Rosemary Howard – The Egalitarian Australian

What’s missing from an interview with Rosemary Howard is the notable lack of management-speak. She has practical road-code for getting the job done, bereft of the bells and whistles of an intrusive hierarchical structure. Underscoring her management thinking is passion for the notion that everyone in the firm is equally important and has the right to participate in constantly improving the business.

A scientist by background, Howard was responsible for Telstra Wholesale, (one of the Australian telco’s top performing divisions) before moving to Auckland from Sydney in November 2001 to head what was then TelstraSaturn. TelstraClear emerged after Telstra (58 percent) and fellow shareholder, Austar (42 percent) bought Clear Communications.

Charged with overseeing this acquisition, it was part of Howard’s initial role to make bold and unpopular downsizing decisions that cut 650 staff. Her approach was mantra driven: Do it once, do it hard and do it deep – the inference being that it’s always possible to bring staff levels back up, as and when required. Interestingly enough, with staff numbers again on the increase, Howard’s dedicated to building the best staff retention record in the industry.

Communication is king

Howard’s management thinking has evolved from numerous Telstra management roles including sales, business development, strategic planning and product management, plus her days managing the NSW Science and Technology Council. Her views on management are also influenced by the year she spent in 1991 as an Eisenhower Fellow studying US business and investment trends in Asia-Pacific.

But the five overarching management lessons Howard has gleaned so far include:
* Management is about two-way communications with people. “It is not about what I do. It’s about getting synergy out of people with common mission. It’s also about developing trust through the mutual exchange of information.”
* Our people are the business.
* It’s not only what you do that’s important, but how you do it.
* Ideas are useless unless acted upon.
* It’s okay to make mistakes as long as you learn from them.

Howard’s doctrine holds that everyone who works for TelstraClear is equal. In addition to there being no offices, and therefore no doors for anyone, including herself, there’s also no head office. More often than not senior management meet by video conference or conference phone call.

Every two months the leadership team runs roadshow in each major city. All TelstraClear staff attend and have equal opportunity to stand-up and voice their concerns about the business.

The scope of questions and issues raised means Howard learns as much about the business as she imparts to others.

“We spend lot of time communicating with our people. I also run weekly newsletter that gives all staff an update on the company’s most confidential financial information. I don’t believe we can expect to get the best out of our people unless we let know them how the business is performing on regular basis,” says Howard.

Key leadership skills

That said, Howard rates the top five skills managers must have to become truly effective leaders as:
* Mutual respect for individuals.
* willingness to open-up the business to fellow workers.
* commitment to treating individuals equally.
* disciplined approach to pursuing company goals.
* Vigilance over where the industry is heading.

First and foremost, managers must understand customers’ culture and values and how they’re changing. At TelstraClear that means taking pioneering approach to an industry that’s still less than 20 years old. That means getting her TelstraClear co-workers to embrace the future with their hearts, minds and spirits. “It’s my job to get 1200 people to feel passionate about TelstraClear. That means providing clear vision of where we want to be as company and how people can help achieve this goal.”

Her macro perspective is little different. Effective leadership means making time for big picture thinking. That means getting above the day-to-day business and looking at the broader dynamics of how the industry is evolving and visualising the company’s place within it.

There are, she says, two issues starting to dominate management practices today:
• gravitation away from solely profit-centric goals, towards the triple bottom-line, where ethics are equally relevant.
• Greater effort on retaining good people – company’s primary asset.

And after year here what does she think are New Zealand managers strengths and weaknesses? They might be highly accessible and innovative, but local managers are over-focused on short-term outcomes. The local market is characterised by lack of confidence many companies display about the future, fear of change and an unhealthy respect for positions of power.

“There’s clear need for greater diversity. Senior management [in New Zealand] still looks very ‘blokey’. I’m not in favour of former managers going onto boards. robustness about promoting new faces would go long way to fostering good governance,” says Howard.

Collaboration is vital

Howard believes the telecommunications industry has more to gain through collaboration than by building Chinese walls between competitors. One of the biggest mistakes of her career, she admits, happened shortly after taking up her New Zealand posting. The assumptions she had about the industry’s appetite for collaboration were, she concedes, naive.

Her grand goal? Wanting to get rival telcos to see the industry’s future through similar eyes. After 10 years working her way up Telstra’s career ladder, it became clear to Howard that Australia’s telecommunications industry was closer to finding the right business model for this sector. Her efforts to enlighten local players with her vision for the industry fell on deaf ears.

“When I arrived in New Zealand, I believed the prevailing environment presented great opportunity for the four big Australasian players [Telecom, Telstra, AAPT and Vodafone], comprising up to 75 percent of the trans-Tasman market, to build and accelerate this new model. Within week of arriving in New Zealand I put the suggestion to Telecom, only to be accused of collusary behaviour,” recalls Howard.

Biggest lesson

Pulling down walls at TelstraClear’s HQ was one thing, getting New Zealand’s telecommunications industry to lower its barriers was something else altogether.

Howard says she is puzzled by Telecom’s reluctance to see wholesaling as means of increasing revenue. The Australian experience suggests the positives outweigh the network owner’s risks. In 2001, Telstra Australia’s wholesaling revenue grew by 35 percent to A$2 billion to become 12 percent of its total annual revenue. She’s still committed to convincing Telecom to move beyond what she claims is an outdated, unsustainable and highly defensive business model. “Unlike Australia, there’s limited choice for local retail customers beyond where network is provided.”

Howard can’t understand why Telecom refuses to accept that the benefits of wholesaling are obvious. Telstra Australia’s ability to sell wholesale DSL (broadband internet access) to retail competitors at 30 percent margin is not win/loss proposition. “The telecommunications industry globally has destroyed $3 trillion in shareholder value. What further proof do we need that the business model isn’t working? It’s not just about running fibre any more.”

With global telcos now on their knees, there’s clearly little future for the likes of TelstraClear and Telecom looking to world players for answers on how to run their businesses. “There’s big opportunity for telcos in this region to lead industry thinking with truly collaborative approach. The trouble lies in Telecom’s siege mentality. It is seizing the past, instead of working with others to shape the future of their business and the industry,” says Howard.

Level playing field

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