How Chorus NZ is building leaders of the future

‘Leadership shapes culture – culture drives performance’

How Chorus NZ is building leaders of the future

Top employers in the world embrace innovation by investing in a culture of leadership – a culture that invites members to share in the organisation’s growth as part of their personal journey.

At New Zealand’s largest telecommunications infrastructure provider, Chorus, this culture of leadership is what drives business performance.

“Leadership is the main tenet for driving cultural change,” said Shaun Philp, general manager of people and culture at Chorus, in an exclusive interview with HRD.

“Our leadership practices are clear and simple, but they ultimately form the basis of all our leadership development programmes,” he said.

These practices articulate the capabilities that Chorus needs from all employees: from becoming future shapers, who set the direction of the business and create value for customers; to becoming connection builders, who maintain meaningful ties with the community; to becoming changemakers and team developers, who build an environment of innovation, growth and support for their teams.

“We developed our leadership practices not only with our people but also with our external stakeholders, which include the board, external partners, and our customers,” Philp said. He emphasised the need to listen to a diverse range of voices about their ideas of leadership.

All this is “anchored on strategy,” he said.

Recognised as HRD Employer of Choice for 2020, Chorus has developed future-driven leadership programmes that empower not only senior executives but also team members across all levels.

Read more: Employer of Choice 2020

The company invests heavily in sharpening the leadership acumen of all employees – 55% of its centralised Learning & Development budget is allocated towards building leadership capability and providing growth opportunities to “help everyone realise their own genius”.

“We have different layers of leadership,” Philp said. From the executive team, to systems leaders, to frontline managers and employees, each group engages in development programmes that allow them to take part in shaping the culture at Chorus.

The executive programme, for one, focuses on developing senior leaders’ capabilities to realise the corporate vision and formulate strategies for managing the enterprise. The programme offers a blend of individual coaching and face-to-face residential-based learning.

Another intensive in-house development programme is Future Shaper, designed specifically for systems leaders – the people who report directly to the executive team.

With a mix of individual coaching, remote learning and residential-based interaction, the initiative prepares systems leaders for delivering and executing strategy from end to end.

Future Shaper also touches on how to build trust and deepen relationships with stakeholders. This cohort is especially critical, Philp said, since they are tasked with translating strategy into meaningful action, thus boosting business performance.

The aim is to align “strategic programmes of work” and open up opportunities for collaboration across the cohort. Following the residential element, continuous learning is supported with ongoing virtual pitstops and one-on-one coaching. 

On the other hand, frontline managers are responsible for aligning employee goals with the corporate vision and for executing strategy at the team level. These leaders deliver short- to medium-term requirements.

“Our third layer of leadership – largely our frontline managers – have a six-month programme broken over a series of modules, and [conducted] both face to face and online. That programme is called L.E.A.D.,” Philp said.

The initiative supports leaders in building strong teams and managing what Philp calls the company’s “operating rhythms”. The majority of leaders tasked to participate in L.E.A.D. have since completed the programme.

Chorus also believes “there’s a little bit of genius in all of us”. In 2019, the company kicked off a personal leadership development programme called ‘My Genius Within’, which consists of two full days of workshops.

The first one, called ‘Unlock Your Genius’, enables participants to identify their individual strengths and purpose, and to take charge of their career and personal growth. The second one offers tools and practical strategies to encourage people to “work smarter, not harder”. Further modules are planned to be added to this programme over time.   

“We fundamentally believe everyone has an individual leadership responsibility,” Philp said.

The ‘My Genius Within’ programme, he said, is open to all employees regardless of responsibilities or accountabilities. Philp said it has a stronger focus around Chorus’ values with a slight wash over around what it means to be an individual leader.

The company has recalibrated its programmes to a virtual format to let employees continue learning even amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

An extensive range of L&D opportunities aims to support overall well-being in the face of crisis.

“This has previously included workshops to support aspects of physical, mental, financial or career well-being,” Philp said. “During COVID-19 restrictions, this programme was reviewed, and further focus was put on supporting our people’s well-being through this period.” 

A shift in strategy, a shift in culture
Building an award-winning culture takes time, energy, effort and a commitment to redefining corporate values, as seen in Chorus’ transformation journey. 

“In 2017, we had a fundamental shift in our strategic agenda,” Philp said. “For me, any shift in strategy needs a shift in culture to enable that strategy and, ultimately, execute it.

“With our new strategy, we went through a process of redefining our values.

“When we think about our values, they are largely the main cultural beacon and the main cultural construct for how we want our people to think, feel and act,” he said.

Chorus looks at four values that define its work:

•             Authenticity – enabling employees to be themselves and feel they belong

•             Collaboration – to feel included, listened to and effective

•             Curiosity – to seek to understand and identify new opportunities

•             Courage – to push the boundaries and make bold decisions

“These values reinforce how we recruit, how we develop, how we identify and recognise talents, and how we reward and recognise high performance. Leadership shapes culture – and it’s culture that drives business performance,” said Philp.

An integral part of Chorus’ culture is building an environment where members feel they belong.

“Something that’s important when it comes to diversity is that it’s more about creating an environment for inclusion,” Philp said.

“For me, achieving diversity is not the goal. That’s the outcome. It’s about creating an inclusive environment where we’ve got diversity amongst our leadership and employee population,” he said.

“Our board and executive team fundamentally believe that an inclusive culture change and a diverse workforce are good for Chorus and that they drive business results.”

Read more: Are NZ CEOs ‘walking the talk’ on diversity?

Staying connected
Chorus’ commitment to innovative leadership – fostered in an inclusive culture – began three years prior. When the COVID-19 crisis hit, it was this same commitment which enabled the company to respond quickly to the needs of its employees and the wider community.

“The global pandemic meant that New Zealanders were heavily reliant on both our fibre network and our copper network to keep connecting, keep working, and keep learning through a whole heap of change and uncertainty as we traversed COVID-19,” Philp said.

“At an organisational level, we’ve passed the greatest test you could ever imagine.

“It’s absolutely critical that our employees are able to be connected so that they can continue to work. We had that in place before the pandemic,” he said.

In lockdown, the company maintained the right level of communication between leaders and employees, allowing them to remain safe, healthy and productive despite the challenges.

“We had gone from being a workforce that was largely in offices to one that was 100% working from home. So, we had to really increase the cadence around communication,” Philp said.

Not only did Chorus staff members enjoy the best internet access at home as part of their employee benefit program; the company also opened various channels for employee feedback.

With daily updates sent via email or posted on intranet noticeboards, Chorus provided teams with the latest government information, as well as guidance on what the updates meant for staff.

“We had regular, sometimes weekly, live broadcasts (virtual town halls) to our people in our community, so that they could remain connected around what’s important from a Chorus business perspective and we could continue to deliver the products and services to customers,” Philp said.

“At the same time, we already had a very comprehensive, flexible working policy, so we were quickly able to transition into a remote-working workforce.

“The other piece to that puzzle is we have people who needed to work – installing fibre and making connections to people’s homes throughout the pandemic – but, equally, also maintain the network so that New Zealanders could continue to be connected,” he said.

“That, in itself, was challenging, especially when we were on Alert Level 4, which largely had the whole country in lockdown.

“We were considered an essential service. We were still able to work out in the field, but making sure that those employees were safe, front and centre, and had all the appropriate personal protective equipment to continue to do the work.”

Ultimately, the health and well-being of Chorus employees was paramount.

“That became the leading principle for how we responded. What is the most important thing in the world? He tāngata, he tāngata, he tāngata. The people, the people, the people,” said Philp.

“We really needed to make sure that our people were safe; our people were well; and our people were appropriately supported.”

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