MANAGERS ABROAD : In the pilot’s seat

Katherine Corich was pilot before she was businesswoman. She quickly found you could learn to fly 747 safely and efficiently without even getting into plane, using smart simulator and systems-based training.
“But I realised you didn’t have the same clarity in business.” She quickly worked out how the robust processes and systems used in aviation could be extended to companies.
Using the skills she learned about end-to-end process management from flying, she created Sysdoc, company that helps businesses become more efficient, more robust and better organised. Now Sysdoc has offices in four countries and works in many more.
“A lot of our work is in relation to defining the processes when an organisation needs to change, perhaps due to legislation, merger, or acquisition,” she says.
“They need services to help them define the training, develop e-learning, lead the change and then also build the knowledge resources. Chart, Challenge and Change is our primary methodology.”
Qualified in instrument rating and as flying instructor, Corich says she was long way down the track to becoming commercial pilot when she made an unscheduled detour into business after working with IBM on process change.
“I never said I wanted to be business director or own business,” she admits. “I had started working in projects and I had people working with me and then really, the culture of this company that wanted to make difference had been born.
“Even in the early days I felt it was bigger than me. I felt that we had mission to make companies safer and more efficient.”
One project led to another – IBM in the UK, then the London Stock Exchange, the Metropolitan Food Group, the NZ Dairy Board and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
“By then we had lot of people and company! We started the company for the reasons that we wanted to see change, and we wanted to see our clients and the world better place.”
Once companies saw how they could benefit from employing Sysdoc, it had to grow. Offices spread from New Zealand and the UK, to Australia and the United States.
“We also do projects anywhere people want us to go,” says Corich. Recently work has taken them to Singapore to work on big banking project and to Kazakhstan for the oil company Chevron Group.
But it’s not just changing the working world for others – the company’s values start in its own workplaces.
Sysdoc has just won the UK’s prestigious Opportunity Now Agile Organisation Award, recognising programmes or initiatives that show an agile and flexible approach to job design and work environment.
At the heart of its work culture is set of organisational values it calls the Sysdoc Way.
“These values evolve around superb customer service, leadership through excellence and by example, commitment to the growth of its people, support for their families and nurturing teams,” said the award judges.
The family and human aspects of the business are embedded in the culture, says Corich.
“We believe that we all – all of us and our clients – have aspects to our lives that we have responsibilities to. It might be to children, to elderly relatives, it may be to dependants in other ways, or people who are unwell for time.
“Whatever the situation, we needed to create culture where it was okay for all the individuals to be who they are, to shoulder the responsibilities they have, and to feel that they’re part of team and they are not alone.”
The key is having discussions with each staff member about what is important to them, says Corich. She stresses it’s not just about working part-time – or about mothers.
“Sometimes you might want to take time off, or work full time. We always have conversation, but the conversation is based on the fact that there’s not one size that fits all.
“There’s need for flexibility at different times in your life and even at different stages of the year. Because we’re client-based and we provide services throughout the year, we needed to have model where everyone participates in team, so if anyone needs to take time out to support family member, they can do so and in supportive way.”
One example was staff member who wanted to compete in an ironman event. She altered her hours for training before the event, then took month off for the event in Hawaii. An ambitious young man wanted challenges to help him work rapidly towards seniority and asked to work weekends.
“It’s just personal engagement, to understand what motivates you at this point in time in your life,” says Corich. “If someone’s motivated to pay off their mortgage as fast as possible, they may ask for some overtime and we’ll support that if we can do that economically at the time and it works.
“It’s not just about mums and dads. We’re saying it’s about understanding what’s important to an individual right now – and that that will change.”
How work-life balance is defined is different for everyone, says Corich. “A lot of people will say work-life balance is about working nine to five, but we fundamentally disagree with that as one-size-fits-all model.”
In her personal life, work-life balance represents surprising model for Corich, husband Maarten and their four children, aged 16, 15, 10 and seven.
“I have huge amounts of energy and I love working with clients, so if you said to me do you have work-life balance, I would have to say to you, yes, I do have work-life balance and I participate hugely in the lives of my children because I’m ever-present at really important times for us.
“But if I’m working on project where there’s real challenge and I want to motivate the team and be leader, I might work 12 to 13 hours day for two weeks or month.
“However, I’m having the conversations at home with my family so that they understand that this is something that I really want to do. They support me in that.”
But ask Corich how she organises her life and family and she admits with laugh: “Badly!”
“It’s interesting, because I was probably the first to have children among the Sysdoc teams so I sat down the teams and I said to everybody ‘I want to be really great business leader but I also want to be really good mum. I can’t find too many role models to show me how to do this, so it’s going to be bit of an experiment. If we do this as team, then I promise you that we will try and define approaches that work for all of us – but it will be learning curve’.”
Corich is based in the UK, but is often in New Zealand. Overseas she is part of KEA’s World Class New Zealanders network, offering her expertise to help Kiwis succeed in business abroad.
She says her next steps will be licensing the Chart, Challenge and Change methodology and setting up channels to market that will open up much wider client base.
So what’s ahead for Sysdoc? Corich is looking at more permanent presence in Asia and more delivery of Sysdoc’s services using mobile devices, particularly the iPad, which she calls “game-changing” – productivity at client’s fingertips.
She’s never been ‘gadget’ girl. As pilot, she never relies on technology alone – and she admits she’ll never get aviation out of her blood.
“I still look up, with any aircraft that goes over. Aviation has been in my blood since I was little girl. That will never go away.
“I love flying with passion, but I don’t regret leaving it – sometimes you’re put on the planet to do what you do.”

Katherine Corich is member of Kea, New Zealand’s global talent community.

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