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Graham Maher, CEO of Vodafone Australia, had been in his role for nine months when he was asked to host an Asia Pacific regional conference. Four years earlier, believing that regionalising would support the sharing of knowledge, product insights, innovation, best practice and talent rotations, Vodafone had implemented a regional structure and clustered disparate business and countries into four key regions across the globe.
While the initiative made sense on paper, in reality countries had failed to collaborate in any meaningful way and remained steadfastly stuck in their silos. Without cross-country pollination of thinking and ideas the opportunity to leverage synergies wasn’t available. This was exacerbated by the fact that local businesses were not motivated by, or measured on, how well they shared knowledge with their regional counterparts. There was no desire or incentive for them to work together and support each other.
Graham had done well as CEO of New Zealand. During his three years at the helm of Vodafone NZ, the mobile carrier lifted its market share from 16% to 53% and spearheaded the launch of the Vodafone World of Difference programme. In less than nine months into his role in Australia he had plugged a 300 million dollar a year loss and was well down the road with helping the struggling telecommunications company turn a profit. As a leader he was known for building electric working environments where people believed anything was possible. Asia Pacific Regional CEO Brian Clark knew something needed to change and felt Graham was the perfect person to charge with responsibility for hosting the regional conference.
The Zone had been working in partnership with Graham for over five years and our relationship with Vodafone been forged in the fire of stiff competition from more established and well funded telecommunications companies. Our work had been primarily focused on executive, leadership, team and organisational wide work on Vision, Purpose, Culture and Strategy. Each of our engagements had led to a significant improvement in Vodafone’s reputation for being a great place to work and business performance results exceeded both internal and marketplace expectations. Graham trusted us, knew we added value and saw an opportunity to leverage our cross country, multi cultural experience to help him make the conference a success.
His brief to us came with additional information about the challenges they were facing. The CEO of Japan was struggling with the post merger integration of three different cultures. They were losing a million dollars a day. Fiji had a monopoly but deregulation was coming and since the military unrest of the Fijian coup d’état several years earlier the government was becoming increasingly unstable. New Zealand was in good shape but the new CEO had been earmarked for bigger job elsewhere in the network. Australia had made great progress plugging losses but it was still not out of the woods. Working alongside Graham and his team our challenge was how to turn a cluster of siloed countries with distinctly different cultures into one seamless and high performing regional team.
Our first intervention was around the venue. Although Graham was a calculated risk taker and not averse to breaking the rules he had selected the Hilton Hotel at Coffs Harbour, 650 kms north of Sydney. It ticked all the boxes but it didn’t reflect the personal values that usually guided his decision making – hungry, gutsy and different. We challenged Graham and he explained he didn’t want to rock the boat by choosing somewhere too outside of the box. We understood his hesitation but also recognised going with a traditional conference venue would equate to a lost opportunity.
Modern businesses had become addicted to technology and Vodafone were no exception. The visiting executives needed to get present and connect with each other but the presence of mobile phones would be a major distraction, stealing attention and providing people excuses to step away, check messages and respond to urgent matters. Additionally the conference needed to be values aligned and The Hilton at Coffs harbour, as nice as it was, didn’t reflect the essence of Vodafone. Perhaps most importantly of all there was Graham’s ownership of the event. Would choosing a traditional conference venue and treading the well worn path taken by so many corporates before him really be owning the opportunity? Was there a chance to stretch beyond this safe and unchallenging option and give people a uniquely Australian team experience, one they would remember long after the conference had ended?
After sharing our thoughts we asked a simple question “If you were free to choose any venue you liked where would you go and what would you do?” Graham was a keen dirtbike rider and had often talked about organising a cross country ride. He toyed with the idea but logistically he could see there were too many unknowns and safety issues, even for a risk taker like him. Dirtbike’s were off the agenda but the idea of a cross country adventure stuck and after further exploration Graham said “Let’s go to the Red Centre!” the colloquial name given to the southern desert region of the Northern Territory in Australia. The concept of a conference in the desert quickly took shape and the ideas began to flow. Working together we mapped out a rough plan of the conference. Fly the region’s top executives to a remote desert location. Spend three days living, eating and sleeping together in a traditional campsite. Give them time to connect deeply and really get to know each other and their respective businesses. What could be easier?
