New Zealand

Leaders and reward in noticing the little things.



A couple of weeks ago, whilst making a cup of tea in one of those functional, but deeply impractical kitchens you find on any given floor of uniform, open-plan office spaces, I met John.


John is a cleaner. In his late sixties, he inhabits a world invisible to corporate New Zealand; he passes unseen between bins, elevators and lavatories. He waits patiently whilst the bureaucrats and executives reach in front of him for sugar to sweeten their fourth cup of bitter instant coffee, or hurry into a lavatory cubicle where they’ll leave lean-six sigma infused skid-marks in the toilet for him to remove – in spite of the little white brush beside the porcelain throne. The middle-management dump is a pressing matter when time is money, and you’re a rising star between meetings of little value. Every second counts, and you count every second that conveys your importance.


I’ve watched this theatre play out for a few months now and during one matinée performance, John was trying to wipe the kitchen work-surface clean. I wanted to grab a tea bag as one of the preludes to me letting another warm brew of black tea go cold; it was to be my third so far that day. With his slight build and below average height, John cuts an unimposing figure; his hair is gray and neatly brushed, but he misses patches of whisker on his face when he shaves. His nose has a small patch of dry skin on the bridge and his skin is pale white, almost translucent, save for the clearly visible capillaries that network on his cheeks. The wiry frame of his body can’t hide the bony shoulder blades which protrude through his oversized, logo-marked, cheap workforce t-shirt and his formless polyester trousers hang off him like a sack. At odds with his appearance is the methodological manner with which John works, unless you notice his eyes; he pays attention to the smallest details of cleaning, ticking off items on his roster card in his head as he goes. His eyes are dark brown and hold a glint of mischief when he grins. Cleaning is routine for him, but bin-bag changing is done with meticulous application while no-one notices.




My waiting seemed to prompt John to speak to me. “You’re new here”, he said. I wasn’t sure whether it was a question or not, as he stepped back from the sink and indicated with a rubber-gloved hand and a wet cloth that I should get my tea-bag, because he would wait. “Thank you”, I said and plonked a white dusty perforated package of equally dusty tea into the bottom of my unwashed mug. “I am new; my name’s Jason.” He nodded, “I’m John” he replied. I could see that from his ID tag – and he was right, his name was John. He tapped a finger tip on the photo of him hanging around his neck it, to reinforce the point.


“Ever been to the South Island?” he asked. “Sure have” I said, I love it there – because it’s mostly empty”. He grinned and there was a pause. “I’m from Gore – way down south”, and he rolled the letter “r” as he spoke the place-name, in keeping with the way people from Gorrrr tend to. There’s a mostly good-natured, cultural ‘in-joke’ that New Zealanders have about people from Gore; it is something of a backwater relative to…well almost anywhere. The one thing I’ve found with people from Gore – they’re resilient and hard-working. I guess they have to be; winters are tough down therrrr and most people leave.


John came to Wellington in 1972. He’s the eldest son of a farmer, and the tradition dictates that the farm always passes to the eldest son. However, John explained that when he was a youngster, the doctor told his father that a job on the land wasn’t a good idea. “It’s not ‘cause I’m small, it’s my skin.” He rubbed his un-gloved hand on the forearm of the gloved one, the skinny fingers wrinkling the tissue-paper flesh. “I’ve got pale thin skin, and the doctor was afraid I’d burn in the sun, and so that was that.” It was an interesting way to hear the loss of an inheritance described thus, and what might have been a very different way of life.



So when John and his wife came to Wellington, he got a job working for the Post Office. He did everything from sorting mail, to deliveries, to cleaning. Eventually an opportunity arose for him to return to the South Island, and he eagerly took a job with the Post Office in Blenheim. “I was a rugby player,” he told me “but I was small, so I had to use my brain and learn the rules.” John said he couldn’t understand why the game has become all about massive blokes crashing into each other; to him it is a game of technical skill and finesse. I suggested that perhaps it’s because that’s what looks good on television.  He nodded, just once. “A tiny bugger like me has to learn to jink, and know the rules. You have to tackle right around the ankles when you’re my size – and they go down like falling trees.” He tapped the side of his nose with an index finger, nodded once more – just once – and grinned again. He was describing his actual experience of what most youngsters see in textbooks, but rarely see eventuate these days. Eventually, when John decided he was too small to play against big guys any more, he became a referee. “Nothing fancy, just club games and the odd provincial game; I loved it.” His brown eyes flicked onto me and then off again just as fast.


He and his wife made a smart decision to rent out their house in Wellington whilst they worked in Blenheim. A couple of years passed and they returned to Wellington, to the same house, and still live in it today. It’s located in a suburb that would be unaffordable to a cleaner – and to most middle managers – these days. John and his wife own it outright; mortgage free. His younger brother eventually sold the family beef and sheep farm down near Gore. “Farming wasn’t really his thing” John explained. No judgement; no regret in his tone, just matter-of-fact in the same way he is about his job as a cleaner. Day in, day out John pushes his trolley on the rostered circuit his shift requires. “Bit of a change for me having people in the office; I used to worrrrk the night shift. Mind you, it’s funny – I get about the same amount of conversation, except now people just get in the way when you’re trying to do your job. Doesn’t feel efficient.” He wiped at a clear piece of worktop to remove what must have been microscopic crumbs, or invisible sugar granules to the untrained eye.


