Gill South: Lucky few are groomed for greatness

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Mary-Jo McDonald was guided into her chief executive position.  Photo / Sarah Ivey
Mary-Jo McDonald was guided into her chief executive position. Photo / Sarah Ivey

For some lucky talented executives, career pathways can become clearer as you get near the top of the ladder. You can be entrusted with some quite substantial leaps if you have the right people backing you. Some high flyers have jobs created for them in certain instances.

Mary-Jo McDonald has recently been promoted to the newly created position of chief executive at First Assistance, the emergency assistance company founded by Murray Burkett. McDonald has had several jobs in the fast-growing organisation over the past six years, from client services manager, sales and marketing manager, general manager and now chief executive. First Assistance has 110 staff and annual growth rates of 20 to 30 per cent.

"My best roles have always been created for me," says McDonald, who has Burkett to thank for her fast career trajectory.

"From the beginning Murray and I talked about my long-term future."

Each time she was promoted it "allowed Murray to take a step further back from the day-to-day," she says.

The process has always been transparent. "Murray has been creating a successor in me for many years. For the last two years, he's been talking about me moving on to CEO. I met with the board. Because I've been involved for so long, there were no big surprises, they'd seen what I had done in the management team, there were no internal barriers to the process."

Burkett is now chairman of the 15-year-old company, with a focus on international business strategy and key client management.

McDonald explains how she perceives the change from general manager to chief executive. "The GM role has been the day-to-day running of the business. CEO is more about stepping back and having good reporting mechanisms" she says.

"This is the first time I'll be reporting to the board," says McDonald. "One of the challenges to myself is to be less hands-on."

McDonald has had support for her promotions from a number of parties. She has a mentor, John Marshall, a director at McDonald has also hired a senior chief financial officer who is used to presenting to boards, who she will bring with her to board meetings.

In turn, as was done for her, McDonald has been creating positions for her talented staff, and has instigated internal coaching. "It's about finding and holding the right people," she says.

First Assistance founder Murray Burkett explains his motives about succession.

"I can't sit at the helm forever," he says. His aim has always been to help the people in the business create possibilities for themselves.

"MJ is a remarkable young lady. There are other people in the business who have potential but MJ has been head-and-shoulders above them. She is very determined, very loyal and a tremendous people person."

For former Air New Zealand marketer, Steve Bayliss, his new job as group general manager of marketing at Foodstuffs is a position which could have been created for him. Bayliss had been general manager marketing at Air New Zealand and was renowned for his creative approach over his six year tenure.

Chosen from a short-list of local and international candidates, Bayliss was extremely well matched for the job, says Steve Anderson, chief executive at Foodstuffs.

"The key thing was to get a really top-notch marketer," says Anderson. "A person who had enough EQ vs IQ. All the individual (Foodstuffs) members are all passionate about their own brand - politically, it's a challenge."

The role will call for all the former Air New Zealand man's diplomatic skills as he works with the three separate Foodstuff co-operatives - New World, Pak 'n' Save and Four Square to promote the company-wide house brands.

"The fact that he had performed extremely well at Air New Zealand was a very good indication of quality," says Anderson. His key strengths were seen as his marketing nous and his ability to communicate well.

Bayliss has made great progress in his first couple of months at the business, says Anderson. "We are very happy with the way he's bringing people along with him."

If you want your company to be creative about the roles it offers you as your strengths accumulate, you need to choose your company and the industry carefully, says Simon Monks, partner at executive research firm Heidrick & Struggles.

Large corporates like Lion Nathan and Westpac have very progressive HR programmes where people can be moved around from place to place and given the experience they need for more senior positions.

Banks will map out ten-year pathways with talented executives.

They might commit to sending them to Australia for three years, then to Canada, then back to New Zealand for a senior position, says Monks. For some, that's "heaven on a spit and it's looked on more and more as a progressive option," says Monks.

If this sort of creative planning appeals, the executive search expert recommends you do your due diligence on your employer: "Pick the right industry and go for those companies with high growth scenarios." Then look for those that are expanding their capabilities, he adds.

Having depth in a company can really help organisations act creatively to keep their high achieving talent happy.

Ruth Clavis, principal of executive search business K2 Consulting saw a case recently where a company was recruiting for a senior position. At a late stage in this process the organisation heard that one of its most talented executives was going to leave. They then "moved heaven and earth" to fit her into the senior position, which was a step up for her.

"It worked out well. There was a lot of commitment to the person from her team and key stakeholders."

- NZ Herald

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