Vodafone Australia’s Managing Director Grahame Maher has instilled a values-based culture with an emphasis on staff growth and a strong focus on what the business is all about.Lauren Thomsen-Moore reports.
For a manager who started out as a baker, and never finished his business degree at university, Grahame Maher is an intelligent and “with it” businessman, who takes what he calls a “fair dinkum” approach to managing and leading his organisation. So far, the results are impressive.
According to Maher, the mobile technology company’s culture immediately strikes visitors to Vodafone’s offices.
“Bright beanbags in designated chill-out rooms, free massage therapy in progress, and the V-room (a high-tech room showcasing Vodafone’s products and services). But it’s not just the interior that stands out, it’s the vibe of the place,” he says.
This is all part of a commitment to being a “values-based” organisation, he says, and it’s about changing the company culture to enhance relations with customers via an improved employee experience.
Mobile working is a reality for Maher who doesn’t actually have an office, but rather shares himself around the company and the different business units.
“I sit amongst the office and move around every few months. It’s good to spend time with all of the people in the business. They all know me well, though it’s hard to know them all, but I do. And if I’m walking past the call centre, I sit down and have a chat with people and they say ‘hi’ and ask how my family is.”
Maher says he chooses to move around the business “as it forces me to make sure I don’t get stuck in one place, and it’s to make sure that I am continually seen throughout the business.
“It’s better than sitting in an office all day. I can work from wherever I am, I don’t need to be in an office to work. I am generally mobile and that means more efficient.”
Ironically while he doesn’t have a degree he admits that in today’s world, most employers would overlook any job candidates who haven’t made an attempt to continue with further studies.
“It means, frankly, that when people look at a bunch of resumes, if there isn’t a degree on there, well that’s one way people get culled – regardless of how good you are.
“Today because education is so much more available, you’re crazy not to get it.
“I would have loved to have done or finished a degree but I didn’t. But over time I have taken numerous other courses and further learning”, he says.
Learning at Vodafone
Learning is a key part of Vodafone’s ‘people plan’, designed to support the overall business strategy by helping Vodafone people and partners learn what they need to know.
In the earlier stages of his career, Maher joined an organisation that was basically a group of CEOs or senior executives using a formal mentoring process for a day and a half each month.
“I did that when I was running a business and learnt so much. I remember I was about 29 and in awe of all these people who were multimillionaire CEO-type people and I had this whole vision of ‘this is what I want to do’.
“These guys shared their big issues with the group, and most of them were dealing with issues like: why they’d done everything in their life and how bad they felt, problems they had with their life, family and marriage etc. They were all getting to the stage of facing the end of their life, and wondering why they wasted it; so I realised I didn’t want that to be me, so I sold the business, took a year off and did charity work.”
After leaving the baking trade in his late teens – “one can only work all night and get three hours sleep a day for so long” – Maher became involved in the office equipment industry, and ended up owning a few businesses by his early 20s.
“It was interesting and challenging, and a great learning curve to own a business at such a young age.”
Maher says he believes there are real advantages in running a business when people are younger.
“You are going to make lots of mistakes and you can learn from them.”
The alternative, he says, is where people work in a corporate or business environment and then go out on their own. “You can still make loads of mistakes and then lose a shitload of money, which is what happens with senior executives that have been in business and then go out and try to run their own business,” Maher says.
Admitting that he was quite lucky that it all worked out for him, Maher said his empire, that started with one company, continued to evolve and grow “which was exciting stuff during the ’70s and ’80s”.
“When we first started back when I was 21, I think we had four staff and grew that into a business called Adelaide Business Machines, which I think had a turnover of about $100,000.
“Then we grew to about 60 staff with a turnover of about $6-$7 million – a significant size. They were reasonable small businesses,” Maher says.
After selling or merging a couple of the businesses, Maher then sold the South Australian business, Mobilfone, to Vodafone’s biggest reseller, the listed Digicall, for cash and shares.
“Then Digicall got into trouble and Vodafone asked my partner and I back in to have a look at how we could help that business. And I ended up being CEO of Digicall.
“It was trading ordinarily so we put in an administrator and receiver and sold it back to Vodafone. Vodafone asked me to stay on, and I haven’t been able to get away since,” Maher jokes.
Later, heading up Vodafone New Zealand’s operations, Maher led the team that boosted customer numbers, and the company’s market share.
He was then brought back across the Tasman to face the challenge of rebuilding Vodafone Australia’s structures and processes which also involved cutting costs and halving the workforce from about 3200 to 1500.
“I came back to Australia and found that the business really wasn’t clear on why it was here, its purpose, or where it was going. It was just a matter of saying, ‘well we need to get clear on that’,” Maher says.
“But that was hard because the plan we put in place is what you call 50/50/50: which was really about reducing the spend that we had in capital by 50 per cent; reducing the operating costs and people by 50 per cent; and trying to grow the business by 50 per cent.”
Maher says this exercise aimed to reinforce that “all Vodafone does is mobile, mobile and mobile, when we had a business here that was trying to do a whole bunch of other things”.
“So while we’ve been trying to do something different here to what we do everywhere else in the world, we also use the strength of our global business to drive us.”
He admits that “as always in business” a lot of mistakes were made, but he says not making mistakes “is the worst thing because you’re not trying to do anything”.
“Some of the steps we’ve made have been very good. And I think some of the successes – cutting the costs and certainly the capital spend, as well as getting a clearer idea on how to use a global business – have been stunningly good.”
Maher says there are real business benefits in having happy, committed, passionate employees. Vodafone’s flexible workplace practices provide some employees with the opportunity to work in areas away from their CBD locations. Maher says Vodafone’s approach is not about ‘clock watching’. Instead it is structured about meeting deadlines, understanding what needs to be delivered by when, and meeting goals.