The first pushback came from the executive team. Some felt Graham had gone too far and the idea was destined to fail. Others were up for the journey but didn’t fully understand how it would all come together. The finance team called him crazy and told him it would cost too much money. His Sales Director told him it was too fluffy and no one would get it. His personal assistant was deeply concerned about the logistical challenges and the lack of phone coverage. The Asia Pacific CEO thought it was risky and told him “I hope it works” Despite the general lack of enthusiasm Graham’s gut was telling him that going to Red Centre was the right thing to do. To him the fact that it was putting people outside of their comfort zone was the first sign he was on the right track.
From the start this unorthodox choice of venue created several major challenges. Vodafone Japan’s Chairman had a heart problem and needed a mobile defibrillator, along with a full time nurse in case he suffered a cardiac arrest. The only way to have that many high level executives together in one venue was to follow Vodafone’s executive insurance policy which required three full time security guards to be in attendance all times. In addition executives had to have separate means of air and land transport because they were forbidden to travel together in the same planes and buses. Australia is also the only country with more venomous than non-venomous venomous snakes. For this reason we required a full time onsite snake wrangler to protect everyone from reptiles like the highly nocturnal Death Adder, which won’t budge an inch, even if you’re about to step on it. And last but by no means least, 500 miles away from the nearest town, we had to erect a campsite with showers, toilets, cooking facilities and living accommodation to house everyone.
The Zone were charged with the responsibility of designing a complete end to end experience. We were responsible for everything from workshops, breakout sessions, entertainment, transportation, layout of the camp, size of the tents, construction of the toilets and showers, food, drinks, lighting, campfires and everything in between. Executives would be sleeping on cots in tents, walking through the campsite at night to reach bathrooms and outdoor showers, and serving themselves food from a buffet style banquet. It was important to get every detail right.
Although it presented many logistical challenges we saw the venue as an opportunity to break down power differentials and help people overcome their judgements so they could learn, grow and really get to know each other. We started by interviewing all of the conference attendees. Our goal was to find out about them as people, personally and professionally, so we could understand what they valued and how best to marry them up. We wanted to mix things up culturally and in terms of positional power so we could create potential tension that the executives would need to confront, work through and resolve.
We put the Japanese Chairman in the same tent as the Fijian IT manager. Executives used to the luxury and service of 5 star hotels had to join a queue and wait in line to spoon food onto their own plates. Tiled bathrooms and air conditioning units were replaced by outdoor showers and canvas tents.. Each executive was tasked with finding out little things about their roommate. First pet’s name, what town they were born in, favorite song and other small but interesting pieces of information that would kickstart them getting to know each other. Stranded without phones, thousands of miles from the nearest city there was simply no way to escape the experience.
Initially executives were in a state of mild panic. The back to basics infrastructure was a shock to their system and brought them face to face with their judgements about the venue, each other and the conference itself. Some unpacked and attempted to orientate themselves before it got dark. Others defaulted to normal conference behaviour and headed for the outback style, self service bar to sink a few beers. Many were behaving as if it was a corporate jolly that wasn’t to be taken seriously.
Graham’s choice of venue had been based on a few key factors. It afforded the opportunity for a truly authentic and memorable Australian experience. It would force people to step outside their comfort zones and most importantly of all it was an opportunity to connect corporate executives with a sacred land and the indigenous people who called it home. That evening, 500 miles from the nearest town, in the middle of the Australian desert, we gathered the shell shocked executives around a blazing campfire and beneath a magnificent star laden sky opened the conference.
We knew the opening would set the tone for the remainder of the conference and our goal was a simple one. To connect them with the deeper part of themselves so easily lost in a corporate world full of deadlines and doing. We began by speaking to the land and its significance to the Aboriginal people who lived there. We introduced the owner and his wife who had first lived in tents and then with bare hands toiled under the heat of the desert sun building a homestead while their infant children sat in buckets of water cooling beneath the shade of the Bloodwood trees. They spoke about their deep connection with the land, humbly acknowledging that the conference provided them a financial lifeline that would prevent the bank foreclosing on their mortgage. The executives sat quietly, listening and reflecting on their words. By the end of the opening it was clear something had shifted. They were more connected to their hearts, the venue and each other. A seed had been planted for the work to come.
