Beyond Traditional – Michael Anderson

MediaWorks CEO, Michael Anderson has leadership experience honed by years at some of Australia’s largest media companies. He led one of Australia’s largest commercial radio groups, Austereo for seven years, was Chairman of Oztam and oOH! Media and a non-Executive Director of Fairfax Australia. But from an environment that is often still associated with the hard-nosed business battles of the Murdochs and Packers of the world comes a leadership style with other metrics for success rather than winning at all costs.

Radio and TV seems to be one of those high pressure industries. From a leadership perspective are you conscious of that, are there certain things that you do to look after the people under you and manage their stress?

More so now than probably ever before. I think we’ve got a loyalty to their care. I look around my executive team now and they’re exhausted, and it’s the half way mark in the year for us. There used to be a time where you push through. Now you’ve got to be very careful and very conscious of stress. Burn-out is very real.

There is that old way of toughening up and pushing through. Have you been able to quantify the benefits of having more balance and more efficient workload, do you see the benefits in terms of productivity?

It’s an interesting thing when you get the end of the year and you’ve achieved whatever the goal was. Sometimes it’s hard to look back and work out what all the moving parts were, but generally a team that is more open, more vulnerable, more able to go ‘Hey, I’m not coping’, creates a team that’s a little bit giving, a bit more caring, a little bit more supportive.

And so, if you add all those factors in, you’re not getting to the finish line falling over, you’re getting the finish line and going ‘Great, now I can have a well-deserved break’ rather than crawling to the line. And I think it creates the opportunity for you to springboard into next year.

So, probably sustainability for quality of outcome is the benefit, it’s not always in the actual metric, but over a period of time consistently I think it comes out in the overall objective of outcomes.

It’s interesting that you talk about vulnerability and authenticity, I mean they’re words that are used a lot at the moment but we do seem to be in an evolution as from the old way of pushing through to that more open and transparent sort of workplace. Where are we in that journey?

I think we’re a long way along. I think individually, people are becoming much more aware of how to manage that process within themselves. I think it’s still ad hoc as to whether organisations support that process, but there is a consistent movement where organisations are heading that way. But I still think a lot depends on who’s your leader. If they still go ‘Look come on, grow up’, or ‘Come on, push it through, life wasn’t meant to be easy’, then that will filter down and then people will close up a little bit.

So, I think that the speed of that evolution depends upon the leadership team’s journey, along that pathway for themselves. Because it is a personal journey, it’s not something you do for business. It has to be a personal journey that you then exhibit within that environment. You don’t just do it because you’re supposed to.

How would you describe yourself as a leader?

Calm, hopefully. I won’t use the word authentic, but certainly calm

You can if you want to.

Calm, open and I think caring. For me, this is a journey that everybody’s on and I would like to see everybody benefit from the journey. Success is not just an outcome from an organisation, it’s a growth pattern for the people that are becoming part of that. So, certainly caring about the people along the way is important.

I think I am also becoming increasingly more comfortable with holding attention now. Earlier in my career I would be sitting there, see a problem, find the solution, see a problem, find the solution. I’m now getting more into seeing the problem and just letting the problem sit there, because the right solutions aren’t always evident and you’ve got a far more complicated environment now.

The first solution you come to is not always the best. Well, it might look good in the short term, but doesn’t serve you in the long term. I think I’m becoming better and our team’s becoming better at just letting problems sit for a little while.

How have your board experiences influenced you as a CEO?

It’s created a level of schizophrenia in a way because I now look at my performance and I now look at the way that I share information, the metrics that we use, the information that we give. I look at it as a CEO, but I’m also constantly looking at it from the board’s perspective going ‘Now, am I satisfying? Is this what the board needs to know? Is this the way they need to look at these?’

So, I’m applying my experience a lot there on what I would expect if I was a director. And I’m trying to bring that experience into the exec team a lot, so it’s not only ‘Okay, this may be the right approach’, but if you think about it from the board’s perspective, ‘What do we need? How do we need to come up there so we can give them a bit more comfort?’ Not because we necessarily need their permission, but because more they’re along the journey with us, the more they’re going to support us when we need that support.

And on the reverse side, with my first directorship which was with Fairfax in Australia, I had an opportunity a couple of times to step in when we were looking at the strategic value of our talk radio as to whether we should hold it or let it go. I also stepped in and looked at our sales operation for a couple of months. I found that stepping in as a director for a period of time on a project, gave me enormous insight that you could not possibly get sitting in the boardroom. So that experience I think, is an important thing for a director.


So do you think boards need a closer view of the operation?

