NZIM: Belief and Vision

We all have the ability to fall in love with words, slogans and catchphrases – “the knowledge wave”; “the information highway”; “innovation”.

Often people view these phrases and words as new and revolutionary and, as such, they hold the key to some magical formula and remarkable future.

I’ve chosen three words of my own; words that cut to the heart of how I see our future. They have been, and continue to be, the building blocks on which I’ve based our company’s growth.

The words are vision, belief and team.

You need clear idea of where you want to go. At Natural History New Zealand we existed in contracting market full of uncertainties, so the choices were pretty simple – contract with it and finally disappear, or look internationally and grow.

I used to talk about room and in the room there was table and at the table sat the people that control Natural History film making internationally. My task was to find the room, get in the door and elbow place at the table.

We did that. Our vision to become world leader was bold, but we have achieved it. We are the second largest producer of our type in the world. The largest is the BBC, which has an income from government of £1.8 billion – take that away and it may be different story!

Despite the naysayers and the endless models that say it’s not possible… if you believe, you will succeed.

You may not be sure how, but if you think of it as if you’re climbing mountain and take one step at time you’ll get to the top. Like climber you have to work out the route as you go. And like climber if you ever doubt whether you’re going to make the summit… you’ll fail.

It is about belief in people, their talent, their creativity and their potential.

Individually we’re okay; collectively we’re unstoppable.

That means an open and inclusive group where everyone has to know how good and how bad things are – only then can you harness the collective abilities.

NHNZ’s success has and continues to be built on team, as opposed to committee where everything is done by consensus… that leads to camels!

In my view as you grow – and we have – multiple teams emerge, each of which will have its own leader/leaders. This devolution continues the process of strengthening the company and ensures it doesn’t become reliant on any one or two individuals – it enlarges the genetic pool.

Bring in new ideas, new approaches… rattle the cage and avoid the comfort zone. It’s journey without destination.

So where has that got NHNZ?
* Today we are the second largest producer of our type in the world.
* We have doubled our output every year for the past five years and increased our staff from 35 to 150.
* Our films are seen in over 200 countries
* Eight years ago I inherited $3.5 million deficit; today we’re $30 million company and growing.
* This year we opened production office in Beijing.
* We also opened an office in Washington DC.
* And for our trouble we’ve picked up couple of hundred awards.

At NHNZ we had to learn to do two things that in my view have, and continue to be fundamental to our growth and success. We had to learn to celebrate excellence and to deal with failure.

I believe New Zealand has to change if we’re to realise our full potential as country.

Kiwis are known for being innovative, capable, easy-going, friendly and honest. All that is true, but what if I add mean spirited, cautious, self limiting?

The very qualities that once made New Zealand world leader are now stopping us being truly great. This country was born based on egalitarianism; the early European settlers were escaping class system. They wanted equality for all and so equality has been woven into the very fabric of this society.

This drove us forward and we led the world in social reform – “cradle to the grave” was the catchcry. Housing, health, jobs and benefits all flowed freely until we realised we couldn’t afford them.

We became smug, intolerant of differences, we talked about New Zealand as God’s Own and pitied everyone that didn’t live here. From this was spawned the limiting and insidious “Tall Poppy Syndrome”. Its bed fellow is our inability to deal with failure. We have embraced, with the grip of drowning man, the middle path, and the path of mediocrity.

We do not celebrate success easily… unless of course it’s sport, but god help you if you don’t win! People hide success. Take for example high salaries. Anyone earning more than $200,000 is paraded in the press and in many cases vilified – “it’s obscene”, “no-one is worth that much”, and “what about the people earning $20,000 year?” In other words we want them brought down to our level.

This need to be the same has in my view bred lack of honesty. There is an unspoken rule in the workplace. If I don’t criticise you, you won’t criticise me, our silence is form of self protection. We see criticism as an attack. In the workplace this can be an enormous impediment to achieving excellence.

Our society is not good at knowing how to give or take criticism. We not only view it as an attack, we associate it with failure.

So with the Tall Poppy at one end and fear of failure at the other, what do you do? Take the middle path, the path of mediocrity, “she’ll be right”, “close enough is near enough”, “nobody will notice” – don’t complain, be accepting, don’t rock the boat.

It’s safe and we have avoided the two big taboos – failure and sticking our head above the crowd.

I have read and helped write good many business plans. They all contain the expected: mission statement, strategic fit, SWOT analysis, tactical sales strategy, macroeconomic environment, risk analysis, etc.

At NHNZ we have and continue to use all those tools – they are fundamental to our success. We survive on rigorous business and financial planning. But, they are only part of success. They are tool, not driver.

Where are the sections on dreamers and ideas? Where are the visionaries? Where are the passionate and what about the power of belief and the value of creativity? These are the drivers.

We need as country to cherish dreamers, ideas and risk takers.

Business and creativity go hand in hand. Everyone in New Zealand has basked in the genius and creativity of Peter Jackson, but look at the risk the producers took. Jackson had limited track record in mainstream feature films.

Three films were shot simultaneously… first in the history of film making. New Zealand had no experience with this scale of production. The budget was enormous. If film one had failed the losses would have been catastrophic. The entire project was literally gambled on the belief in one man’s creativity.

I’d really love to see that business plan and the risk analysis… on this occasion belief and vision won out.

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