STRATEGY George Hickton – Secrets of a Successful Itinerant Executive

You might reasonably expect this chief executive to exhibit few signs of stress. After all, the global tourism industry has not exactly been in cruise mode recently – war in the Middle East, airlines worldwide struggling to stay aloft, SARS – on the domestic front the loss of the America’s Cup, and to top it all off the strongest New Zealand dollar in years.

But as George Hickton squeezes an hour between briefing to the media and presentation to tourism industry leaders, he seems positively sanguine. Sinking into the sofa on the 16th floor meeting room of Tourism New Zealand’s head office in Wellington, Hickton spreads his arms wide, considers each question and answers at length.

After four years at the helm of the organisation responsible for selling New Zealand to the world, Hickton exudes calm confidence about the long-term future of the global tourism industry – and the ability of his team to bring the benefits home.

Relaxed he might be, but Hickton has driven dramatic changes at Tourism New Zealand. Prior to 1999, the organisation was widely criticised as bureaucratic and out of touch with the industry. Today, it’s still government funded and it’s still officially the Tourism Board – but beyond that it’s very different animal.

“It’s vastly different,” Hickton confirms. “We’ve changed structurally to be lot lighter on our feet. We’ve open planned – there are no offices here. We now spend more on promotion and less on subsidising other businesses. And I think we’ve significantly improved the relationship with the trade – by listening to what’s needed.”

And then there’s the advertising. Within months of Hickton taking on the top job, Tourism New Zealand launched M&C Saatchi’s 100% PURE campaign. For four years now, series of commercials has promoted the adventure and freedom New Zealand offers. That strategy is hardly brain surgery, but the commercials are beautifully produced and genuinely inspirational.

The international travel industry loves 100% PURE, Hickton notes, because it supports everything they’ve been saying about New Zealand. Potential tourists also respond well, especially in the face of global travel jitters, because it offers assurance that New Zealand is one of the world’s few really safe destinations.

The result? New Zealand now welcomes more than two million visitors year, up from 1.5 million in 1999. Further, each visitor is spending more: total earnings from international tourism have rocketed from $3.6 billion to $6.1 billion. The figures are all the more impressive when you consider Tourism New Zealand’s total global operating budget of $55 million.

Hickton’s changes to Tourism New Zealand are driven by clear management philosophy, which is essentially unchanged from when he headed the New Zealand Employment Service (NZES), Income Support and TAB. It’s philosophy grounded in reality – at times the hard reality of restructuring, and Hickton has periodically had to overcome considerable resistance.

But without exception, whether he has been focusing on placing people into work, running more efficient income support system or launching sports betting, his philosophy works.

Hickton’s three keys
“In my experience, when an organisation loses direction, there is formula which tends to be missing,” Hickton explains. “At the first level, I have found that what is needed is sense of where the business is going – the jargon is ‘vision’ but it’s too easy just to say vision.

“It’s more about clear understanding and acceptance by the people within the organisation about where you’re trying to get to. At Tourism New Zealand we want to get more high value tourists, we want to grow numbers and we want to target particular markets. So commitment to that is absolutely crucial.

“The second level is to have very strong internal communication pro- cesses – almost tricks of the trade – to keep staff in the loop. You need to make sure everyone knows how well the organisation is going today, as well as reinforcing the big picture. That’s bloody hard when you’ve got to keep doing it!”

Such regular communications offer essential support to drive change, but they’re often under-estimated, Hickton says. “Too often change in business is not accompanied by progress. People get changed out. They think, I can’t be bothered with this anymore! You’ve got to be very careful that if you make changes, people actually see the benefits – see that they’re working for better organisation which is doing better.

“And the third level is leadership. People in the management team have got to be prepared to stand up and be counted on what’s important for the organisation.”

Regardless of whether it’s in the public or private sector, Hickton believes that support at these three levels is the key to turning around an organisation that is struggling.

“There’s usually enough technical skill already within the organisation. Staff know what to do and they know how to do it. It’s in the framework you’re managing with. As chief executive, you’re responsible for the environment the business is operating in. Other people get on with the technical parts of it.”

Hickton took minimal industry-specific knowledge from one position to another. You could hardly find more disparate bunch of senior management roles than in car sales, job seeking, social welfare, betting and tourism. But – at least to start with – Hickton says such lack of direct experience in an industry is not hindrance. In fact it adds big-picture objectivity.

“It’s easier to see how an organisation is operationally going wrong when you’re not worried about the technical details. If you walk in and say, the reason things are going wrong is that this piece of software or this process is wrong, you’re missing the point.

“The real issues for me are: What are the management delegations? What ways do the management team communicate with one another? Is there respect for decisions? Are decisions constantly revisited? How and when does the organisation check how it’s doing? What is its relationship like with stakeholders and the media? You’re looking at the overall environment and saying, ‘What do I need to tweak?’”

The CEO who enters an organisation at the top level is accepted these days, but when Hickton joined the Department of Labour in the late 1980s and began its transformation to the New Zealand Employment Service, there was, at least internally, more than little grumbling. As Hickton himself now laughs, people constantly pointed out that selling cars was not like helping people who were out of work.

He turned that one around with something of hurricane of change. Restructuring; updates to all branches; regular meetings of centre managers; award-winning television and print advertising; and driving it all radical (at least for the time) attitude shift from supporting the unemployed to actually getting them back into jobs.

“When you have change situation it is absolutely crucial you get momentum fast,” Hickton emphasises. “At Income Support we cut the processing time down to 24 hours and used that as the basis for the other changes. At TAB, it was the introduction of sports betting. Here it was 100% PURE. People have to see you starting to move quickly, otherwise they will want to think about everything! You have to say, ‘We’re off, we’ve done the work, we believe in it.’ People come on board when they see it [the changes] working.”

Such ‘let’s go!’ culture depends on an acceptance of mistakes, Hickton acknowledges without hesitation. “You will make mistakes as you go, there’s no doubt. If you’re not making mistakes you’re not trying much. But we do spend fair bit of time trying to get it right.”

As New Zealand looks to the next peak season, Tourism New Zealand does indeed seem to have got it about right. Further, SARS looks under control and the positive exposure from The Lord of the Rings rolls on. So, after career of getting under-performi

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