World Class new Zealand: Reclaiming a nation’s pride

In the final months of his tenure at the head of New Zealand’s national airline, Rob Fyfe delivered presentation to gathering of senior executives and directors at the prestigious Deloitte/Management magazine Top 200 Awards. Asked to talk about his vision for New Zealand’s future, he again revealed his savvy inner marketer by doing what he said was his first ‘crowd-sourcing’ – asking the customer.

He asked his 2500 ‘closest friends’ on Facebook what their aspirations were and was surprised by the range of responses, but many referenced the environment, community, education, innovation and more caring society. He was making the point that an inspiring vision is an important motivator but that it’s different for each individual.
That’s telling illustration of the empathy and people skills that single out exceptional leaders in this social age. And Fyfe is certainly one such leader.

When he became CEO of Air New Zealand, he told the gathering, the product was tired, its people had lost their sense of self belief and they were losing the support of loyal customers. He had two driving beliefs that inspired him: One was that Air New Zealand could once again become an airline New Zealanders could be proud of. And secondly, that by embracing our New Zealandness we could be the best airline in the world.

He set out to bring that vision to life “one step at time”; doing things in bite-size chunks that people could relate to; making Air New Zealand better place to work; motivating and rewarding those who chose to make difference. “Slowly at first as we started to get our act together – then as people saw renewed performance, momentum built, we became bolder, took commercial risks, innovation flourished and we gained the confidence to project some personality.”
Most important was the ‘Realise your potential’ programme the company put all employees through to help them develop their own affirmations and sense of purpose in their lives at work and at home, Fyfe explained. And then the awards started coming: Airline of the Year, Most Reputable Organisation and Best Employer. “We rediscovered our mojo.”

While inspiring our national airline to rediscover sense of purpose and pride, Fyfe took most of New Zealand with him. Who hasn’t smiled at the safety videos, the Hobbit ads, the body painting antics and the stirring haka delivered by the airline’s Kapa Haka team (led by Fyfe of course – look it up on YouTube if you haven’t already) receiving their Airline of the Year award in Singapore, 2010.

It’s arguable that Fyfe has done more than anyone in recent years to build brand New Zealand; not through slick ad slogan but by embodying the irreverence, the “disobedient thinking” (referenced also by Geraldine McBride) that has become part of the national character – the cheekiness inherent in Maori culture that has happily chipped away at the more dour aspects of inherited European reserve.

In concluding his message to the Top 200 audience Fyfe painted picture of the New Zealand he wants to live in: one that supports our kids to be the best they can be in an environment that enables businesses to grow from world-class to world-scale; where technology provides connectivity and unprecedented access to huge new markets.

Watch the video of Fyfe’s speech at www.management.co.nz/top200/. M

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