My understanding would be that good boards are actually getting more and more insight into, not messing around with and not complicating, but certainly getting more insight into the executives below the immediate exec team. And I think getting inside the organisation a little bit more and learning a little bit more, makes a big difference.

There are things that became evident that no amount of questioning would have uncovered.

What advice would you give to those who have aspirations of stepping into a board or two at some point?

I never had any aspirations so it’s difficult for me to look at it from that angle. You really need to understand the role of the board versus the role of an executive, because it doesn’t suit everybody. I remember again, one of the great insights for me in a board meeting was to have all the strategic insight that I could possibly have to input and to add value. That’s a very intellectual exercise, a very strategic exercise versus being in there, being in a team and making it happen. They are so different. If that’s the direction at a younger age that you’re thinking you want to move to, then I would suggest that you do a lot of different reading and learnings. Because there’s a hard side to being able to contribute well at that intellectual level, but not assume an operational bent on it.

What were your aspirations?

My career aspirations were very limited. I was lucky enough to just enjoy the jobs I did. Each role that I was in, I really enjoyed and I had no desire particularly to go to another role or the next role. I was in one of those situations where circumstances allowed my development to occur without me actually having an oversight or a direction to it. So, in many cases the roles I’ve ended up having were unanticipated.

I guess you were open to the opportunities?

I think that’s the key. I think because I had no particular direction, I wasn’t going ‘I want to be this, I want to get there, or I want to be here by this age’, or whatever. So yes, any opportunity was a real live opportunity to look at and I didn’t have to assess it against ‘Is it getting me in the direction I think I’m heading?’ You just assess it in its own right. And I think that was helpful, for me.

How does your sales background influence you as a CEO?

A significant influence. When I first started in sales in media the content was King, Queen and Jack. It was everything and they created what they wanted to create. And then they just passed the ball to sales and said ‘Now you guys get off and sell it’. Sales was also not seen as a profession in and of itself.

But then sales started becoming more professional, becoming more about the customer rather than selling the product. All of that journey that’s been going on for 30 years. The first insight is that customer centricity doesn’t just sit with sales. It as has to be there as an organisation. In the past we would go out and then be let down by the business. We’d promise something and we wouldn’t deliver. So, it was very clear that as an organisation, it is sales and content and all aspects of the organisation that have to actually function cohesively. So, I’ve been on sales training, on leadership training, on development, but I’m also very mindful that all of our content creation involves sales at the very beginning. Not two-thirds, or a third, or at the end of the process. So, I probably became quite manic about that actually.

Has it been easy to get that kind of integration?

No, no. Again, industries mature and organisations mature. I think we had about five years of arguing over who was more important. ‘Programming’s more important because without the content you can’t sell’. Then sales would go ‘Well, we’re more important because if we don’t sell it, you’ve got no money for content’.

Well, that was a useless argument for five years and then finally got to the point where actually it doesn’t matter who. There is no hierarchy. But that was a maturity, it takes time.

What advice do you have for young sales people? What makes a good sales person?

It helps actually if you care about the customer and it helps if you see sales as providing a solution, rather than ticking off a sale. Sales in media is as much about your understanding of the total media pie nowadays, particularly when you’re competing on all different platforms.

To be able to understand when a solution is most likely going to be multi-platform and how you contribute to that, rather than just sell your section of the solution and hope the client has all the information they need to spend enough there. But also pull it altogether.

So again, it comes down to treating it like it’s a real profession. Make sure that you’re getting the training and expertise and that you’re joining an organisation that is focusing that way to support that development. Because if your business isn’t aligned to the individual, to that goal, then there’s going to be grief along the way.

And speaking of all the platforms, and the new platforms coming through; the evolution in the industry is profound. Where do you see it in five years?

Radically different to what it is now but without knowing what it looks like. The speed of change is phenomenal but it seems to be rare that disruption and fragmentation is actually eliminating industries. It hasn’t eliminated books, they stay settled. There’s a fragmentation but it hasn’t been a knockout blow. Magazines are the same, print is still strong, growing. I think with Trump. I see free-to-air TV being the same.

The business models will shift and what we’re seeing globally is that scale becomes quite critical. So, if your platform is fragmenting, then you want multiple touch points with your consumer. Radio, TV, digital, etc. If you’re going to compete in this world, you’ve just got to be able to have scale around your content, scale around your touch points with customers and consumers.

I would imagine there’s going to be relentless pressure for companies to try and consolidate to gain scale to survive. So, I think we’ll see probably fewer players and more consolidation. Which will be interesting for competition, commissions like the ACCC in Australia, the ComCom here.

Do you think the ComCom needs to relax a little bit?

I think it all depends on the charter. What’s the charter for these organisations? And, if they’ve got a very strict charter and they work to that, then they can’t be blamed for outcomes that we disagree with. I think it really does come down to what scope they’ve got.

