Masters of Influence: Zimi Meka

This is the second interview in the Masters of Influence series in which we ask Zimi Meka from Ausenco about his experiences as a leader. Zimi Meka is the CEO of the fast growing, highly dynamic and innovative group Ausenco. Their group of companies employ over 2500 people around the world. Zimi grew the company from a three man show to what it is today.

What is your view of leadership? How have you defined it throughout the course of your career?

It is a big pot. The important things for me in leadership are three fold. First set the direction. So everyone knows what it is they are doing, why it is they are doing it and why it is important. Because I don’t think anyone is prepared to jump on board and commit themselves unless they really know why they are doing something.

Second – being fairly clear on what you personally stand for; what your values are as an individual and what is important to you and then what is important from an organisation’s perspective.

The third thing is communication feedback. If you look at history or statistics, 80% of people leave jobs because of lack of communication. It’s one, not being told they are doing a good or bad job and not being told that they are valued. People want to know that they are valued, that they are being recognised for their efforts, and they want to be told what is going on in the company— where we are heading. Whether that communication is oral or written, I personally believe that face to face rather than email is important and inspires a vision in that communication.

So those three things – know where you are going, what it is you stand for and communication are important parts of leadership.

Growing really quickly, how have you been able to convey that message, starting with you and the board and right throughout the organisation, when it has all happened at such a pace for you guys?I once asked someone who I really respect about how to get a message through to some people and he said the three R’s Repetition, Repetition, Repetition. I know that sounds basic but what I have experienced over the last four or five years is that we’ve had a clear vision of where we wanted to go as a board and management group, and I put that strategy together and presented it. I found that I understood it really clearly in my head and I would talk to a group of people and communicate it effectively with slides and whiteboards , the whole bit. We would leave the meeting and then I would go around and ask them individually later. Half didn’t understand what we wanted to do so I thought maybe I’m not communicating this correctly and I tried a different medium. With the management team it probably took me about a year with different levels of communication and discussion to embed and engage them with what our strategy was.

Repeating it different ways, and making sure they understood it was important because once they understood it they could communicate it to the rest of the organisation. So we started off putting the foundations and building blocks in place. When we were 250 – 300 people I put together a management team that could run an organisation of 1200 – 1500. So I over hired if you like, which affected our financials at the time but it was clear to me if I could get this group on board, strategise, set the direction and build the organisation, this was better than going out and hiring management ad hoc as we were growing. This would have been disastrous. So we had the right management structure in place.

They knew where we were going, people where coming on board and we had to put in place a communication strategy.

Your energies around this time were getting your leadership group completely as one, selling the same messages, doing the same thing, communicating through the entire organisation. Was that a critical component for you as an organisation to grow?

Correct! No mixed messages. We would leave a meeting checking now do we clearly understand what we are communicating? Let’s talk about what we are going to communicate—are we on board on what we are communicating? Then go out and communicate it.

You mentioned the time frame of one year and the frustration when we realise that there will be times where it doesn’t go quiet right. Having constant faith is obviously part of leadership—knowing that you will get to the end. How did you personally get through that journey – was it faith or conviction that you knew that you were doing the right thing?

You believe in yourself and your ability. I’m sure in any sort of leadership role there are times when you get knocked on your backside, it happens. But you just have to get up, shake yourself off; believe in yourself? I’ve always believed in myself, and I’ve believed in my people. I’ve always believed that the people I’ve had on board will be able to support and do what we need to do to get our company where we have to. It’s that belief that’s kept me going, and no doubt it’s going to happen with the team of people we have, as you know it’s a team event. So I think that you have the odd day where you think it’s not the best job under the sun but hopefully you have less of those and more of the others.

In many ways you have been self made but have you had the opportunity to model yourself on someone specifically, or have you done this by trial and error?

We talk about leaders being born or made—is this something you have taught yourself or is this something innately in you, or maybe a bit of both?I think a bit of both. I mean I’m an engineer by background and I have had to evolve my skills from when we started. Just think about when we started the company in 91, there was myself, a desk, office telephone and then Bob my partner joined me a little bit later because he was on a project in Western Australia, and it was chef, cook, bottle washer. I mean you were stapling, binding, doing the work, getting out there trying to find business. And I must confess in those times leadership was not at the front of mind; it was cash flow, reputation, those sorts of things.I think over time I have personally evolved so far as to take the company to the next level. I have always been able to analyze what’s needed and what’s needed in myself. I think it’s important for a leader to be able to self analyse your strengths and weaknesses in this environment.

What’s important? How do I have to be? I guess I continually do that and I might just adjust some of my techniques, such as communication, which I have worked on a lot over the last two years because I think it’s important. I think you have to have a certain amount built in but at the same time we are training a lot of our people in leadership techniques and they’re learning a lot from it. So I think it’s a combination.Who have I modelled myself on? My mentor was my father. He was a businessman and he migrated here from Europe in the early fifties. He developed himself and developed a business and his determination is something I respect. Having a goal and striving to that goal is something I’ve set myself and it came from his back ground.