About 15 minutes passed while we chatted and during our conversation, a couple of senior executives came to the kitchen area to make a cup of something. Each time, John would stop talking and take an involuntary step backward. It was as if he anticipated that I would cease speaking with him, and engage with them instead. I didn’t – and the second and third time it happened, John grew bolder at staying put, and continuing to talk with me. Now I grinned at him, and I think we both too unspoken enjoyment in the puzzled look on executive faces when they were ignored by us both – role reversal for a moment or two perhaps?




I talk a lot about paying attention to behaviour, because it tells us vital pieces of information. Noticing the little things – especially as a leader – requires effort, understanding what the little things mean and finding their context, even more so. Good interaction with a horse necessitates it, and I’ll venture that good interaction with people absolutely necessitates it too. Start with something simple – like say, “hello” to your office cleaner and learn something about them; who knows, it might be the most rewarding 15 minutes of your day.






The India Monologues – Part Two (not the last by a long shot!)


Map of India contained in ‘Autobiography of a Yogi’ by Paramhansa Yoganada

I got back a few days ago from a trip to India.  At 44 years old, I have crammed a lot into a touch over four decades, but for some reason a visit to India never eventuated; no reason particularly.  In hindsight, it has always intrigued me – and candidly, my whistle-stop tour from New Delhi in the North, Agra, Mumbai and then Bangalore has left me wanting more.  I didn’t expect that – but then, I didn’t really know what to expect…which I think can often be the best way to approach things.


I met a lot of people with an opinion of what India is – most of them non-Indians, who really hadn’t been there very long.  I also met a lot of people all too willing to offer their opinion of what India is and it is sometimes better if they don’t.  For me, India just is what it is.  It is Royal Enfield motorcycles, Marwari and Kathiawari horses, spices, noise, contrast and contradiction. Traffic like you can’t imagine, colour, kindness, survival and opulence.  Stunning food, incredible people haggling, and literally unlimited aspiration.  India is at once modern, progressive and socially dislocated; it is underpinned by over 5000 years of history, culture and tradition.  In a country of 1.27Bn people, where the average farm size is an acre of land, they just send a satellite in the orbit of Mars.  There are 15 million credit card users in a country of 40 million e-commerce transactions.  It is a thriving, blistering maelstrom which makes you realise that there are no sacred cows in this incredible country where cows are sacred!

Traditionally, a symbol of the British leaving.  Now, symbolic of ideas flowing in and out of India...

Traditionally, a symbol to Indians of the British departure. Now, a symbol of ideas flowing both in and out.

One of the most stimulating meetings I had was with an independent think tank called Gateway House.  As the youngest think tank in India (just four and a half years young), there is something fresh, exciting and energetic about this impressive, Mumbai-based enterprise.  Founded by Manjeet Kripalani, who is graceful, smart, confidently feminine and humble, I love their philosophy of challenging power with the truth.  What Manjeet has set in motion represents, I think, a good example of what identifying the constituents of a life worth living, then building an enterprise around it actually looks like.  Manjeet describes Gateway House as, “sitting at the intersection of business and foreign policy” and I have little doubt they will be a significant feature as one of the many things shaping India’s future.

Micky - Bespoke Tailor, Colaba Causeway in Mumbai

‘Micky’ – Bespoke Tailor, Colaba Causeway in Mumbai

Micky – and his brother Vicky – together run the S.Bellissimo Boutique, a bespoke tailors at 23/B, Cusrow Baug, Colaba Causeway in Mumbai.  Micky is passionate about his craft; he seems to know everyone in Mumbai, and they all seem to know him.  Fluent in Italian and totally focussed on providing unique sartorial elegance (for clients which include high-profile cricketers from Australia, South Africa and New Zealand), he is a salesman and one of the best ‘closers’ I have ever met.  He is utterly unabashed by the word ‘No’ and manages to make you feel superb about departing with your money.  Vicky is one of life’s characters.  He hates working, but loves partying, girls and working out in the gym.  However, he runs around helping Micky treat clients like royalty and they deserve their success, which they are modest about and consider themselves blessed to have.

Reception - Infosys Head Office, Bangalore

Reception – Infosys Head Office, Bangalore

In Bangalore, a city of 8-million people; the ‘Silicon-Valley’ of India, I visited the head office of Infosys.  Bangalore I learned has the densest traffic, the highest number of smokers and the highest number of millionaires in India.  It is also ‘The City of Gardens’ and there are 280 of them registered. Infosys started in 1980 with US$250 and seven founders. Now they turn over US$4.1Bn and employ over 160,000 people – among whom are some of the brightest and smartest minds on the planet.  When you push aside the high-tech surrounds and the relative splendor of the Infosys set up, which are a little surreal at first, you realise the sense of social responsibility Infosys has.  They share wealth with employees through stock option programmes, contribute a percentage of their profit (after-tax) to help the poor and seem to view profit as a means to an end, not as the end in itself.

