- A Freedom to Roam
By Stephen Baines
When Lance Hockridge joined Queensland Rail in late 2007, I was working as General Manager of National Policy for the Chief Operating Officer Steve Cantwell. I had signed on with QR in 2006 after spending three years working for its competitor Pacific National.
What kind of a CEO would Lance Hockridge be? We knew he was a veteran of the steel industry, and had worked closely with John Prescott, our Chairman, when they were both in senior ranks at BHP (a major Australian mining firm). The industrial sector in Australia had spawned a number of seasoned executives like Hockridge, who were known for their business savvy and ability to engage large workforces to make things happen. But I wondered how he would respond to a quirky introvert like me.
Just three weeks after Hockridge had started as CEO, Cantwell helped me secure a meeting with the new boss. In the background, and well beyond my official scope, I had been working on an idea for a new QR business. I had fifteen minutes to make my pitch, complete with advertising storyboards and a theatrical presentation. It seemed to be going pretty well, so towards the end of my monologue I over-reached, implying that Hockridge and I needed to get on international flights almost immediately to secure the opportunity I had outlined.
He paused for a few seconds.
“Let me make one or two observations, Stephen,” he said. He then went on to point out, expertly, a number of fatal flaws in my plan. It was clear that I needed to do a great deal more work on the idea if it was to ever see the light of day.
I walked out of the office, shattered, and convinced that I had come across as a naïve fool.
Two weeks later Hockridge asked to see me.
“We’ve been thinking about your role in the organisation, Stephen and we don’t think there’s a box in which you logically fit.” Oh God, time to dust off the CV.
“But we love the way you think, and we want to create a job where you spend all of your time thinking about the future. We want you to disturb, disrupt and challenge myself and the Chairman strategically.”
I was subsequently interviewed by John Prescott, and was then offered a unique opportunity to learn from, and challenge, the most senior figures in Australia’s biggest railroad at a crucial time in its history. The Chairman, however, warned me about the complexity of the role I was taking on, and the subtlety I would need to succeed.
“Stephen, in this role you will have absolutely no legitimate authority, but you can get it with one phone call,” Prescott told me. “If you ever make that phone call, however, you will have lost the game.”
To form a view on the best way to manage this new role, I looked around the world at the way other companies approached disruption and innovation. I was particularly taken with the approach of the global food company Cargill. Unusually for a 150 year old private company, they backed their creativity and intellect with a courage that was quite breathtaking. Every five years, almost Soviet style, Cargill aggressively aims to double its revenue. At the start of the five year period, management has only identified a small percentage of revenue growth. The remainder is labelled the Innovation Gap, and business units are then asked to address this gap by innovating and creating shared value with their customers. A central innovation function at Cargill provides facilitation for these customer interactions.
During my travels, I ran into some of Hockridge’s old acquaintances from his term as President of Bluescope Steel North America, who provided a further window on what made the man tick. One told the story of Hockridge hearing of an oddball inventor who was doing outlandish things with everyday products, including trying to incorporate solar panels into paint. “Let’s go and spend some time with that guy,” Hockridge had said. It was another powerful example of his philosophy of diversity and his belief in the continual search for new angles.
Diversity is a feature of all of the management teams that Hockridge has put together. He is a great supporter of getting different personalities to fire off each other, and believes that technical capability and naivety are both important ingredients for success.
“If you look at the management teams at QRN, Port Kembla and Bluescope in North America, it’s one of the things I’ve always tried to do,” Hockridge says. “I look to build a team of cohesion with respect to values, a team which has the right experience and skills, and also people who think differently. I’m the quintessential analytical type person but my basic predisposition is to have people around me who process things in a different way. You need a breadth of capability where 1+1 equals more than 2, especially in circumstances where there is a large change to be undertaken.”
I had decided that although QR had a very good track record in research and development, it was not an environment that encouraged people to take risks with their thinking. I was on the hunt for a set of tools that could be used in a range of settings to inspire breakthrough innovation. After an extensive search, I tracked down a wonderful methodology used by a Boston-based consultancy, Synecticsworld. We trialled this approach, to great effect, for two of the intractable safety issues facing QR – level crossing safety and trackside safety. With a small innovation team led by former marketing specialist Glen Barber, we would use this innovation approach for several years to generate compelling ideas to address big problems. At the same time, team by team, individual by individual, we started to change language and culture. “To build on that”, “how to” and “I wish” are now all part of the company’s lexicon.
I cannot think of too many leaders, or companies, that would encourage potentially company-changing ideas from someone who on the face of it has no technical