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4 leadership traits of successful Kiwi CEOs

I recently heard the CEO of a large multinational say that he loves hiring kiwi executives.

When I asked him why, he spoke animatedly of attributes like our adaptability, flexibility, innovative spirit, collaborative approach, ‘roll your sleeves up, can do attitude’ and, (these were his words, not mine) “a slightly whimsical naivety which means they try stuff out and give it a go, even when it’s in the ‘too hard basket’.”

When we consider these classic Kiwi traits against the global business landscape’s increasingly complex and ever-shifting ocean of change, we can see why such characteristics are becoming progressively more relevant, from a leadership perspective.

After nearly 20 years of working with CEOs and executives in New Zealand and around the globe, I’ve noticed some interesting attributes which make Kiwi leaders stand out from their international counterparts.

Every country has a unique culture, powered by an intricate mix of historical, societal and cultural factors, so it makes sense that business leaders from different geographical regions will have distinct traits, which people all around the world can learn from.

I might be a little biased, but I believe Kiwi CEOs have some magical qualities which truly shine on the international stage.

Here are 4 leadership traits of successful Kiwi CEOs

1.     Innovative spirit. This is more than good old fashioned ‘Kiwi Ingenuity’. You only need to look at organisations like Glidepath, Xero, Icebreaker, Orion Health and Buckley Systems to see examples of innovative, creative cultures. After all, this is part of our history. As a relatively young country, our forefathers were people who came here to create a new life. They had to think outside the square when they reached Aotearoa shores, just to survive – and that ethos has continued in our psyche.

Sidebar: Often where we come unstuck is a lack of sophistication in marketing and selling these great ideas on a global scale – but we are improving.

2.     Hands on approach. It’s no secret that most leaders of large organisations are unaware of ‘what goes on’ beneath the top echelon of management. The TV series Undercover Boss lifts the lid of this phenomenon. By contrast, most of the senior Kiwi leaders I work with are more comfortable rolling up their sleeves on the front line than those CEOs I’ve worked with from offshore multinationals.

You’ll often see Kiwi CEOs answering phones, doing the staffroom dishes or spending time on the factory line. By and large, they’re not afraid to muck in and get stuck in. They have a healthy lack of respect for tradition, authority and hierarchy compared to many other cultures – in a good way. It’s this approach that is far more conducive to collaborative leadership, a vital skill for today’s leaders.

3.       Cultural awareness. Ethnic diversity runs richly through the veins of our country and our companies. New Zealand has grown and developed from strong cultural roots, with Maori, Pacific, Asian and European peoples forming a collective soul. Add to that our wanderlust (on your average day more than 80,000 New Zealanders are travelling the globe) and the fact 89% of us agree it’s a good thing for society to be made up of people from different races, religions and cultures.

This cultural diversity seems to have weaved its way into Kiwi organisations. Diverse leadership and diversity of thought leads to a range of positive economic benefits and is something global leaders want to harness.  

4.     Grit and determination. Having lived and worked overseas, one of the key differences I noticed was our reluctance to whinge, moan and catastrophise. Kiwi leaders tend not to blame when the going gets tough, or show off in times of success. Rather, we quietly ‘chip away’, often achieving great success, without the trumpets and whistles.

This mindset of sheer grit and determination helps us to overcome adversity and think strategically when the stakes are high. It’s this powerful combination of perseverance, resilience and humility that makes Kiwi CEOs stand out from the crowd.


Suzi McAlpine is a leadership development coach and author of internationally acclaimed leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. Suzi works alongside CEOs and senior executives in organisations throughout New Zealand to ignite better leadership. The services she provides include one-on-one coaching, peer coaching, workshop facilitation and keynote speaking.

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