The Ironman CEO – Nick Stanhope

Ironman and Sovereign CEO, Nick Stanhope might well be New Zealand’s healthiest executive leader but it’s a philosophy that is core to the values the company that he has lead for just over a year. While insurance generally seems to be an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff type of affair, Sovereign is putting a lot of focus into health education and Nick is practicing what he preaches. He also applies the same Ironman style discipline to his mind. Here he shares with us his pathway to success and his secrets to his CEO lifestyle.

Starting with a very gritty question…what do you have for breakfast normally?

Well two options, actually. MCT oil, which is a bit different. That’s sort of concentrated coconut oil. It means that I can go into ketosis and have a kind of a pseudo fasting. I do that every second day. Alternatively, avocado and sauerkraut – again, it is probably not mainstream, but it works for me. Probiotics and good fats in my diet are really important.

Has this been a long-term approach to your morning routine?

Look, I think – like everything that I’ve arrived at in terms of routines – it’s an ongoing evolution of trying stuff. I love reading about health and fitness, and a lot of my background is around athletics – and nutrition interests me. And as a family, I’ve got a daughter who has Celiac disease. So we’ve been sort of curious and inquisitive about different ways of eating. And so it’s work in progress.

There are two paths that leads me down. One is: if we look at Sovereign as a company, there seems to be a real focus on the wellness side of things in general; it’s more of a fence at the top of the cliff. Is that something you’ve really driven, is that something you’ve really been behind?

Well, I’ve come into it. It’s something that interests me and that’s, I guess, just a coincidence. However, absolutely anything to do with wellbeing – helping our customers be as healthy as they can, and be as good as they can – is fantastic for everybody concerned. And so we have a lot of information, through data, about what can help people and the sort of things that people may get sick because of. And we can use that to the best of our ability to try and help people in their path to be as healthy as they can. So Healthy by Sovereign is a step in that direction.

There’s a lot been said about the link between wellness, being healthy and business success as well – sharpness of the mind. Is that something that’s really important for you as well? Do you find that’s a big driver for you?

Well absolutely, and in this role you have stresses and demands that are, at times, quite extreme. Nutrition and looking after yourself is really, really important. So I’ve been focusing, recently, on hydration, for example. Nicola Smith, who works with us, and who’s a health and well-being expert – asked me how much water I drink a day. And I was embarrassed. So now I’m drinking at least two litres of water a day, and that’s made a difference. Looking after yourself, making sure that you have an interest in your wellbeing is the engine that keeps you going – ultimately. And so for me, the more I can respect and look after this body, the better I can do my job, is really the answer.

And apart from upping hydration, what else do you do to keep it balanced between stress and wellness?

I’ve always had a connection with sport. And for me, I’ve done Ironman and a lot of endurance cycling racing. So when I get out and I exercise – [which] these days, it’s more moderate – I go and run, or I ride my bike. I’m getting an e-bike for the first time, which some of my ex-cycling mates are horrified by.

But being able to balance the energy you need to put into exercise, with the workload, [that] is always a challenge. If I ran 20 kilometres – like I used to years ago – they’re much harder today with my lifestyle. So I just try and do a little of a lot. And more recently, I’ve just been getting back into getting flexibility into my body. I’m working with a team that helped me with flexibility and biomechanics, which is something as you get older that really challenges you.

This isn’t all about sports psychology. But I am interested in your pathway to success. And the mental makeup required. Do you think there is this thing, mentally, that makes you, say, good at a crazy pursuit like being an Ironman or running 20 kilometres here and there that translates into a mental drive for business as well?

I think yes is the general answer. But I think it’s more about the attributes of giving it a go. I mean, an Ironman’s an extreme thing. And you wake in the morning, and you’d go: “Well, maybe I’m never going to do that.” Or: “I’ll have a go at it.” And so, for me, it’s been embracing things that have seemed to be huge and daunting and maybe challenging. But to do an Ironman, you do a lot of other stuff first [like] lots and lots of triathlons.

