Category Archives: Good to Great

Why It’s Important to Ask the Right Questions

The problem with many business leaders is not that they don’t know the answer; it’s that they don’t know the problem. When solving a problem, you need to listen to everyone and ask the probing (and often uncomfortable) questions. You’ll know when you’ve hit on a hot topic by the reactions.


The best leaders are curious and are never ones to accept things just the way they are. You may think you ask a lot of questions, but when I ask executives how they know which ones to ask, they look back at me with a blank face. If this sounds like you, then it’s time to change – fast.

How well do you ask questions?

It’s a major part of your job that requires guts and skill. Most of us fall into bad habits from time to time, but excellent leaders are always asking what can be done differently and better. You also need to find the best time to ask probing questions to ensure frank and constructive responses from your team. Knowing how to ask questions that generate thought, focus and action will make a real difference to your success.

Seek out problems

“We keep looking for change in the wrong places, asking the wrong questions, and making the wrong assumptions.” Jim Collins is right. Rather than assume you know the answers and wait for problems to come to you, seek them out for yourself. Change is impossible if you are a rubbish questioner that doesn’t pay careful attention to a candid culture. A vital lesson I learned early on in my career was to seek out problems by asking the right questions. It’s that simple.

Listen and learn

Just because you have experience and a fancy title, it doesn’t mean that you know everything. It especially doesn’t mean that your only job is to boss people around and tell them what to do. When you go about asking questions, you must also genuinely listen to your workers. You’ll find questions thrown back at you. After learning a thing or two, you may even change your mind as to how you answer them.

Practice makes perfect

Always practice asking questions about yourself, projects, plans, and your company. Build relationships and ask what you could do better, how to improve a project and why your organisation does things in a certain way. Having the ability to ask questions that do not trigger a defensive response is a valuable management skill. Think about how you frame your questions in a way that can not only help to improve your success but also your workers’ motivation.

Why You Need to Challenge the Status Quo

Too often I hear “this is the way we have always done it.” I don’t care how you always did it; I want to do it better. In fact, I’ve actually told people that I will fire them if I hear them use those words.

Think differently - Being different, taking risky, move for success in life -The graphic of rocket also represents the concept of courage, enterprise, confidence, belief, fearless, daring,


If you’re only focused on your current success, then you’re foolish. You need to challenge the status quo, rather than stay stranded in your comfort zone. Because that’s what you’ll end up being – stranded.

Always strive for innovation

You never want to become irrelevant in the greater marketplace. Ok, so some traditional best practices may be proven to have positive effects on businesses, but you should always strive for something better. While you may argue that you don’t have the funds to experiment, I can assure you that you don’t need a super-sized budget.

Once you’ve challenged your current state of affairs, progress will depend on you as a leader. Remember, this is an opportunity to change things for the better.

Challenge all the time

“The key to change is first to understand what not to change and then to feel free to change everything else.” Jim Collins certainly knows what he’s talking about. Accept ‘challenge innovation’ and ask questions that require some level of thought to challenge your team’s mind-set. Create questions that spark energy and curiosity, and a safe space where they want to contribute.

Be careful not to sound too critical. Don’t ask “why aren’t we producing this in half the time?” Use motivational speech, such as “what if we could do this in half the time?” and “how do you think we can beat our competitors?” Motivate your people.

Have an open mind

Every brave leader with the guts to take bold risks and challenge the status quo can make a real difference. You need to be passionate about constantly learning and growing, as well as doing the unorthodox thing. With an open mind, you can entice new improvements and inspire those around you to think bigger and do better.

Don’t be afraid to try all sorts of new things and think outside of that bloody box. When something seems obvious, try something different. If you don’t, I guarantee someone else will.

Reward and exploit

Our world is increasingly competitive, and you must constantly adapt, nurture, grow and move forward. Many workers can get comfortable (and stagnant) and be resistant to change. That’s why it’s essential to create an environment where your team feels comfortable with sharing their ideas and have the freedom to express what they believe is and is not working well. I’ve lost count of the leaders I’ve met who don’t take the time to get feedback from co-workers.

Status Quo Roles Chart


Ensure great ideas are rewarded while trusting and supporting them to take the next step. You also need to walk the walk (not just talk the talk) by committing to any change with help from your empowered team.