Bentley Showroom, Mumbai

Another truly impressive individual is Ashish Hemrajani.  In 1999, as a 24 year old, he was on holiday in South Africa.  Whilst lying on a beach, he had a flash of inspiration which resulted in him getting the first flight he could back to India and establishing a business which contracted companies to import software.  From being an importer, he now exports software and BookMyShow now sells around 5 million tickets per month.  Ashish loves racing ‘Enterprise’ boats, golf and watersports.  He is a board advisor to New Zealand Trade and Enterprise who explained that, “India is a large market – it doesn’t need to go anywhere”.  Asish offered the view that to survive and grow, New Zealand needs to export.  To him, innovation is a mindset issue and whilst he thinks Kiwi’s are good at sales, business needs to be a more aggressive in order to scale up.

Kathiawari Horse in Mumbai

Earlier this year, 550 million Indians voted for and united behind a single idea, personified in their new Prime Minister, Narendra Modi – India First.  Aspiration is a powerful thing and yes, India has huge challenges ahead.  So how to engage with India?

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Everyone from New Zealand I met kept saying, “don’t under-estimate cricket!”. That doesn’t especially make sense – why would you?  However, I think we have.  Concurrent with and co-incidental to my visit was a New Zealand Trade Delegation led by two Ministers and a former New Zealand cricketer, Stephen Flemming.  I am a proud supporter of New Zealand cricket, but it struck me as odd; I mean, how would New Zealand – rugby world champions – react to a trade delegation from…I don’t know, Lithuania say, bringing one of their international rugby players as the pin-up for a trade delegation?  I watched Dr Alan Bollard, the former NZ Reserve Bank Governor explaining on BBC World News one morning about how dialogue was taking place to determine the conditions that night need to be in place before there could be talk of a Free Trade Agreement (FTA).  This also struck me as odd; three years ago, the Prime Ministers of both New Zealand and India declared there would be a FTA. The NZ Government produced a glossy plan that saw the FTA reached by 2015, however to date it has not eventuated.  I have listened to rhetoric laced with ‘value-propositions’, ‘collaborative approaches’, ‘opportunities’ and ‘partnerships’ all aimed at increasing New Zealand’s export market with India from 30% to 40%.

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There is danger I think in being too focused on engaging with India with one’s own agenda in mind.  It might sound counter-intuitive, but from my brief engagement with the people I met, it seems there is little focus on how a country like New Zealand, for example, might actually help India first.  Education, tourism and skilled migration are considered high performing areas of New Zealand’s trade relationship with India.  However, PM Modi is on a drive to clean up India and part of that is through his ‘adopt a village’ scheme, whereby politicians assume responsibility for a village and its subsequent development.  It strikes me that New Zealand has long traded on ‘Clean, Green, New Zealand’ – well then, can we not explore how we might assist India with our approach to being ‘clean and green’; we might also explore how we might learn from India in doing so.  Then there is cricket – what if a social, non-professional cricket club put together a team that consisted of specialists in refuse disposal, water purification, engineering, roading, recycling, IT, food hygiene, sanitation…and so on.  The team might undertake a tour of India, playing ‘grass roots’ cricket on scrub-land pitches with ‘No.8 wire’ kit to connect with Indians in a community – for the love of the game.  The off-spin would be relationship development and trust-building, which might lead to discussion about how New Zealand know-how could help Indian hard-work and adaptability (and vice versa).


An Indian friend of mine posted a message on Facebook this morning; it read: “Giving, with an expectation of return in the form of a compliment, or a thank you, is not giving – it is a trade.”  I think that is a point we have under-estimated.  In Maori culture, there is a proverb, part of which goes like this:


He aha te mea nui o te ao
What is the most important thing in the world?
He tangata, he tangata, he tangata
It is the people, it is the people, it is the people

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At it’s heart, this proverb seems to be about change – and at the heart of change are people.  What if we were to approach India with no expectation of anything in return?  How might we help India first  in order that Modi and the Indian people move toward their aspiration of India First?  I think India would surprise us.  There is no doubt, India is an assault on the senses.  However, I like the idea of it being a bit like a new pair of boots – they are uncomfortable as hell if you try to walk a long distance in them when they are new; your feet will blister and you won’t be able to wait to get them off your feet.  However, if you break them in slowly; if you walk short distances, let them get wet and look after your feet along the way then you will love wearing them and won’t want to ever take them off.  Ashish Hemranji calls India, “the t-shirt with the hole in it you never want to throw away”.

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India took me out of my comfort zone. You may like India, or not but even from my short time in that incredible country I do know this: you will struggle to be indifferent toward it.