Read and be curious

Mike is a refreshing change from the norm, in that he has been with his current employer, NZ Post, for 12 years, works in an industry which is living through turbo-charged ‘disruption’ and remains refreshingly modest despite his considerable achievements by the age of 35.

His conversation is littered with “I’m fortunate/ lucky/ was given the opportunity/ etcetera” and is quick to acknowledge the important role his current boss and mentor, Ashley Smout has played in his career.

Lewis heads up the Northern Operations for NZ Post, spanning everything from the Far North to Taupo, where he is responsible for the rapidly changing working lives of 2,000 people under him (Lewis would probably say: “alongside”). Such is the diversity of his role, he fronts union and customer relationships, manages freight-forwarding international supply-chains and serves on the senior leadership team developing future commercial-parcel strategy.

With his commitment to be in touch with his people – he never says ‘employees’ or ‘staff’ – he travels across that countryside, largely by car, to see their daily challenges, through their eyes; largely, looking, listening and then ‘standing up on the balcony’ to reflect on what he has absorbed. (Lewis even spent a week on a bicycle being a ‘postie’ and six weeks in a processing site when he started, to establish his commitment to walk in their shoes.) Integrity, along with credibility and values are words he uses a lot. He credits Smout, Chief Operating Officer, Mail and Communications, for inspiring that too.

When suggested his working life must be tough, especially since a number of operations are 24/7, he prefers ‘interesting’ and ‘challenging’.

Unexpectedly, given what you’d normally associate with a career in NZ Post, Lewis has had hugely stimulating and broad international experience, starting as a 27-year old, dealing with global postal issues, UN agencies, where needless-to-say he reckoned he was the least experienced and was initially out of his depth. In this challenging environment he blossomed.

“The company took a risk with me. Initially, I learnt to listen, observe and learn. Later I saw how individuals would drive a conversation to influence a roomful of people to agree their preferred outcome. It was a tremendous grounding. New Zealand was regarded as neutral, pragmatic and solution-driven, giving me a foundation to build integrity and credibility, through predictable actions, sound commercial reasoning and consistent application of key values.

“Bear in mind, we were dealing with such a diverse group: the US, UK, African and South American countries, all at different stages of economic and social development, and mega corporations, all at the same time. Each had their organisation’s agenda to promote; their own standing back home to protect; and were often required to help reach universal consensus.

“That taught me the value of personal relationships. These weren’t developed in the conference rooms, but on the tram trips to and from the hotels to the meetings, where you got to understand their own backgrounds, cultures and lives. That enabled you to know the individuals far better than through what they espoused in discussions.” 

The confidence he gained from holding his own with experienced executives, all considerably older, has served him well, he believes, and he tries to put some of his own people into similar situations – with a safety net – again something he says his boss did with him.

Lewis gives only one small concession around all that ‘luck’ he credits for his success. “Yes, you create your own luck too,” the Victoria University commerce, administration and tourism graduate concedes, “by getting out there and putting yourself forward in various forums, taking opportunities, so people can see what you stand for, what your values are and how you progress towards achieving a sustainable solution.”

He believes one of the keys to his success is that he isn’t afraid to say: “I don’t know the answer to that.”

“If you’re honest, like that, you are respecting the group or individual’s problem and drawing them into a joint accountability for solving that issue. This empowerment helps people feel they have some part to play in guiding the future. In turn, that draws in the emotional side, and as I’ve learnt to appreciate, that’s critical to a lasting solution. It’s that fine balance between vulnerability, empathy and leading with confidence that is so crucial in leading through transformation.

“I work on the principle that discussion can lead to a decision. Emotion will
secure action.”

As an emerging leader he is both perceptive and respectful: “Leadership is no longer hierarchical, but gets to be played out at different levels across the organisation. The world is changing so quickly you have to try, learn and go again. Sure you need the structure, but you need to empower individuals with confidence to take things forward.

“Sitting around waiting for a five year detailed plan to roll down to you doesn’t achieve anything,” says the man the award judges found ‘has a clear understanding of the need to deliver today while transforming the workplace to meet tomorrow’s many challenges.’

Which brings us to what had to be the clincher in earning the award. Bear in mind, the changing demands of NZ Post (like every other internationally) is for more parcels than letters. Email has largely driven that, along with global online shopping.

In the words of his mentor, for the last 18 months, their organisation has undergone “significant structural and people transformation, arguably as large as any New Zealand corporate. Mike has led with integrity, a calm head, decisiveness, and a loyalty he both demonstrates and engenders. As a leader he has found the right balance between driving the business in a new direction and delivering a future vision, as well as supporting people through change. He does that through a humble, empathetic approach, which creates a calming presence and thereby an environment where people trust each other and work in collaboration.”

Lewis’s version, naturally is more muted: “Our chairman paved the way early on and we committed, as a leadership team, to transparency and communication from the get-go. Our aim was to support each and every person through change, making sure we saw it from their individual perspective, then giving them the tools – CV writing, what retirement would entail, cross-training and anything they felt would assist in embracing the change we had agreed would need to take place, to meet the new customer demands.”

Simply taking the processing sites across the country, New Zealand Post reduced them from 52 to three. Mike maintained staff engagement levels through that period, while maintaining morale, service levels and engagement results. He recalls one depot’s environment, in the last month of operation, “being so supportive and positive, rather than a wake” – such was the pride in handing the operation to the next people, in what he calls: “the guardianship of the people for their work and the company”.  

Many were long-term employees, from different generations and cultures. His offshore experience no doubt serving him well.

“It was daunting at times. I had got to know many of the people quite well. I relied on honesty, integrity and being true to the mutual values we’d established; committing us to supporting people to make a positive next step, whatever they decided, was really important to me. That’s how I could sleep at night.”

Ashley Smout notes: “I haven’t come across many young leaders who could deal with such large-scale emotional change day-in-day-out, and continue to meet customer requirements, maintain business continuity and be genuinely respected by their staff, including those who are affected. He displays an admirable duty of care to the business and to his people.” 

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