Podcast

By Bayside Group

Oct 22, 2020

Stephen Ellich on leadership in times of transformation and change

 

In this episode of Work Conversations, Gavin Becker chats with Stephen Ellich, CEO and Director of one of Australia’s leading urban development utility network services companies, UCS. With over 25 years’ experience governing and leading national organisations through establishment, development and transformational change, Stephen opens up about his approach to leadership, and his focus on customer centricity, innovation, values and operational excellence to drive sustainable change.

Stephen’s prior executive leadership roles have seen him help to shape approximately 15 organisations over the years, including Downer, Spotless, Utility Services Group, Service Stream, and Alstom, to name a few. Aside from his commercial business work, he volunteers his time with a number of NFPs such as YMCA Victoria, demonstrating that the emphasis he places on values, trust and community in a business sense, are echoed within his personal life.

Stephen reflects on his time as a leader and how it has changed over the course of his career. Initially, when entering into a business his focus was centered on fixing problems, but he now takes a more proactive approach that sees him innovate and build strategic plans to create a sustainable framework. There’s an emphasis on creating a sense of community and working in a collaborative way with his team which, he explains, gives them a sense of ownership rather than feeling as though change is being thrust upon them. 

One of the most significant things Stephen reveals he has learned during his time as a leader, is the importance of having a plan that provides clarity, alignment and focus for your team. He likens this to a metaphor of getting into a car and expecting it to arrive at a location without steering it in the right direction. A business is the same: you can’t expect it to arrive at the desired destination unless there is a strategy to guide it in the right direction. 

Throughout his career, Stephen found he most enjoyed those experiences where he trusted the person who he reported to, something that has helped shape his approach to leadership that is based around values, trust, and empowerment. It is giving employees this sense of empowerment that improves retention and makes staff feel valued. 

“One thing I know about smart people is that if they don’t feel trusted and empowered to succeed, they’re going to get frustrated. And frustrated people, particularly if they're talented, won’t stay in an organisation very long,” he says. “Really good leaders give employees the framework in which to work and then step back, get out of their way and let them do their job.”

When discussing the current challenging environment, Stephen cites business principles from authors Jim Collins and Eric Ries as some that may prove useful for organisational leaders during this time. One of these suggests that when looking at any business that’s experiencing hardship, be it during a pandemic or another struggle, it's important to keep things simple and break issues down to actionable activities. 

Furthermore, it is critical to focus on cash and working capital management. The idea here, Stephen says, is that if you know you can pay the bills, you know you have time to think about the sustainability of an organisation. And if you have financial stability, this gives you the capacity to pivot, in order to stay relevant and viable in difficult times. He quotes the adage, “Revenue is vanity, profit is sanity and cash is king”, which he says is poignant in these more trying times.

Though a business may be experiencing difficulties, it will also have good qualities, and by focusing on these and letting go of the bad, this will likely free up time, resources and money. So how do you determine what to keep and what to exit? Stephen suggests making it a discussion with your team, and asking them three questions: what should we stop doing, what should we do more of, and what should we start doing? “Though simple, these questions can yield half a dozen gems that can either add to growth, or at the very least help reduce costs that you really ought to have avoided months or even years ago,” he says.

Stephen also recommended a war on waste, which, in a business sense he defines as anything that “doesn’t add value to your customer.” This is really where his emphasis on customer-centricity comes into play.

When deciding on a new direction or pivoting a business, ask yourself what the core sustainable competitive advantages of your business are. Then look at existing skills and equipment and the adjacent industries or market segments where those can be leveraged. Above all, ensure your organisation will be delivering consistent, reliable and accurate outcomes for customers. It is this that builds strong customer trust, return business and a positive reputation.

In the last six months, Stephen has noticed across the board that engineering and construction companies appear to be emphasising and excelling in product delivery. It seems that in the currently unstable environment, more businesses have moved towards focusing on the customer, and that focus is driving improved levels of quality, responsiveness, safety and delivery.

You can find out more about Stephen Ellich on LinkedIn here.

Stephen Ellich

 
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