The next morning we kicked off with a challenge, but not the sort the executives were expecting. The previous night many of them had left the opening, retired to the bar and proceeded to get drunk. Perhaps they were blowing off steam, maybe it was a coping strategy to handle the rustic camping conditions, for some it might have been a default ritual for connecting in the corporate world. For whatever reason things had gotten out of hand and a line had been crossed.
With Graham’s blessing we gave them the message. “This time is not about getting drunk together. It’s about respecting and getting to know each other. It’s about understanding and learning how we can support each other. No drinking until we’ve completed our activities for the day, and instead of going wild at the bar, spend time connecting with your colleagues on a more meaningful level.”
For the first day we had two goals. We split the executives into their country teams and asked them to create a presentation, sharing their goals and aspirations in the form of a business plan. Their second task was to prepare a cultural performance that would help their regional counterparts understand what was unique, different and special about their country, values and people. Prior to the conference each country had been asked to bring something of cultural significance from their homeland. The Fijians prepared a batch of their traditional ceremonial drink Kava, which unlike alcohol is consumed to relax without disrupting mental clarity. The Japanese conducted a Japanese tea ceremony, also called the Way of Tea, which is cultural activity involving the ceremonial preparation and presentation of Matcha, a powdered green tea. The Kiwi’s performed a Haka, the traditional ancestral war cry, dance, or challenge from the Māori people of New Zealand. In conjunction with their goals and aspirations each country was able to convey what was important from both a cultural and business perspective. The presentations were a mixture of experiential learning, good natured humour and grounded information about the market challenges and opportunities. By the end of day one each country had a significantly improved understanding of Vodafone Asia Pacific as a whole.
When people are engaged in mental activity involving the absorption and filtering of new information, integration of new concepts and the challenge of collaborating with new team members, it is important to have regular decompression opportunities. For this reason day two began with fun activities in the form of dirt bike and camel riding which gave executives a chance to get to know each other while sharing a non work related activity. Each time they came together in this way we observed them deepening their connections and becoming more of a team.
After some heart pumping morning fun we split the executives into functional teams (Sales, IT and Technology, Marketing, Compliance, Finance, HR) and asked them to share insights, challenges and best practices with each other. Each functional team was tasked with the responsibility of synthesising and sharing back to the wider group the similarities and learnings they had discovered.
At the completion of this work the level of connection between the executives had increased tenfold. That night, around many of the tent-side firepits, executives from different countries engaged in spirited conversations about the business. Having visibility into each other’s markets they were suddenly able to see that the challenges they faced at home were also being experienced by colleagues in other countries. Hungry for knowledge and keen to swap ideas many sat up until early in the morning discussing and debating the nuances of their local businesses and the universal challenges faced by all. The cross pollination of ideas and information was now flowing naturally and it was early in the morning when the last executives retired and the conversations finally drew to a close.
The following day the executives woke at 4:30am and quietly boarded a fleet of transport vehicles. It was dark and cold outside as the convoy made its way toward Kings Canyon, a dramatic gorge with 100 meter high walls and a 6km, four hour walk to the cliff tops above. Home to a sacred Aboriginal site the gorge also contained a permanent, clear spring waterhole surrounded by lush plant life and aptly named the garden of Eden. We had chosen this location so executives could tune into the sacred energy of the land and experience the spectacular sunrise from the top of the canyon. It was a powerful place and a symbol of new beginnings. The executives began their trek in the dark, silently scaling the steep path affectionately named “Heartbreak Hill” by the locals. Spectre like Ghost trees with their smooth white branches loomed overhead in the gloom and bore silent witness to our procession. When they reached the top of the canyon the usually talkative group sat in silence and waited for the sun to appear. For twenty minutes they watched in awe as the sun’s dawning light slowly revealed the magnificent beauty of the canyon. Connected to each other and nature it was a moving experience and a shared moment in time to remember.
In stark contrast to the silent climb to the top, the walk down was far more animated. We asked the executives to reflect on two questions and then share their insights with each other. What did this opportunity mean for them personally and what did it mean for Vodafone Asia Pacific regionally? Again the information and ideas flowed naturally but this time executives were sharing at a deeper level, speaking from their hearts and finding courage to speak about the insights that had come to them at the top of the canyon.
