NZ Herald business editor at large

Liam Dann: Mainfreight management has own winning Col Potter

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Colonel Sherman T Potter died this week. Well okay, it was the actor Harry Morgan, 96, who passed away but he leaves the enduring memory of the character he played on the popular television series M*A*S*H.

Remembering Colonel Potter seems appropriate in a week where the Business Herald has celebrated great leadership.

M*A*S*H had two colonels during the series (which, at 11 years, ran longer than the Korean war that was its setting) and their contrasting styles make them something of a management case study.

Both were well-liked leaders but the first, Colonel Henry Blake, was easy-going to the point of ineffectual. The staff walked all over him.

In contrast, Potter arrived gruff, stern and meaning business. But he quickly revealed a caring, human side. Staff not only liked him but respected him. There was still plenty of fun but less conflict within the team - Hawkeye and BJ even ended up great mates with the feisty Hot Lips Houlihan.

The point is that striking the right balance in leadership can be difficult.

You can bet the most successful - like our Business Leader of the Year, Mainfreight's Don Braid - steer more closely to the Colonel Potter model.

Braid can come across as serious and authoritative, highly focused on the business at hand. But he's clearly a man with a great deal of vision and imagination. And when it comes to reassuring staff he's on the same team, the fact he doesn't have an office and won't take a designated parking space is revealing.

Braid has been with the company since 1994, which also endears him to many market watchers. Too often in this country listed companies have been led by people with a short-term focus who restructure and move on before the results can be properly measured.

Real wealth creation takes time. It needs entrepreneurial zeal but, in a corporate environment, must be tempered with realism and an understanding of the underlying strengths of the business. It also requires the support of a highly dedicated and motivated team.

That Mainfreight has been growing steadily for several years and hasn't had to resort to any redundancies during Braid's tenure has no doubt helped build a strong workplace culture.

But it's a circular equation. Good performance allows management freedom to do the things that boost morale, which in turn results in productivity and good performance.

Napoleon, who (apart from not picking the best time to visit Russia) was an impressive leader, believed "there are but two levers to move men: fear and self-interest".

He was probably right but times have changed. Fear - which one suspects Napoleon leaned on more heavily - isn't so useful in the modern world where workers have choices. High staff turnover is the ever present bane of modern management, even in tough economic times.

In the end it's self-interest that provides the better motivation, only Napoleon makes it sound very cynical. Yes, self-interest means financial rewards but includes being "interested". Staff who are interested in what they're doing will always be better engaged and more productive.

Easier said than done, perhaps, when the sun is shining and the rest of the world has already started the Christmas party.

For many businesses the rush to get work done by Christmas makes this one of the busiest times of year, compounded by the weariness of staff and pretence that we should already be wallowing in festive cheer.

So, thinking of rising stress levels amid the Christmas madness, here's a few gems from the great Sherman T Potter for when times get tough:

"Listen, it's too big a world to be in competition with everyone. The only person who I have to be better than is myself."

Talking about Hawkeye and BJ: "Excuse them, they're themselves today".

"Remember, there's a right way and a wrong way to do everything, and the wrong way is to try to make everybody else do it the right way."

- NZ Herald

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NZ Herald business editor at large

Liam Dann is business editor at large at the New Zealand Herald. He has been a journalist for 20 years, covering business for the last 14 of them. He has also worked in the banking sector in London and travelled extensively. His passion is for Markets and Economics, because they are the engine of the New Zealand economy. He hosts The Economy Hub video show every Thursday.

Read more by Liam Dann

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