[Regarding] my career, I think one of the things I’ve probably done well, is have a wide diversity in the jobs I’ve had… a lot of different roles in banking and IT, and now life insurance. They’ve all had elements that have helped me grow and develop, and I’ve given them a go. And I think to be a successful athlete, particularly an endurance athlete, you’d need to have confidence in your ability to be able to embrace challenge… and focus. Focus is probably the other thing. You really need to think about getting through 11 hours of torture.

And then, sometimes in business, you have periods of demand, which go on for a long, long time. [That] could be projects, whatever. And they’re quite similar [to endurance sport, where you’re] thinking about getting to the output, the end. And at times realising, like you would in an Ironman, that you’re going to have times where you’re in despair, you feel terrible, you get cramps. But you work through it. And that’s just about perseverance and getting to the end of it.

You have described yourself as being somewhat an optimist as well. Do you think that helps?

Absolutely. You need to believe in yourself. And sometimes it’s challenging. Sometimes you’re in situations that throw you, or they come from left field. Thinking about what’s possible, not what’s probable, is often what I look at. And when you read – I read I lot – and you read Steve Jobs… he was always about what’s possible. Because who would’ve thought the watch that I’m wearing today would be possible? A lot of people probably said he couldn’t do that, and [yet Apple] did. So I think that’s an important part of it.

Talking about reading – I was just having a look at your bookshelf. You can probably tell a lot about someone by their collection. And you’ve got a really interesting mix. Digital Versus Human, Elon Musk. You’ve got Blue Ocean Strategy. So not all of it’s business strategy.

Yeah, I certainly bounce around a lot. At the moment, actually, I’m looking at a number of books from philosophy, the ancient philosophers. So Marcus Aurelius’ memoirs, Letters from a Stoic by Seneca. And there’s a great book that Ryan Holiday has written, called The Obstacle is the Way.” Which is the stoic outlook on life.

So I’m a great believer that everything I face has been faced before, in more challenging situations than I face. Why reinvent the wheel? There’s great people that have challenged themselves and overcome enormous obstacles or achieved great things. And what can I learn from them? So that’s been a fantastic thing for me.
The way that I read is a bit different – audio books. Being in the Auckland traffic can be time consuming, so I get an hour to an hour and 20 minutes every day of just listening to those books, which is fantastic.

Do you pay much attention to New Zealand news as a part of understanding the landscape?

I do. It interests me. I’m a passionate New Zealander and I have an interest in the country. And when you get to understand this business and the good that Sovereign does (we put $350 million a year into the New Zealand economy while helping people in their time of need) you want to make sure we do that well.

And it’s a challenging industry, particularly if you look at health insurance, for example, with the advances in cancer therapies and where that’s going. And it’s always hitting so far out ahead of the curve. And, of course, people want to be able to embrace these technologies because they’re holding on to life. So understanding that’s really important to us. And understanding what we can do to help those people.

Is it fair to say the New Zealand public’s relationship with the insurance industry is it changing? Is it evolving?

I’m trying. One of my passions is technology. And we were laughing before about Apple and all my Apple devices. But on a serious note, I think there’s a lot we can do to make it easier for our customers to understand us. And I’m a big believer that people use iPads or tablets, because they’re just easy to use, and they have a great deal of information in them.

What I want to be able to do is [enhance] the experience people have with Sovereign – that is, [for example, with] ideas about nutrition or wellbeing or health, [using ways] to help them [via] easily accessible mediums or apps or whatever they do. Whatever they want to know from us, we can provide it through that type of technology. And we are working towards that.

Speaking of technology – obviously disruption is something a lot of businesses are conscious of. Are you aware of any potential disruption within the industry?

Well there are some challenges. DNA would be a real area of interest for us, and where that heads – the information coming out of DNA research is significant. And life insurance is based on a pool of probability, of people being well and not well. So as that becomes more prescriptive and more advanced – how does DNA factor into life insurance conversation with our customers? [This is] something we need to think through.