Let’s go back to that time when you were doing the stapling and making the coffee. In terms of making that transition, was it hard to let go of that highly technical profession to be able to then make that transition into looking after people and taking a step away from that?

You are a hundred percent right. I think the biggest thing for people to face is being able to delegate. Everyone has that belief that no one can do it as well as I can do it and so therefore when you delegate to someone there will always be things not done like you could do it. But at the end of the day there are things that are important and things that aren’t so important and if the important things are getting done properly the little fringe things don’t matter so much. Alternatively as a leader you should be able to coach the person you have delegated to. The classic thing I hear is “that’s going to take too long, I could have done it myself quicker.” My answer to that is that the first or second time that may be the case but eventually the person your coaching will be quicker and then you can have a number of people doing it and your coaching a number of people. I think that’s the thing I see around the company – people letting go, being able to delegate, because that’s hard. If I couldn’t have done that, we would have stayed as a ‘couple of hundred man outfit’ because that’s all you can control in terms of number of people. I’ve watched my guys grow as leaders where they have now started to hand that off to others.

It sounds like relationships are very big for you?

Number one. Relationships with clients, relationships with staff, contractors, and suppliers the whole bit. I’m very big on maintaining relationships and understanding what each person wants, understanding their position in a situation and them understanding yours – that’s critical. I’m very big on that.Has that been natural?Natural in terms of the relationship side, yes that comes naturally to me.

What have been the bits where you have had to get out of your comfort zone and realize you don’t want to do this but, as the leader—the person who drives the organisation- you just have to do it?

I think people find the situation of holding someone accountable most difficult, and looking them in the eye and saying, “You were supposed to do this, you haven’t, what’s the issue?” That can be a confronting situation and if you’re naturally big on relationships it’s not a style that comes naturally to you – that confrontational thing of holding someone to account. I’ve watched some of our people who we train for that situation in order to be better prepared. Holding someone to account to me does come naturally because I’m big on commitment. A lot of people don’t like to do that and this is where they fall down as a leader, they set the person’s goals and they let them drift around without asking why they aren’t being achieved. The hard discussions. It can become a spiral and be very hard to get out of.You had a very strong philosophy on leaderships which you have now put through the whole organization. Share with me some of the results you have seen, examples of even just behaviours that you have seen amongst the group, or maybe even influences of leadership on retention or recruiting.As a leadership group, we are now all using a common dictionary, in terms of a competency dictionary. Talking about leadership styles and competency again now as a group we can analyse leadership in people and do something about it. I think that has been very positive. I’m also noticing the guys are doing more performance reviews with their people. The existing structure is once a year but it shouldn’t be only then; a good leader should be talking to their people as often as they need to. I’ve noticed they’re sitting down on a regular basis and giving feedback.The industry average of staff turnover is around 25%-30% in the industry we operate in. We traditionally have around 7%, however a year ago it crept up to 12-15 but it has now come back. I’m not sure if this is a result of leadership programs but it’s good. In my management team our turnover would be 1%, in the top level, very, very low. I’ve noticed some of the guys we put on the program 18 months ago had bad body language and I thought they were not going to engage or this is going to be hard work. Now you go along to them and they’re really participating, they have a view and they’re putting it on the table. They’re even modifying the program based on the feedback. I don’t know if that translates to increased profitability – it’s hard to measure – but I think what it’s doing is helping with our retention and in 5 years we will see a lot of benefit from it.

We talk about good leaders and their influence, to me the ability to influence can happen on a good front. You can have a good leader and a bad leader and a bad leader can have a dramatic influence, would that be right from your experience?

A bad leader can be double the impact of a good leader. It’s the dark side. I think if you’re asking me personally where I sit, I’m the sort of person who if you’re having a discussion with your people and you’re trying to solve a situation or come up with a plan, having a guy telling you 20 reasons why it can’t be done isn’t going to solve the problem. You have to be careful in so far as you don’t want to shoot that person down but by the same token he may have a point. You have to try and turn that negative into a positive and refocus. I think as a leader they’re the sort of things you should try and get on top of. By the same token you don’t want people not to give you their opinion but there is often that voice in the corner who is at it all the time and not helping the situation.

Where do you see yourself, what’s the next level? Where is that for yourself or Ausenco as an organisation around the area of leadership?

For me I’m more focused on ensuring as a company we have as many developed leaders to grow the organisation. We have to ensure we have leaders at various levels of the organisation to reach everyone.

My strategic vision of where we want to take the organisation is important to ensure these people have good solid careers, long terms jobs and a fun place to work. I’m very passionate about the leadership programs in the organisation so I want to ensure the office in South America and North America are experiencing the same thing in terms of the information they are receiving being the same and of course getting ready for the next spurt of growth.