You’re Never Wrong If You Do The Right Thing

It isn’t always easy to do the right thing in business, but trust me, your behaviour as a manager defines you. I have witnessed so many senior managers lose sight of what is really important, which has led them to great failure while leaving them digging themselves out of gigantic holes.

Word Cloud with Business Ethics related tags

Word Cloud with Business Ethics related tags

When you do things for all the wrong reasons, also expect your ethics to be questioned at any time by your customers, co-workers, and stakeholders. It’s vital that you’re always honest and have strong moral principles. Otherwise, you might as well wave goodbye to your management title now.

Integrity is a lost virtue, but if you stay true to the intent, you WILL come out ahead.

Going from good to great

“Companies do not fall primarily because of what the world does to them or because of how the world changes around them; they fall first and foremost because of what they do to themselves.” In that one sentence, Jim Collins, nails it on the head. Only you can control what happens next.

The rest of the world doesn’t hold all the cards in the pack. You might argue that it’s your customers that have the biggest influence on your success. Don’t waste your breath.

Don’t get me wrong, I know that ‘you’ aren’t the whole story. Without co-workers and customers, you’d be a sinking ship without a paddle. But it’s the decisions you make and how you meet challenges of doing the right thing that will always have the most impact on your business.

Develop a strong sense of ethics

Whatever the chapter or challenge in your career, you must decide on what you will and won’t do, and stick to it. All successful institutions are built on values and delivering excellent results, rather than just being focused on making as much money as possible.

You should use your strongly developed sense of ethics as a guide when taking actions. Most importantly, take responsibility for both the good and bad times, and never pass the blame onto others if the shit hits the fan.

Giving up is never an option

If your product or service doesn’t sell, it doesn’t have to be the end. Whatever your line of business, if something doesn’t work as well as you hoped, giving up isn’t an option. All great leaders that deliver exceptional results are kings at turning poor sales around.

With the right leaders, plenty of companies have overcome failure, and so can you. You just need to make the right decisions and do the right things.

Take Ken Iverson at Nucor Corp in the US for example. In 1965, Nucor Corp was a stone’s throw away from bankruptcy. But when Iverson was given the green light to try and turn the company around, the results were outstanding. Without his talent and determination, Nucor Corp would have never achieved 41 years of consecutive profitability or become creators of the lowest cost steel in America.

Understand and practice your company values

Better still, create some new ones. Values define what is important to both you and your company. From honesty and loyalty to open communication and security, any decent exec should be passionate about ensuring their environment aligns with the company values.

However, your personal values are likely to evolve with experience. I don’t have the right to tell you what those values are. That can only be up to you. I’m just pointing out that they don’t have to be set in stone, but should help your decision making as a leader.

One thing I do know for certain is that if you want others to trust and respect you, taking responsibility for your actions and a fixed desire to achieve great things is essential.

6 Things You Can Do To Transform Your Business

“You are a bus driver. The bus, your company, is at a standstill, and it’s your job to get it going. You have to decide where you’re going, how you’re going to get there, and who’s going with you”. That’s according to one of my favourite authors, Jim Collins.

Group of Business People Meeting Teamwork

Group of Business People Meeting Teamwork

Like me, Collins uses a straightforward, tough-love approach when it comes to achieving great change in all aspects of a retail company. I’ve struggled to find many excellent Australian retail leaders who have developed a deep understanding of what it takes to be a true leader.

Change doesn’t happen overnight, but change myths can be scrubbed from your mind in an instant. From increasing customer satisfaction to mastering the art of long-term sales growth, I’ve shared 6 things you can do to transform your retail business.

  1. Find or Develop the Right Leader

I will admit, I’ve seen some examples of  good retail managers over the years that have experience in supporting the growth of retail. Having said that, most only have the talent for some aspects of the job, take themselves too seriously, and still need to develop their leadership abilities. Not enough execs give credit where credit is due and accept responsibility for any failures.

  1. Get the Right People on the Bus

Getting the right, motivated people on board is crucial to ensuring successful business transformation. I know many people avoid confrontation but if you want to succeed, you need to be ruthless. If anyone is as useful as a flat tyre or faulty engine, immediately ban them from climbing on board. The truth is that you have to begin with who you believe will genuinely help you change direction and produce fast-changing results.