At the moment, there’s no requirement to have DNA tests. But if you do have a DNA test, you need to disclose it to your insurer. Technology – again – is important. Because people now want to be insured for various things in a life sense for shorter periods of time – [for a] specific activity, or specific events relating to life cover, or health cover.

And there was an article about students in the US who essentially just insure for various periods of time. It’s all done by swiping on an iPad – two hours of cover for your laptop while you’re at university, that type of thing. So, in the future, maybe, there’ll be more flexibility and adaptability in the way we insure people for specific events, rather than very broad life cover etc.

Back to your DNA for a bit. When you became the CEO, the chairman described you as being very results- driven. How would you sum up your strengths as a CEO now you’ve had a bit of time in the role?

I think stakeholder management and people engagement is really critical in this role. You need to manage a wide group of stakeholders. And you need to deal with everybody in a very genuine way. And so, for me, after 12 months in the role [I’m] enjoying being with people and enjoying the people contact. [I] talk to my team [and] walk around and make a nuisance of myself once a day, and smile and talk to them because I care.

And, as I say to my team, if you sat on an aircraft and look out the window, often you’ll see the airline pilot walk around the plane. He’s not an engineer, but he wants to know that the engines are there, that everything looks as it should look. And, as a CEO of the business, I want to do the same. I want to walk around the business, I want to understand that people are okay and give them the chance to talk to me, and hope that they do, if there’s any issues or challenges. So a lot of what I’ve done in the role in the past 12 months is try to engage with the people I work with; engage with the board; engage with a shareholder; suppliers; our advisers; our insurance managers; everybody we work with. And that’s a big job because there’s lots of them.

Had you any idea of what the role really entailed?

Well, I’ve had great support from my board and my chairman and people that I’ve worked with, which is really, really important. I think you learn a lot from people – as we talked about before – that you’ve observed as CEOs. But you need to find your own skin. There’s no question about that.

I didn’t really come in with preconceptions. I’ve run some big businesses before. And that helped, but it is a different role being a CEO. It is the joy of total success and the outcomes you receive. But [it is] also the responsibility of anything that may go wrong with the business. And you’ve got a lot of people here that you’re accountable for, and responsible for. And that’s something you need to take really seriously – and I do.

So you come in – as I said, I think somewhere else? There’s no manual with the job. So you just get into it. You make the best decisions you can. And as human beings, we always do our best. Sometimes you get it wrong or get it right. But if you don’t get it right, then work out quickly that you haven’t got it right and change tack – and that’s kind of what I do.

Have you got any regrets so far?

None at all, no. We’re in a great place after 12 months. I’m loving the job, it’s with a great business. It’s doing amazing things for New Zealand and for our customers. And the people that I work with are so much fun to work with. So it’s been an absolute joy and pleasure to be here.

You talk about the diversity of your roles and you have had serious leadership positions along the way as well. lf you go back to 1995, did you have this pathway in mind? Did you have this ambition?

I probably should say yes. But it wouldn’t be true. No, I think my advice or counsel would be to embrace opportunities when they arrive. And I think if you have a path that’s admirable and probably sensible, it could limit you. And so the opportunities that have come up have often [come from] left field. And I’ve gone for it – and I’ve changed directions in my career.

And through that, it’s created opportunities. And I guess in banking… I’d done most of the roles in the bank, and so when any executive role came up, I was reasonably qualified to be able to do that. And as opposed to saying: “Well, I’m going to be in one area, and I want to outlive the person that’s my boss”, that approach is possible, but also – can be challenging or may go wrong. So I’ve always been flexible, adaptable, [and] embraced opportunity. And as a result of that, the cards have fallen the right way. Is it good luck, bad luck? Who can say? I’ve just taken the chances that are here to me.

Would you have any other advice for anyone with CEO aspirations? It’s a difficult question because everybody’s different. Your style’s different, your background’s different, your personality. I think: be yourself. Be genuine. People can tell when you’re not genuine. And I’ve just always been myself. And not perfect, but I try hard. I’m a sincere person. I care about the people that work with me and my team around me. And I think if you’re a good person, have good values – then you’re set on the right path.

