Not long ago, MEttle was expressing deep concern about the dearth of women in senior corporate roles. Now, although C-Suites around the country are still nowhere near representative of the nationwide gender split as a whole, it is positive to see female chief executives emerging among some of our biggest and most important organisations: Kate McKenzie became CEO of Chorus in early 2017, Angela Mentis was appointed CEO and Managing Director of Bank of New Zealand in January 2018, and Vittoria Shortt has been leading ASB as CEO since February 2018.
Into this pre-eminent tier steps Jolie Hodson, the newly minted CEO of one of New Zealand’s iconic companies, Spark. MEttle was privileged to speak to her shortly ahead of starting her new role on 1 July, to understand what has driven her rise to the top and the challenges in front of Spark and New Zealand as a whole.
“For New Zealand to be more productive, and to have our rightful place on the world stage, we need to embrace digital technology more than we have.”
FIRST, SOME BACKGROUND
Starting her career, and financial grounding, in Auckland with Deloitte in the early 1990s as an Audit Graduate, Jolie rose to Senior Audit Manager before moving to Australia in November 2000 to join Lion. There she served in what she describes as ‘various commercial and business roles’, which culminated in her becoming Finance Director. This was a role she held for five of her thirteen years with the food and beverage giant.
The opportunity then came up to return to New Zealand and join Spark, in the CFO role.
“It was at Christmas time that I got a text asking me to come in, and I did,” says Jolie, simply.
“It piqued my curiosity in the industry, and it was an opportunity not only to bring my family home, but for me to join an organisation going through tremendous change.”
After three years in the CFO role, the opportunity arose to lead a business unit, becoming CEO of Spark Digital, which Jolie describes as a great opportunity to learn about the business and build a new range of skills.
“It gave me great exposure to think more broadly about ‘where to now?’, and to work with different businesses and communities across New Zealand to better understand customer needs while exposing me to new issues I hadn’t seen in previous roles. I now have this amazing opportunity to step up into the role of Spark’s CEO, which I am really excited about.”
READY TO EMBRACE TECHNOLOGY AND DISRUPTION THROUGH STRATEGY
Spark has truly embraced technology and disruption within the industry.
“If you think about the era that has just been, and where our business was seven years ago, it is fundamentally different. Fibre wasn’t rolled out in New Zealand, and far fewer people had smartphones. Now, more than half of our customers are on fibre or wireless broadband.”
"We're revolutionizing the streaming experience, allowing people to watch content whenever and wherever they want, live or on demand."
Spark has embraced technology and the disruption that is happening in the industry. “If we don’t, we will be left behind. And I would say that’s true of most industries. How I think about this is, what’s your business strategy, what are you trying to achieve for your customers in terms of their needs and the experiences you offer, what are you trying to achieve with your supply chain, or productivity and efficiency?,” says Jolie.
“Then the question is, how might technology help you do that? Not ‘let’s lead with our technology strategy and then think about how that fits into the business’. When you think about it like that, the question becomes ‘how will it enable me and who can help me to deliver this?’ It starts to break the opportunity into bite size pieces.”
“Digital inclusion is high on my agenda.”
IT'S ALL ABOUT A CHANGE-ABLE MINDSET, TO LEAD WITH PURPOSE
Not being afraid of what technology will bring is important, says Jolie.
“For New Zealand to be more productive, and to have our rightful place on the world stage, we need to embrace technology more than we have. That’s one of the things we must create; adaptable, strong infrastructure within New Zealand with digital services that sit over the top.”
Heading into this new role, Jolie is more than aware that nothing stands still.
“That’s one of the great things about this industry. To work in it you must be change-able, able to move at pace to deliver results. We don’t have the luxury of waiting, or thinking it will be some point in the future or that it is someone else’s problem to solve.
“This is part of the reason why we went to the agile way of working: to ensure we work at the pace of our global digital services competitors. It’s also about leading with purpose, in terms of what’s important to your people, shifting away from that mission of ‘what we will do’ to a purpose of how do we want to be as an organisation and what does that mean for our people and how will they be empowered to deliver that?”
THIS MEANS DIGITAL INCLUSION
“Digital inclusion is high on my agenda for leading in sustainability,” says Jolie.
“There are over 40,000 families with school-age children who don’t have access to broadband, affordability is one barrier, but so are things like lack of confidence with technology. One of the things I would like to do is solve this, and that requires both public and private organisations working together. It is about creating a coalition of the willing to help solve the digital literacy and inclusion challenge.
