27/05/2016 - 13:17

10 minutes on leadership with … Andrew Crane

27/05/2016 - 13:17

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Leadership WA chief executive officer Robin McClellan spent 10 minutes discussing leadership with CBH Group CEO Andrew Crane, who said it was vital to be optimistic, focus on the long term, and pay close attention to high-performing teams. 

Robin McClellan with Andrew Crane, who says it is important members of a company’s management team are committed to each other’s success.

Leadership WA chief executive officer Robin McClellan spent 10 minutes discussing leadership with CBH Group CEO Andrew Crane, who said it was vital to be optimistic, focus on the long term, and pay close attention to high-performing teams. 

RM: At Leadership WA, we are very interested in developing people through their own leadership journey, not putting a prescription out there or telling people how it is done.

What comes to mind when you think about what makes a good leader? Who comes to mind and what sort of qualities do you see? And, what qualities do you want to develop within yourself?

AC:  We are all on our own leadership journey but it is great to look for examples to model and test ourselves against. On a personal journey, you can learn leadership skills that apply to leading a business. I am interested in understanding what leadership skills I need for two additional purposes – to best direct my team, and then the leadership skills I need to lead myself; they are quite different.

RM: Do you see yourself needing different skills as a CEO than in other positions? Do you have to draw on a different part of yourself?

AC: For the CEO, you have to show where the business is going and lead the business as a whole. CBH is a related but diverse group of businesses including grain marketing and trading, storage and handling, supply chain management and investments in downstream subsidiaries. It’s important to be able to tell a story that binds us all together.

For CBH, as a member-based cooperative, the story that brings us together as a single business is the focus on our sole beneficiary – the WA grain grower.

Leaders are purveyors of hope – you have got to be an optimist and have a clear view of where the business is going.

RM: Being at the helm of a member-based organisation of producers, do you need a different set of skills to those in a traditionally structured corporate environment?

AC: Not different skills, just applied in different directions. We are a functioning competitive organisation with a cooperative structure. Our owners are our sole beneficiaries. We are not making money from customers to provide value to shareholders. We are doing business with our growers for the benefit of our growers. So for me, the time I would devote as a CEO in a listed entity to meeting investors, I just devote to meeting with growers.

From a leadership perspective, my role is perhaps a little clearer. Working for a cooperative or a mutual, you have an incredible strength of purpose. You are here for the benefit of the members and you can clearly articulate to employees why they come to work and who is the beneficiary.

There is no conflict in that aim. My job is to tell the long-term strategic story and explain how every single employee contributes to that vision.

RM: I notice you did a program at Harvard, what was that about?

AC: I was very lucky to go there and study with some really interesting people and great experts. It focused on leadership and strategy. Within this environment we were challenged to consider the different kinds of leadership, and for me I considered how I lead the business, my team and myself.

I had to consider how I lead and set goals for the business. How I build an executive team that leads a diversified business with many internal challenges and how they come together to lead the business as a whole. To do both of those well, I have to constantly review how I lead myself and continue to ask, ‘what do I need to do to be a better leader?’

It starts with self-awareness. Most general management courses will have a good healthy dose of that – but you don’t need to go on a course to know that self-awareness is important. You have to pay attention to it all the time.

That focus on self-awareness is even more important if you are fortunate enough to lead a business as a CEO. Externally it may be viewed as the finishing line or pinnacle of your career, but it is not long before you very clearly understand you are definitely not a finished work.  

I have probably learned some of my hardest leadership lessons since being the CEO. Self-awareness for me is making sure my feet are grounded. It’s a bit like playing a computer game; as soon as you finish one level another, even tougher level reveals itself.

RM: Can you offer any advice that might not be in the traditional textbooks?

AC: When your team is running well, never take it for granted. We have been through a couple of cycles of restructuring and reshaping within the business and you have to constantly challenge yourself.  

While it’s important to continually improve and achieve that next level, the same goes for a team. I have learned that one of the least recognised, but critical ingredients of a truly high-performing team is that they are committed to each other’s individual success.

I have learned some hard lessons in the past from not paying enough attention to team composition and collaboration, or taking it for granted during the good times. When you are leading a large team you can take your hand off the wheel for a while and nothing will go wrong, but gradually it will drift, and then it takes an awful lot of effort to get back on course. 

You have to keep focusing on the long term and the people who make that possible.

RM: Any thoughts on Malcolm Turnbull’s tenure as prime minister? Do you think his leadership will make any different to the agricultural community?

AC: What we all want from governments is the leadership and direction to make the tough choices that are good for us in the long term. It is no different for the team at CBH, where we have to make changes to the way we operate, our network, or invest in infrastructure. These changes don’t always provide returns immediately. Fortunately I have many role models from more than 80 years of history in CBH. Many before us have made changes to the business that were questioned at the time, but we have been grateful for ever since.  

RM: I think it is a particularly hard in a parliamentary democracy, because the leader doesn’t get a fixed tenure.

AC: At CBH, we are similar in many respects. If members aren’t happy they will change those who represent them through our grower-elected board members. That is why I have a key role in explaining business decisions to growers and making sure they understand how those decisions benefit them now or in the future.

The board’s decision to invest in grain processing in Asia 10 years ago was a bold step out of our ‘comfort zone’ as a business. The connection to our members, while logical in the form of their use of wheat, was difficult to demonstrate in the early years. Now we have a downstream processing business located in some of Asia’s fastest-growing markets and we are able to grow strongly from here as we expand into neighbouring markets and new product streams.

RM: Speaking of those operations outside Australia, what are your views on whether there are cultural and national dimensions to leadership? Is it a different thing to be a leader in Indonesia or Vietnam?

AC: Clearly there are cultural differences but these are to be understood and embraced to get the best out of any local team.

The fact that national cultures remain incredibly strong is a good thing.

It is no different to learning the local language. Once you take the time to learn the culture, you learn additional ways to communicate and lead. 

It is also wrong to assume that all English-speaking nations have the same management culture. I have come to understand the importance and value of understanding the differences between UK, Australian and US work cultures.

Managing across both business boundaries and across cultures is a great skill for leaders to obtain.


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