  1. Confront the Brutal Facts

In the words of Winston Churchill, “there is no worse mistake in public leadership than to hold false hopes soon to be swept away”.  Pay attention to the brutal facts, accept mistakes and learn from them. Whatever your current situation, you don’t need to give up or assign blame, but adopt an unwavering faith in future success (realistically of course). To be a respectable and honest company, you shouldn’t shy away from sharing facts about your circumstances and embracing the opinions of your staff.

  1. Find what you are passionate about, good at, and can make you money

No one can afford to target every market or expect everyone to fit into your bucket. It’s just common sense. But all good-to great leaders develop a hedgehog concept as they know how to simplify complexities and turn them into a simple, powerful idea. It’s much easier and more effective for your niche to thrive with a clearly defined target audience. Find what you are passionate about, what you’re truly great at and make sure your business stands head and shoulders above your competitors to reap the financial rewards.

  1. Create a culture of discipline rather than rules and regulations

You probably have a to-do list imprinted on your brain, but what about a stop-doing list? It’s probably something you haven’t even thought about since you’re too focused on getting every one of the to-do’s ticked off. Forget about rules and regulations for a minute and start communicating with every member of your team. If you want to achieve your business goals, it’s crucial that everyone pushes themselves to make great things happen. You don’t need to get wrapped up in bureaucracy and red tape, but you do need to be disciplined in your actions.

  1. Use Technology as an Accelerator

It’s no surprise that technology is a wonderful thing, but it certainly isn’t everything. It won’t hold your hand through a problem. The best systems in the world won’t be any help if you have sub-par retail staff or processes. Australian retailers have a tendency to focus their attention on technology, when in fact, it should only be used as an accelerator. Fine, use it to cover the basics and for analysing and adapting your behaviour while concentrating on what is vital, but don’t rely on tech to fix all your problems.

Do Australian retailers practice great leadership?

Written by Mike Holtzer for Inside Retail

Do Australian retailers practice great leadership? By ‘great leadership’, I’m referring to the concepts from one of my favourite books, Good To Great by US business consultant and lecturer, Jim Collins. Collins describes a level five leader as, “Self-effacing, quiet, reserved, even shy – these leaders are a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will”.


This says a lot in a few words, but using this definition of a great leader, I don’t believe there are currently many great leaders in retail in Australia.

In addition to the various other stages of taking a good company and making it great, Collins defines what level five leadership is and why it is so important. He uses detailed in-depth analysis of companies that transformed from ‘good’ to ‘great’ over a 15-year period. The list of companies analysed is very impressive.

A level five leader never lets their ego get in the way of successfully transforming a business. They put the long-term success of the business ahead of their own achievement. A proper leader makes decisions that benefit the long-term transformation of the company, instead of short-term decisions that have a short-lived benefit and the glory that goes with it. This can be an issue with Australian retail leaders that is sometimes exacerbated by private equity firms and public companies.

The mirror/window notion is a key concept for level five leaders. They look in the mirror, at themselves, when something goes wrong and blame themselves. When things go right, they look out the window and credit other people for the success. They do not crave the attention and the celebrity status of success.

Often times, people outside the company or industry don’t even know their names. Think of the most successful companies and see if their leaders are front and centre, or if they put the company front and centre. Look at some of the troubled or failed retailers and see if there was finger pointing at who was at fault.

The willingness to set up a proper succession plan and understanding when the business would be better served by a successor is an important aspect of a great leader. The best ones don’t care that they get credit for the success; whereas lesser leaders actually take pride in the fact that the company would fall apart without them.

Level four leaders are effective leaders who push towards a clear and convincing vision, but they lack the humility needed to achieve true greatness. Their egos get in the way of transforming a business. They typically have short-term success and even some great transformation triumphs, but fail to transform companies in the long run. Think Al Dunlap (Scott Paper) and Lee Iacocca (Chrysler). Collins’ Good To Great outlines many examples of these types of leaders.

There are five levels of leader in all. A level five leader is a combination of all of the levels. With stoic resolve, they do whatever it takes to make a company great. As an apt description, a level five leader is referred to as a ‘plough horse’ and a level four leader a ‘show pony’.

It is no small irony that the determination and motivation that gets people into positions of authority often conflicts with the modesty that is required to be a great leader. Many business owners and boards mistakenly believe that they need a CEO who is larger than life.