On the journey back to our campsite intuition told us something on our planned agenda needed to change. We shared our thoughts with Graham. If we arrived at the camp and went straight into session we would be asking people to return to their heads. Working with Whole Person Technology and realising the importance of giving people time to integrate the Kings Canyon experience we instead opted to give the executives free time do what they needed. Many chose to walk and talk with the new friends they had made, some found a spot in the shade and lay down to reflect on the events of the morning and the previous few days. In one way or the other it was a time of contemplation for all.
After their free time and lunch the executives were split into two teams and a spirited game of Capture the Flag got underway. Each team had been given their own flag along with the objective of capturing their opposing team’s flag and bringing it safely back to their own base. Enemy players could be tagged by players in their home territory and those players were sent to jail until freed by a member of their own team. The game encouraged the executives to work together, maximising and applying their resource to ultimately claim victory.
For them the fun of the game came from having to strategize then execute effectively. Were they going to play defensively, picking off the other team’s attackers and then rushing them with superior numbers? Would they try and sneak into the opposition camp, hiding and moving slowly to spend as much time looking for the flag as possible? Spurred on by the spirit of competitiveness the executives pooled together forming seamless teams that strived to outdo each other. Much fun was had by all and during the debrief session one executive’s comments were met with laughter and resounding agreement when he exclaimed “I was amazed at how fast we got organised, drew up a plan, assigned roles and then worked together just to capture a flag! Imagine what we could do if we worked like that across the region!”
Energised by the game the executives turned their attention to the final session of the day and set out to answer the question that pulled it all together. “What could this region be?” Split into cross functional teams they went to work answering the fundamental questions. How do we generate real value for this region? How do we stay connected? How do we share and leverage ideas? How do we promote and develop talent? How do we optimise costs?
That evening the teams came back together and shared their thinking. It was clear from the quality of proposed initiatives that the time these executives had spent together would result in innovations and optimisations that could save, and generate, millions of dollars for the company. At the completion of the presentations Asia Pacific CEO Brian Clark expressed his sincere gratitude. The executives had delivered more than he had expected and his heartfelt acknowledgement was a fitting transition into their last night’s dinner together. That night the executives were in high spirits as they celebrated their learnings, achievements and the new friendships they had formed in the middle of the Australian outback. It was 3am in the morning by the time the last group of fireside colleagues wound up their conversations and turned in for the night.
The next morning Brian Clark gathered the executives together and reflected back what he had heard the previous day. He spoke about his commitment to the executive teams and his commitment and support for the cross regional initiatives. His challenge to executives was “build upon the great work and thinking that you’ve generated on this sacred land, but most importantly build on the relationships you have formed because ultimately they are the most sacred thing to come out of our time here together.” A short while later the executives boarded their transport vehicles and headed to Ayers Rock Resort in Uluru for the final session of the conference.
After checking into their hotel the executives came together to pay tribute to their camping buddies. Each executive was given a blank Boomerang with a set of paints and asked to reflect on what they had learned from that person, and what it meant to them. The giving ceremony was guided by the Japanese executives who explained “these Boomerangs are a sacred gift to be treated with the utmost respect, they are a physical extension of your buddy”. At the completion of the ceremony the executives used all the boomerangs to form the Japanese word Ichiban which means “best of the best”. They then gathered together for a team photograph, many of them with tears in their eyes, punched their fists triumphantly into the air and in unison shouted “Ichiban!”.
It was the perfect close to a life changing regional conference that saw a group of disparate countries with distinctly different cultures come together to form one seamless and high performing regional team.
Over the following months the executives formalised a collection of regional teams and went to work on leveraging value from the region. The technology team decided to move to one regional platform instead of relying on two outsource partners. The finance team did the same. Together these two initiatives saved over 30 million dollars. The HR team created a talent sharing program which enabled regional skill sets to be used tactically, moving talent around, filling knowledge gaps and helping to solve challenges with regional rather than just local support. Japan who led the world in mobile technology flew teams down to New Zealand and Australia to give advance notice on competitors and assist with accelerated mobile adoption programs. A year after the conference total savings and revenue from cross regional initiatives were estimated at over 60 million dollars and Vodafone’s market share across the Asia Pacific region had increased by 7%.
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