Defining the principles of leadership

Steve Hallett is a director and co-owner of two electrical companies in Auckland and Northland and for the past eight years has chaired the board of the Electrical Training Company (Etco), New Zealand’s largest trainer of electrical apprentices. 

In September Hallett was named as the 2021 winner of the Leadership Award and the overall Ako Aotearoa Supreme Award presented by Independent Tertiary Education New Zealand. Judges said he had steered the Etco board through some “bold decisions and ground-breaking changes. He leads collaborative processes, builds strong relationships and undertakes independent evaluation…”

Under his chairmanship, the organisation has significantly increased both revenue and apprentice numbers and won a number of awards. 

Here is his leadership story. 

I strongly believe that good principles of leadership apply to any organisation – whether it’s a private enterprise or an industry-owned training organisation. My approach to working with fellow shareholders in running my own companies is not dissimilar to my approach as chair of the Etco board. 

For me, a critical aspect of good leadership is having a vision of where you want the business or organisation to be in the future – and making sure you have the right people around you, with the right diversity of skills and experience, to support that vision. 

Importantly, those also need to be people who will challenge your views and opinions. All leaders need to be challenged, to make sure they are travelling in the right direction – both having a vision and being accountable are critical for any board. 

To be a good leader, you need to be humble and be prepared for not everything going the way you want or expect it to go. 

An important part of a chair’s role should be to encourage everyone to share their opinions on all issues openly. Once you have everyone’s views, you are in the best position to work together to get a decision that supports all of the organisation. 

 

Radical and strategic change

Five years ago our Etco board made the decision together that we needed to make very radical and strategic changes to move the business on from where it was, and ensure it would continue to be recognised as the electrical training experts. 

We recognised that Etco needed to be innovative and flexible to take on the unknown changes that were coming via the Reform of Vocational Education (RoVE) and deal effectively with how that might affect the Etco business. 

That required bringing in fresh people and fresh ideas. A major part of that was recruiting our current CEO Jeremy Sole. 

Just as it is important for me to be challenged by the board, I feel it is also important for the relationship between the board and the CEO to be strong but challenging. 

If a CEO has free rein, that is not going to lead to good outcomes. You need a certain amount of tension to ask the hard questions and we ask those of Jeremy. 

We don’t always agree, but we have a very good relationship with him and that frank and open discourse has been very valuable for Etco in working towards and achieving our vision for the organisation.

The process of change began with a comprehensive review of every aspect of the Etco operation, which identified the need for a major programme to modernise its underlying platform to build a stronger and more efficient business, achieve organic growth, enhance profitability and create opportunities for new initiatives 

Following a ‘deep dive’ review of the entire organisation by the new senior management team, the board, CEO and management team worked together to develop the new strategic plan and vision.

Unexpected challenges will arise, and none more so than the global pandemic, which has challenged every board in the world. 

But even in the face of such adversity, it is vital, even when business as usual changes dramatically, to keep your eye on your organisational vision and where you want to be. 

The strategic changes Etco had already made proved prescient in the face of Covid. 

This included our $1 million investment in a unique New Zealand electrical training-specific online learning management system (LMS). 

This has been critical to enabling not only Etco to continue delivering electrical training during lockdowns but for other organisations too. 

During the high Alert Levels in 2020 we made the assessments section of our LMS available free of charge to eight polytechnics delivering electrical training. This enabled them to continue teaching and to undertake Skills ITO assessments. 

I think that wider view – of working for the greater good of your sector, not just for your organisation – is also important for any board.

In the past, Etco’s focus was largely on growing young talent. We are now increasingly expanding into other initiatives to strengthen and upskill the existing workforce, while maintaining our reputation as a leading and innovative business model for apprenticeship employment and training. 

There is also scope to offer business training for people interested in starting their own electrical companies, and leadership training for supervisors. 

Building strong mutual relationships and networks is important to any organisation. Getting views from various stakeholders – in my case that might range from wholesalers to other training institutes – is hugely valuable. 

Such multi-level relationships give balance and greater insight to your own business decisions. 

Last, but most definitely not least, every board needs to be focused strongly on people development. It is critical to identify all of your people’s development needs and work with them to make sure those needs are met.

 That extends to directors too and our Etco board uses the expertise and services of organisations such as the Institute of Directors to ensure the ongoing development of our governance skills. 

On a personal level, I recently took myself off on the Outward Bound programme – and I’d recommend it to anyone. It is a great refresher, especially coping in the bush for two days on your own. I got so much out of it that I’m sending two of my senior managers from Auckland and Northland on it next.  

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