THE MANAGEMENT INTERVIEW Wayne Norrie – Why his company really rocks

There’s good reason why Wayne Norrie sometimes receives pebbles in the post. They arrive along with the CVs of people who want to work at his company and have to do with his favourite topic – culture.
He reckons HDS, formerly Hitachi Data Systems NZ and now Hosting and Datacentre Services, provides good case study in cultural clout.
“We talk about our culture lot. It’s reported at board level and everyone knows we take it seriously because they see the results. When we came out of Hitachi we had poor culture and were bottom of the ‘best places to work’ survey. We changed the culture and ended up at the top.
“At the end of year one – after the management buy out – our revenue climbed 40 percent and our profit 100 percent. We had the same datacentre, same staff, same computers – all we did was change the culture.”
Things like personal leadership, alignment through goal setting, values, being “100 percent positive” and “the rock” all define the HDS culture. The “rock” is both symbolic and real and helps explain the pebbles in the post.
The story behind it goes something like this. former boss of Roger Cockayne’s in Sydney once worked as lifesaver in the days before zodiacs provided easy access from the beach to problem spots, so some of them kept watch from prominent rock. For some reason this became place where people weren’t allowed to tell porkies. It was the truth rock.
“We liked the idea so we introduced the rock as cone of truth in our culture,” says Norrie. “It’s not truth as in absence of lies but truth as in saying what’s on your heart or mind when you know you should.”
So, if you get rock dumped on your desk you know you’re in for bit of honest feedback. It not only means there’s no excuse for destructive mutter-mumble-type of complaints but also helps prevent little niggles turning into major upsets.
When you’re working with bunch of people, there are plenty of things that can irk, says Norrie. The rock functions as zone of neutrality in which people can say their piece.
“A lot of people are too nervous to say anything – or maybe they don’t have the diplomacy or articulateness to deal with problem issues without causing offence. If there’s rock on the table you’re basically saying I need to get this off my chest so please don’t take offence and remarkably no-one does. It creates instant safety.”
The idea has taken off and is now even used for distant communications – people send emails that “rock on” and “rock off”. Hopeful job applicants who’ve heard about the rock culture send prospective pebbles. Norrie even has his own family rock.
As well as symbolic value, the rock has tangible presence and worth. Every employee gets one with their name on it which is presented at the company’s half-yearly rock conference. It marks initiation into what Norrie describes as the work “family” plus it has monetary value.
“This goes up every six months based on company performance – so it’s like having physical share in the company,” says Norrie.
He describes his own leap from employee to part owner of HDS as being driven by self discovery and by his notions of personal leadership.
The opportunity arose because Hitachi wanted to retrench and its New Zealand arm had already developed along different lines – focusing on providing services for SMEs rather than selling storage hardware.
“We’d basically become service company locked into global hardware company.”
Operating as separate entity made sense so Cockayne and Norrie took the plunge, bought 51 percent of the company, re-christened it and set about changing the way things were done.
“We decided that if we were borrowing all this money – freaking my wife out with all these zeros – when I could have walked away into job that paid better, then one thing we were going to do was to make work enjoyable, make it fun.”
As he sees it, too many people either haven’t probed for, or identified, what they’re passionate about. They get stuck in 48/4 treadmill where 48 hours of work are endured to gain four weeks of holiday fun. Life, says Norrie, is just too short to waste time doing something you don’t enjoy.
He even draws wee diagram to show you just how short the opportunity is to do something with your life that is fulfilling, that makes difference. Could be why the MBO passed his rocking-chair test.
“You know – you spend your whole life finding out who you are and what you can be and there you are sitting on your rocking chair in your old age and you’re thinking. You had chance to buy this company and didn’t because you were too scared or didn’t know where it could go – or you took it and it was wild ride that enabled you to find out so much more about yourself.”
The decision to make working life enjoyable became the catalyst for cultural change. Achieving it has been trial and error process.
“It’s fascinating journey because culture is something that’s missing from ‘Management 101’. People tend to say you’re only as good as your people but I don’t believe that. There are people who could contribute whole lot more but they’re not enabled to. What holds them back – the bureaucracy, the command and control management style – is called culture. And that’s like glass ceiling on the performance of people.
“So what I say is you’re only as good as the culture allows your people to be.”
Every HDS employee is put through personal leadership course to discover what motivates them, challenge the beliefs that limit them and be provided with tools and skills that can help them achieve their potential.
Managing their internal state of mind is part of that. People choose the colour specs they view life through, notes Norrie.
“It’s not what happens but how you represent it to yourself – how you see the world – that makes difference. So we teach our people that they choose to be sad or happy and give them the tools to control their inner world rather than be victim of their emotions. That can completely change their outlook on life and it releases all this energy. So the next thing we have to do is align it.”
That means getting clarity around goals.
Every employee has very structured set of annual goals that work back from the big picture to what they need to accomplish this week or this day. To ensure these don’t get lost by the wayside, they also have weekly sessions with “results technician” or goal coach (HDS uses external provider, Working Success).
It’s important to sort the big goals out first, then the rest fall into place. Once you get everyone in the team aligned and achieving, it’s huge leap forward in changing the culture, says Norrie.
“It’s no longer about big versus small in business today, it’s about being agile, nimble, aligned, focused and small team that is well aligned will outperform big one. In fact I believe size is becoming disadvantage in modern commerce.”
Another vital aspect of the culture is its values.
“People get confused about what values are so we try to keep it simple – they’re behaviours that you value. Most people only hear about them when they’re hired or fired or during mergers and acquisitions but you have to give them life.
“We talk about our values daily, include them in emails – everything that is done well or done poorly relates to values.”
An example: meetings are consistently starting late because people take so long to get their coffee or chat to colleagues. Valuable time gets wasted. It is gently pointed out that everyone signed up to set of values and one was integrity and one was respect: “We do what we say we’ll do and we respect other people’s time”. Meetings start on time again.
Norrie likens this to household rules that deem what is acceptable or unacceptable behaviour – pointing out that we spend as much, if not more time with the work “family” than with our own kin. The values and rules all aim to foster an environment that is open, sharing, caring, collaborative, supportive and enjoyable.
Another cultural cornerstone is being 100 perce

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