Management / leadership style
Maher considers leadership to be about helping others, “whereas management tends to be more of the doing and the managing of doing”.
He says both managers and leaders are required at all levels of an organisation, and to be a successful manager, one needs discipline and attention to detail.
“I’m the kind of manager who is able to take complex issues and simplify them into something that anyone in the business can understand and communicate, and inspire people towards it,” he says.
Maher says he also genuinely cares about people and how to help them succeed and reach their goals.
“In my early lessons in my career I’ve learnt that ‘talking it and not doing it’, is not an option. You have to have a bit of courage and be brave,” he says.
Maher says he is at “his best” when he allows staff to do what they know is the right thing to do. As well as providing an environment where the team and business can be clear about “where we want to go”.
“That’s why we refer to Vodafone as a values-based organisation, as opposed to a traditional business. We don’t use hierarchical structures to tell everyone what to do and check what they are doing every half an hour.
“People might think that’s a little radical – I think it’s pretty normal. It’s the biggest step away from the traditional management process. It doesn’t mean you don’t have measures that are important. If you don’t track measures and performance . . . that’s critical.
“But it’s about the trust of the people that work for you, and respect. Which are two of the most important factors in that relationship.”
Maher says the culture that then develops is a culture that is electric and live – just like a good relationship.
“You just get stronger. It’s like two plus two does equal four. So in our culture we’re really humming along well. It feels like 1400 people equals 5000 people, based on the noise, fun and what happens in the business.”
Maher works reasonably long hours but he does it because he enjoys it. He says he spends most of his day talking to people and ends up at home sometimes by 7pm.
“My days may consist of a morning jog, meetings, one-on-one coaching sessions, induction training, meeting with suppliers, and teleconferences at all hours with the parent company in the UK.
“This morning for example, I was in a session with 15 people going through our induction and values training. I spent more than an hour talking about life – which is great – and the challenges, and what that means for them and Vodafone.”
He also admits that he is a bad loner, in the management sense, and he values input from a team. “It’s important for my team to be strong, so they can challenge whatever I am thinking.”
Maher says he regularly undertakes coaching or mentoring sessions with staff.
“One form of mentoring is where I might have a coaching contract or time booked with someone once a month for two hours. We’ll discuss what the person wants from it, and what I want out of it. I probably have six or seven of those sessions currently. But I coach, meet and talk with people everyday – which is at least a couple of hours a day – as well as group sessions.
“I hope the people will take personal responsibility for their life out of the coaching. And I always believe that one of the best ways to learn is to teach,” he says.
Maher says Vodafone has a number of coaching and mentoring development programs for staff, as well as values training and a Leadership in Action program – which is intensive personal development for leadership.
The values journey
The success of Vodafone’s jump into values training is showing tangible results. Vodafone gained about 400,000 new Australian customers in the 12 months to 31 March 2003, EBITDA up by $60m and big improvements in free cash flow.
As the company becomes better known for being a fun, values-based organisation, Maher claims that the recruitment phase becomes more of a self-fulfilling prophecy, with people applying for vacant positions because they are attracted by the company culture.
New recruits are introduced to the values of Vodafone and the training explores how they play a role in bringing a values-based organisation to life.
Vodafone Australia has a continued focus on, and a belief in, leadership in keeping staff inspired and supporting them, Maher says.
Company-wide refresher courses and values updates throughout the year are designed to support people by checking in on their values commitment.
Every six months, senior executives join a national roadshow for all Vodafone staff and business partners.
Described internally as: “more like a touring rock band than a corporate seminar, the events are loud and entertaining, as well as informative and interactive”.
The roadshow showcases new products and services and remind everyone how they can bring the values to life and stay focused on delivering a “wow” customer experience, says Maher.
It’s also essential that the culture change is supported and maintained by the leaders in the business, which is where the Leadership in Action program comes in.
Leadership in Action is a program engaging more than 400 staff from Vodafone Australia and New Zealand, incorporating 19 days of development over a nine-month period, covering eight modules.
While everyone at Vodafone is expected to engage with the values, Maher says a lot of emphasis is placed on leaders within the business to make sure there is plenty of peer support and to ensure the team leaders have the tools they need to manage the way their teams do business.
Modules covered in Leadership in Action include: personal leadership; coaching; team leadership; and strategic leadership.
Although investing significant time and resources into its staff, Maher says the leadership and values programs are not specifically aimed at retaining staff.
“In fact, if anyone has been with us for five years, I wonder why they are still here. For some people it’s absolutely the right thing, but for a lot of people, you get into a rut by staying somewhere too long.
“So, it’s not a retention issue, it’s more about creating the potential to help people grow.” Maher says the challenge now for the company is all about growth. “To get where we want to go, we need to take a big step. That’s our biggest challenge and ‘the bit that’s left’.”
Maher says he’d like to see the company further ahead than it currently is.
“Some of the things that we planned to happen, happened around us. And we missed out on some of it. Some of the calls we’ve made in the last year may not have been as good as they could have been – there’s no doubt about that.
“So are we totally happy? No. Are we happy that the business is at a good place to grow from? Yes. I think the important thing was to get some of the hard stuff done and be ready to take the next step.”
Maher says Vodafone forecasts significant change ahead for the mobile industry.
“That’s where our global muscle matters. And that’s how we intend to dramatically change the marketplace in Australia for mobile.
“We think we’ll see the costs of using mobiles reduced significantly. Our position is – we do mobile, mobile, mobile, so why do you need a landline?”