You will find a potential level five leader where you find extraordinary results and no person is singled out taking all of the glory. As former US President, Harry S. Truman, put it, “You can accomplish anything in life, provided that you do not mind who gets the credit”.

A level five leader has a blend of personal humility and professional will, where they channel ambition into the organisation, not the self. They are not high flyers or larger than life. They look in the mirror when something goes wrong and look out the window when giving credit.

Now, based on this definition, do we have great leaders in retail in Australia?


Retail Concepts Using “Good to Great”

Here is a simple take away cheat sheet that I use when presenting the six concepts of “Good to Great” by Jim Collins and how they relate to the Retail Industry. It is not meant to be a deep dive into the book (some of my upcoming blogs will dig deeper into each concept), but rather a quick reference on the six concepts and a few important points.

Remember the Fly Wheel Effect – all of the concepts work together to achieve the results – there is no miracle moment – it is an evolution. We implemented these concepts at OrotonGroup prior to the major turnaround in the business 10 years ago.


Level 5 Leadership

Personal humility and professional will. They channel ambition into the organisation, not the self. Not a high flyer or larger than life. They look in the mirror when something goes wrong and look out the window when giving credit. Comfortable that they may not get credit for success. Many Australian Retailers achieve Level 4, but few achieve level 5.

First who, then what!

Get the right people on the bus and the wrong people off the bus. Begin with who, rather than what and the transformation will be easier. Great vision without great people is irrelevant. When you need to make a change, make it quickly. Retailers need to have the correct structure with the right people. Nepotism has created issues within several Australian retailers. Only hire friends or relatives if you can separate business with personal.

Confront the Brutal facts (The Stockdale Paradox)

Admiral James Stockdale survived 7 years in a Viet Cong POW camp by hanging onto two contrary beliefs – His Life couldn’t be worse at the moment (the brutal fact) and his life would someday be better than ever (unwavering faith). Be brutally honest about your current situation, but never give up. There are several retail examples in the past few years that demonstrate what happens when you wait too long to confront the brutal facts.

Hedgehog Concept

You need to be the best at your clearly defined niche. You cannot be all things to all people. The intersection between – what you are passionate about, what drives your economic engine and what you can be best at. A Fox knows a little about many things. A Fox is complex. A hedgehog knows only one thing very well. A hedgehog is simple. Department stores struggle with this whereas specialty stores often find this niche and thrive.

Culture of Discipline

Companies build rules to manage a small % of the wrong people which in turns frustrates the right people. A great organisation is high in entrepreneurship and high in discipline (a blend of magic and science). Get everyone going in the same direction with the same goals – communicate.

Technology Accelerators

Technology is not a fix to problems. It helps you achieve a great strategy, but it isn’t a strategy in itself. Use technology to truly differentiate yourself with competitors if warranted. Get the basics right with technology, but don’t get caught up in the hype. Aussie retailers love the concept of technology, but few do it well. If you choose to spend on new technology, make sure that you use it completely – if you collect data – analyse it and adapt your behaviour.


How “Good to Great” worked for me and OrotonGroup

During my time at Oroton, first in the US and then in Australia, we overcame some huge hurdles. My first stint with OrotonGroup was restructuring the US subsidiary and selling it to a group of investors. This took about three years and we faced a myriad of problems from bad outsourcing contract to bad relationships with our department store customers to poorly implemented IT systems. We struggled with a brand that was top tier in Australia, but was virtually unknown in the U.S. Foreign brands trying to enter into the U.S. need to understand what it takes to succeed in a vastly different environment with geographical considerations, more competition and 10 times the population. (More on this in a future article)

We successfully sold the US business and created a franchise arrangement with the new owners. At the end of this process, I casually told the owners of Oroton that if their COO ever quits in Australia, please give me a call. Two years passed and I got a phone call from Ross Lane, the MD of Oroton, who informed me that the COO just resigned and asked if I was serious about moving to Australia and taking over as the COO. I flew to Sydney the next week, accepted the job and moved over a few weeks later.

At that time OrotonGroup was about a $75M company and had Oroton, Ralph Lauren and recently acquired Morrissey. It was making money but was struggling with several aspects of Operations, including a stock turn of less than 1.

After getting my feet wet and getting to understand the business inside and out, Ross and I were introduced to a book called “Good to Great” by Jim Collins. We both read it and liked it so much, we bought copies for the entire management team and adopted the philosophies and terminologies from the book. It began a several year ride of taking a successful business and making it better and better.