But I think there’s probably value in just benchmarking what’s going on around the world and how that relates to New Zealand These issues are not New Zealand-specific nor are they Australia-specific. They’re happening globally and so I think there needs to be a lot of collaboration to actually work through that.

You have been outspoken about the RNZ+ funding. In terms of public TV, why wasn’t TVNZ able to do that?

It’s been hard for me to comment, because I wasn’t here, but- having an Australian background – I’m a big fan of public broadcasting. I had the ABC all my life and I’m a big admirer of the BBC. So, I think – and having spent my time as a director with Fairfax – I’m very conscious of the role of the media in democracy and society. And so, the fundamental principle of ensuring that, and particularly in this day and age, that people within society have access to good quality content that is tailored and very specific around their particular tribe, country, region and community. I think it’s really important.

So, public service broadcasting I believe in for a start. I don’t understand why New Zealand is different to those other western countries I talk about, like Canada, the US, Australia and England. I don’t know why it’s never had a very specific ABC style.

My issue with and concern around RNZ+ is not that I don’t believe that RNZ does a good job and that it should get all the funding it requires, and it should be multi-platform. But it potentially means that you end up with a little bit of nothing for everybody, really. It’s not like running a TV station is as simple as giving it to the radio guys. We do that. We run radio and TV, it’s not that simple. Different skills, different businesses, different investments. And I think that in the end, my view with Radio New Zealand is it’s doing what it should do. My view is with TVNZ, that it should have a charter. It would be nice to wind it back and just turn it into a public service station, say TV1, but probably the days of that have gone now. It’s fully integrated with 1, 2 and Duke. But I think 1 should have a charter, a very strict charter.

I think we should have a restriction in advertising around that charter, around prime time. And if the Government’s going to own those three stations, then at least it’s consistently delivering for New Zealanders on that charter. It’s still run as a commercial operation, but by restricting the commercial content on 1 around that charter, then you’re enabling a healthy free-to-air platform which provides that diversity. So I think there’s a way. I don’t know if there’s a will, but there’s certainly a way.

In terms of competition, how big is the differentiation between international competition and local competition and should we be working together more from a local perspective to fend off the Netflixes of the world?

Yeah, I think the global competition is a monumental threat to the business model. Is there a place for free-to-air TV? Clearly. We do local news, local sport, a lot of local production. So that’s where free-to-air TV has sort of settled. Is there a position for us in the marketplace? Yes, there is. Unfortunately local news, local sport and local production is really expensive.

The issue with New Zealand compared to, say Australia, is that the scale means that you’ve got two players here – TVNZ and ourselves. They’re Government owned, they’ve got their own profit charter. If we’re sharing platforms and we’re working together, are we helping our competitor to keep competing with us? Whereas in Australia, where you’ve got three commercial players, there’s a lot more value in keeping that platform healthy, because you’re not just benefiting the one competitor, all competitors are benefiting from that.

So, I think the fact that this is a two-business environment is probably


the thing that has held back that cooperation. But should it have been occurring, absolutely.

Is there an average day for you?

Well, you know the answer to that – no. But that’s the charm of the role really. Sometimes you’re close to tears, other times you’re laughing. It’s just the sheer diversity of what you can encounter in any one day.

Is work-life balance a thing for you?

It’s really core for me and for the team and for everybody within the organisation. I’m a big advocate for the fact that in your career, your business should help you on your internal journey as a person, as well as your external journey in terms of what you’re able to create and family and house and career, etc. And so, if you don’t get work life balance, then work becomes – and career or money – just becomes the outcome. And so, I see a business like ours, and all business really, is a great opportunity for people to learn and grow and develop. There is nothing better than seeing a group of people who have come through a period of time and have really been able to thrive and grow as people, not just in their careers.

Do you think about legacy?

Not in an ego sense. But, I do like to think that those who have been able to share the journey, benefit from the journey. I don’t think of a legacy in terms of business. You do your bit and somebody else comes along and that just goes on. And to think that this period versus any other period is more important is not a way that I think. But certainly that value that people get on the journey, I would like to think is something that they can hold through their lives.

What’s the best advice you’ve been given?

One that was really important to me, because it hit me, is ‘You’re not your thoughts’. I was an intense debater; using everything I possibly could to win an argument. There was a lot of ego tied up in winning that argument. And so it was a really important thing for me to actually truly contemplate and then believe that I’m not my thoughts and therefore I’m not attached to them and they’re not who I am, and I don’t have to defend them. But I can create dialogue around them rather than a defensive or attacking position around it. So that created quite a shift for me.