would have been to nurture and unfold new organisation in collaborative way.
“On couple of issues I probably should have been more directive,” he notes. “It didn’t fundamentally alter the outcome but it just meant it took longer than would normally have been the case. So in trying to balance the desire to make it genuine merger, I didn’t get traction on couple of issues as quickly as I would have liked. That’s the wisdom of hindsight.”
It’s not his style, he says, to thump tables. “I like to delegate as much as I can to my team. Again, I know this sounds trite, but I have very inclusive management style. If I have confidence in people then I won’t get in their way.”
The high profile nature of any Crown Entity, he comments, makes managing akin to working in goldfish bowl. “Management is all about establishing and dealing with priorities. And when you’re going through not only merger process but also the ongoing development of the organisation, you know where your priorities are and resource them appropriately.”
So it has been “frustrating”, as he puts it, when something which he ranked as low priority would get played on the front page of the newspaper if someone else saw it as higher priority.
“Sensationalist headlines can be extraordinarily difficult,” he says. “We had classic example over report commissioned on our programmes in which the Auditor General identified couple of areas where we needed to improve. That was fine. But the report also said the Auditor General was impressed by the way we were running our programmes. That was not in the headlines. Surprise, surprise.”
He’s referring to two reports criticising the NZTE’s administration of grants and its visitor investor programme, both of which came under heavy fire at the end of 2004. Driving the reports was an understandable concern that government agency should be spending its money appropriately. Both Jim Anderton and Jim Sutton, joint Responsible Ministers for NZTE, immediately stepped into the fray. They pointed out NZTE’s need to balance its ambition to be “quick, responsive and not overly bureaucratic… in order to deliver benefits to the economy as whole” and the “setting up of perfect processes”.
Gibson says that measurement remains one of the biggest bugbears for managers in government environment. “The timeframes involved in economic development before you see an outcome can be four, five or even more years and attribution becomes that much harder. When I was running commercial institution we had monthly profit and loss accounts, balance sheets and often daily sales report, so the measures were very tangible and immediate. In the government sector that’s not the case and that can be very frustrating.”
So the fact that we’ve got this big trade deficit, is that partly NZTE’s fault?
“No,” he laughs. “I don’t think it’s anyone’s fault, if you want to talk about it in terms of fault.”
How would he talk about it?
“We provide training through third parties to 12,000 SME owners in New Zealand on how to run business better. I know intuitively that has to be good for the New Zealand economy in the long run. So I’m satisfied that we are making difference.”
Unable to demonstrate the link between its activities and wider economic indicators, NZTE does, he agrees, remain vulnerable to criticism.
The ongoing challenge remains to develop system for accurately measuring NZTE’s contribution to New Zealand Inc’s bottom line.
To date, he says, no NZTE equivalent overseas has cracked it.
“My Irish counterpart said they’d been trying for 20 years to get good measurements in place. They haven’t been able to crack it so they’ve given up worrying about it. I’m not prepared to give up. I think we can find some reasonably robust measures.
“… I feel sometimes for my staff. They’re in environment where all the good work never gets truly recognised and every tiny mistake gets picked up. Having said that, we get our satisfaction from the feedback we get from the companies with whom we work.”

1)Keep communication as transparent as possible.
2)If you have to ask staff to apply for their old jobs, make the process as fast as possible. It’s cruel to do it any other way.
3)Be aware of the thin line between being direct

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