Learning from the legends: a big helping of wisdom from Kea's newest crop of World Class New Zealanders

Learning from the legends: a big helping of wisdom from Kea's newest crop of World Class New Zealanders
Last night, the Viaduct Events Centre in Auckland was humming with pride, aspiration, envy, laser beams and a dash of good-natured jingoism as Kea handed out its World Class New Zealand Awards. As per usual, the recipients’ remarkable careers offered a shot of inspiration for the attendees and made them believe they too were capable of greatness (or, for the less optimistic, made them question their own paltry achievements and bad life choices). Here are some of the key lessons we took away from the talented humans who ventured up on stage.

Phil Veal, Kea NZ chair, and Craig Donaldson, Kea chief executive:

  • Someone over there grew up here. The New Zealand diaspora (over one million New Zealanders live outside New Zealand) is a powerful, patriotic force that can bring huge economic benefit to the country, something that was recognised by Sir Stephen Tindall and Prof David Teece when they founded and launched KEA at the Knowledge Wave conference in 2001, and you should try to tap into it. 
  • Connections are the key to success. So if you’re a New Zealander entering another market, there’s no need for cold-calls. You need to make warm calls. And the network of New Zealanders in positions of power at the likes of Wal-Mart, Saatchi & Saatchi, Virgin, Google and Nike, can Make Things Happen—quickly.

Peter Yealands

  • Don’t do it for the money. Do it for the challenge.
  • Business is a family affair. So thank your wife and kids before anyone else if you happen to win a major national award. 
  • Business is also a team sport. Create the vision, ignore the doubters, surround yourself with people who are better than you and do everything you can to get your story out there (averaged out, Yealands has entered one new country every month since it started in 2009 and 85 percent of its revenue is now from export).
  • There’s too much waste in the world. And if you’re smart, you can turn it into revenue and a great brand story. Or, as the Yealands slogan goes, think boldly, tread lightly. 
  • Genius doesn't have to wear a suit. So, as long as you can back it up with results, keep rocking that big bushy beard/long grey hair/red sneakers.

Sarah Robb O’Hagan.

  • Be brave, back yourself, get noticed and you never know what might happen (for example, after the person who hired her at Virgin Air resigned, she wrote a big marketing plan and organisational structure for the team, put it in an envelope under the president's door and ended up getting promoted to director of marketing).
  • It’s never too late to start. Her mother went back to university at age 50 after raising four kids and eventually wrote a book about punctuation. There are many chapters in your life. (sidenote: Colonel Sanders was in his 60s when he started KFC and Claude Stratford founded Comvita at age 63 and was a finalist in the entrepreneur of the year awards at age 95).
  • Everyone loves New Zealanders. 
  • Stay-at-home dads are cool.

Mark Solomon

  • In life and in business, respect is the key. Respect your opponents, respect your position of authority, respect the land, respect your elders, respect the future generations.
  • You’re not finished yet. Ngai Tahu is now worth $1.4 billion after the settlement in 1996. That’s a good start, but there’s a lot more to achieve. 
  • Share the load. His wife had only been to five events with Solomon over the years, including this one. As she said: “It’s your job to look after the tribe. It’s my job to look after the family.”

Linda Jenkinson

  • You can set massive, seemingly unachievable goals in New Zealand, like creating a billion dollar company, and you can achieve them. 
  • No matter how successful you become, how many companies you list on the stock exchange, or how much value you create, don’t forget your roots. 
  • The lack of hierarchy in New Zealand society is a huge benefit because we don't see as many obstacles.
  • Once you’ve benefitted from the system, give back where you can and use your skills to try and improve that system.

Sir Ralph Norris, supreme winner:

  • Humility is key and impostor syndrome is a good thing. Despite his obvious leadership skills and huge list of achievements (among them launching ATMs, and turning Air New Zealand around from the biggest loss in NZ corporate history), he said you’re only as good as the people around you.  
  • If you look in the mirror in the morning and you don’t like what you’re looking at/don’t know if you’re doing the right thing, set yourself on a course to change.
  • If you’re trying to change an organisation, you need to bring the people with you.
  • Spend time mentoring future leaders. Give them something to aim for. And then live vicariously through your protégés and revel in their success.
  • New Zealand used to have an inferiority complex. But that has changed. We have much more pride in our country, our achievements and our businesses now. And the world is paying attention to us.

Derek McCormack, AUT:

  • A number of AUT students had been embedded into the crowd. And his advice to them was to get all the business cards they could, email them, offer to get involved with an internship or a meeting, and if they don’t respond, email them again in six months. The leaders of today need to nurture the award recipients of 20 years.

Prime Minister John Key

  • We don’t know how lucky we are (although, to be fair, there are lots of global rankings that allow us to check and he did mention this one). There were around 400,000 gun deaths in the US between 2011 and 2013 and Donald Trump is campaigning on his ‘Make America Great Again’ platform—and, as evidenced by his nomination, enough people seem to believe that the country needs to be fixed. Any politician trying that in New Zealand would be ridiculed because “it’s great already”.

It's all-too-easy to get caught up focusing on the negatives and believing that the country (and the world) is going to hell in a handcart. But these awards are a refreshing dose of optimism. And while people tend to look at New Zealand's Tall Poppy Syndrome as a bad thing, it could be argued that it’s created a nation of high achievers without the ego. All the recipients from last night's awards exhibited that grounded, humble attitude that the world seems to love and their achievements—and the introductory video below—show us that there is a lot to be proud of.