It’s interesting you talk about that. And I get the sense, in business generally, that’s becoming more and more important. Have you seen in your time, a kind of an evolution in terms of the way that we approach business structures and what we value?

In my experience, absolutely. And I’ve been fortunate to work for two organisations that have had absolute focus on their people and values. Real family businesses, and businesses too. So I think what really happened is they’ve been formalised more. The businesses I’ve worked in have had values as their core, but articulating them more is becoming the modern norm.

I talk a lot about values with the people that work with me and work for me. Because I believe they’re a great way of giving people the ‘how we do things’ [chat]. You can say: “this is what you do, there’s your objectives, your KPIs.” But there’s more to it than that. And one of our values is integrity. And so if people don’t believe that something’s happening with integrity, then they’re anchored and they’re able to put their hand up and go – actually, this isn’t right. And I’m very open in saying, “call 0800 CEO if you feel that’s the case.” And it should be that way.

Is there some sort of CEO club? When you become a CEO do you hang out with other CEOs and talk CEO stuff?

Personally I know a number of CEOs. And they can be quite helpful to bounce ideas around with, about things that are on your mind… or challenges. But generally, you know what? When I finish a week’s work, I’m just really happy to go spend time with the family. And this job does drag you away from that a lot.

I’ve got two teenage daughters, and a wonderful wife. We’ve been together for 22 years. So spending as much time as possible with them is really important. And I’m very fortunate my wife is an incredible person, really intelligent. And is my rock and anchor. So a lot of what I do comes from her. She needs to take credit for that.

Does that take a certain amount of discipline as well, just to switch off at certain times you need to, and dedicate that time to family?

It is important. We’ve got a little beach up north. And so for us, getting and being up there is often a way we can sort of escape. [We’ll] walk the dog on the beach or have dinner together and not think [work]. It’s a physical separation, which seems a little bit odd, but it does create a gap from Auckland. But [then again,] not really. I mean, I use technology a lot. I work from home. When you’ve got the job I’ve got, it often doesn’t feel like work. So I really enjoy it. But I try and work around the family. So if they’re watching TV, I’ll be on my iPad working, but we’re together. That works for me as well.

Just going back to the leadership side of things, do you see leadership traits in other people? Are you really conscious of looking for the them in your staff?

I look for it, I do. Yeah. And it’s different. I think leadership is best shown in times of adversity. I think you can be a great leader when things are going wonderfully, and everything’s going well. And when things go a different way, in a way, when adversity or challenges arise, you can often see people stand up. And that’s often the best time to see these glimmers of leadership in people. And I look for that.

It’s the optimist versus the pessimist [view]. It’s those that look at a challenging situation [and say] what’s possible? And as I talked about, there’s a great book, The Obstacle of the Way, by Ryan Holiday, which talks deeply about that, [for example,] how many times great people in history have come across obstacles and turned them into great opportunities. Steve Jobs, Elon Musk – all those people are great examples of that.

Do you need a certain amount of pessimism as well, I mean, to balance things out? Well I think you need to challenge. It’s reasonable to have an inquiring mind and to challenge things. I mean, in stoic philosophy, there’s the concept of a pre-mortem. Which is assessing what might happen. And I think that’s something I do focus on. What are the things that may happen or may not happen?

It’s not in a negative way, it’s just to understand what potential things might be roadblocks or issues that we can address before they happen. And that’s typical of things like IT projects or big decisions that you make. And that’s also maybe a conversation I might have with the board, to show I’ve considered the possibilities, and then presented what I believe is the right way forward.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given? When you’re taking your last breath in life, to say to yourself, “Have you given it 100%? Have you tried everything and have no regrets?” If you’ve done that – regardless if you’ve been successful or not in things that you’ve endeavoured to achieve – then at least you’ve tried, and you’ve given it your 100%. And hopefully when that moment arrives, I can look at myself and take that last breath and slip away and feel content.