The main philosophies in the book were (which I will explain in further detail in future blogs):

  1. You need Level 5 Leadership
  2. First who….then what
  3. Confront the brutal facts
  4. The Hedgehog Concept
  5. Culture of Discipline
  6. Technology accelerators

During the time that I was COO and while we were living the philosophy in “Good to Great” we accomplished great things.

  1. We doubled the size of the business from $75M to $150M and doubled the share price at the same time.
  2. During this growth we managed to keep inventory at the same level through the implementation of a proper merchandise planning department. We more than doubled the stock turn and were on course to get it to be where it should be even with the obstacle of buying Northern Hemisphere Ralph Lauren product for the Southern Hemisphere.
  3. We consolidated three warehouses into one efficient distribution centre.
  4. We moved our head office from the northern beaches of Sydney to the CBD to be closer to our partners.
  5. We issued further shares and raised the capital needed to buy Marcs (seemed like a good idea at the time – more on that later).
  6. Outsourced our clothing manufacturing capability to Apparel Group as it wasn’t our core focus.
  7. Launched the Aldo brand into Australia through a licensing agreement.
  8. Cemented a great working relationship with the executives at David Jones that secured us as one of their top suppliers.
  9. Implemented a new end to end ERP system that, after a few hiccups, was the foundation that OrotonGroup built on and continued to grow with.

This is just a taste of what can be accomplished when you follow the right management philosophies and direction. “Good to Great” helped immensely during this great building phase at OrotonGroup.



Are you Arrogant?

How can you tell when someone is arrogant, or just confident at what they do?

It is the difference between Level 5 and Level 4 leadership as described in the book by Jim Collins, “Good to Great”.

We all know people that are downright arrogant and annoying. We have to be able to identify and deal with these people in order to rise above them and succeed.

There is a difference between arrogant and confident.

Confident – feeling or showing confidence in oneself or one’s abilities or qualities.

Arrogant having or revealing an exaggerated sense of one’s own importance or abilities.

There’s a very thin line between confident people and arrogant people, but it is an important line not to cross. Both require a robust belief in one’s own abilities; however, that’s where the parallels end.

Confidence is inspirational; arrogance is annoying.

Becoming confident takes years of hard work and diligence; arrogance requires attitude only. Here are several ways to avoid becoming an arrogant individual.

  • Expand your horizons – get a life outside your area of expertise.
  • Arrive to meetings on time – respect the time of others.
  • Don’t interrupt other people’s conversations – listen to other people’s opinions instead of talking over them. You have two ears and one mouth – use them proportionally.
  • Admit when you don’t know something – even if you are an expert in a field, there are things you may not know. Admit it and then find the answer.
  • Don’t name drop when it is not in context – If it is relevant it is okay.
  • Acknowledge everyone in the room – show interest in others – at all levels.
  • Don’t condescend – show some respect.
  • Don’t blame everyone else – mistakes happen – own up to them.

Some well-known business leaders are undeniably arrogant (Level 4) – leaders that found themselves in the spotlight – often for being arrogant. But most of the greatest influential leaders are confident, not arrogant (Level 5).


Typical traits in arrogant people:

  • View themselves as better than anyone else
  • Think that they know what’s better for others
  • Never admit their mistakes
  • Celebrate the failures of others
  • Get frustrated if the center of attention moves to someone else
  • Get mad when you question their “perfect little world.”
  • Have a “my-way’s-the-only-way” attitude
  • Have a false appeal
  • Enjoy showing their mean side to those that they don’t like

“Arrogance is trying to convince others you’re more than who they know you are.” Bianca Frazier

Arrogance requires advertising. Confidence speaks for itself.

Typical traits in confident people:

  • Trust in themselves and in their talents
  • Are honest about their objectives and potential
  • Are skilled competitors
  • Are not fearful to recognize their mistakes
  • Assist others correct their mistakes

Dealing with an arrogant person can be frustrating and challenging, but it is a fact of life. Don’t fall into the trap of fighting arrogance with arrogance. Don’t stoop to their level, and keep doing what is right.

There is a thin line between confidence and arrogance…’s called humility. Confidence smiles. Arrogance smirks.

Don’t be that arrogant person that everyone despises.