“For me there can be fear about the role of digital, and what it means, but it is a great leveller and gives us a great ability to compete in markets we wouldn’t otherwise be able to access as easily without it.”
In terms of the big challenges out there, Jolie says with a backdrop of a constantly changing industry, the things that are important are:
“First, building greater customer intimacy using data and digital experiences to not only understand individuals, but to better understand the needs of households: asking what’s important to you? Then make sure we are offering services that our customers value into the future.
Secondly, “Creating a wireless future for New Zealand requires strong and adaptable infrastructure to power businesses. 5G in conjunction with the Internet of Things, is a significant game changer. New Zealand needs to keep pace with the rest of the world.
“Creating a wireless future for New Zealand requires strong and adaptable infrastructure to power our businesses.”
“The thing to remember about each new generation of wireless technology is it has always exceeded our expectation.
“What we have learned is that every G has developed faster than we thought it would and the use cases come along faster than expected. At Spark we want to keep pace with the world and make sure we offer New Zealand a chance to participate.
“One of the things we did with the Spark 5G Lab was to create an environment for our business customers to develop and learn how to use the new technologies across 5G. When 5G is commercially available, they will already know how to maximise performance for them and this is a mind-set change from previous approaches.”
STREAMING INTO NEW SPACES
Spark is also stepping into new spaces, as is widely known, says Jolie – the most prominent being premier sports streaming.
“Our aim is to revolutionise that experience,” she says, “allowing people to watch content whenever and wherever they want, live or on demand.”
Mobile, cloud and data security are also key areas of growth for New Zealand business. Helping business to be as productive and efficient as possible, while creating better experiences for their customers.
“Helping customers transition to the cloud is one of the things we need to do well. Using established methodologies, tools and ‘know how’ to help our customers make the best choices with this transition.”
LEADING INTO EMPOWERMENT
Turning to Jolie’s own journey into leadership, as she steps into this new role MEttle asks if there are particular leadership approaches she admires, or ways in which she wants to do things?
“If I draw on strengths I have seen, the ability to be bold and change-able are things I need to hold onto. When I think about my own leadership style, it is about being very approachable, about listening. We don’t live in a commandand-control world anymore. Yes, you must make decisions, and be really clear about those decisions, but it is also about creating the opportunity for new ideas to prosper and for teams to flourish. So, it’s about getting people around you who are excellent at what they do, and giving them the opportunity to build those characteristics in their teams.”
She says that part of the journey that Spark has been on as an organisation is shaping the purpose for the organisation and the purpose for each of the tribes that support it.
“This is so people understand when I’m working at Spark, I understand my contribution, how that shows up to the end customer and the specific role I play within my squad or tribe in achieving this. That’s part of leadership and purpose driven organisations are different to previous organisations I’ve worked in. It has been a learning, but you see the value and accountability in it.
“This is not a free-love model: there is a responsibility in terms of ‘if that’s what we are going to pursue, then you’re accountable for the milestones too.' Performance alongside empowerment.
“I think about why I show up to work. I love a challenge, the ability to make a difference in what I do for our organisation and New Zealand, and creating the opportunity for others to do that too. When we are successful we will be delivering for our customers while creating a better New Zealand.”
“I love a challenge, the ability to make a difference in what I do for our organisation and New Zealand.”
BRINGING THE FUTURE FASTER
As the leader of Spark, Jolie says that she is most excited about the opportunity to bring the future faster to New Zealand.
“A growing and profitable organisation, delivering value for our customers and the communities we support. That is really important for New Zealand. At times we get caught up in the fear of what might be, when actually we need to think about how we make technology become more of an everyday part of what we do.”
She is also excited about being part of the female leadership wave coming through.
“When I think about my daughter and my friends’ children seeing that it is possible, it is good motivation. Nothing comes for free of course,” she says.
“You have got to work hard, to take risks, and the thing that has had the biggest impact on my career is having the courage to try new things. Whether new industries, working in different countries or expanding into broader roles, through courage my rate of development accelerated.
“I am seeing more people make choices in their career to build broader experience like I did, which sets you up better to take the next step. As a result we are now seeing a group of leaders come through with greater business experience, better ready for the opportunities out there.”
Download MEttle Eleven
MEttle, a collection of stories and interviews with influential New Zealand business leaders, curated by MinterEllisonRuddWatts.