Powell’s passion for knowledge and education was in full flight when he spoke to around 70 people at an event held in central Auckland by IMNZ and Massey Business School on Monday night.
Powell started by telling the story of his personal rise to leadership, starting with his childhood as one of five children from a working-class South Wales family. He was the first of his family to stay in school past the age of 15, and in 1980, trained as a mining engineer.
“At the age of 23, I was in charge of 80 men underground. I say ‘in charge’ very lightly. They humoured me – in fact, they wanted the best for me.”
When the Welsh coal mining industry collapsed shortly afterwards, Powell went into retail logistics, developing a new skillset to match. He says during this time, his management skills developed out of a talent for ending up in “chaotic situations” which required somebody to step in and take control.
“I’d say, ‘What are we going to do about this?’”
Powell worked his way through roles in logistics at some of the world’s largest retail companies, including Walmart, Tesco and UK retailer Iceland Frozen Foods. He chose to relocate to New Zealand and joined The Warehouse Group in 2002.
When he became chief executive of The Warehouse Group in 2011, Powell had already decided he’d remain in this role for a maximum of five years. This would be enough time to drive change and embed the culture change he hoped to implement, he says.
If The Warehouse Group hadn’t implemented the major changes it did during the early 2010s, Powell says, it would now be in serious trouble.
“To be honest, if we hadn’t done it, we would be in loss now because of how our competitors have upped their game, particularly Kmart.”
Among the focus points for the new-look TWG were broadening its customer base; leading digital retail; leading retail financial services; offering better products at better proces; and creating a culture which adds value by leveraging the wider group.
Months on from his departure as CEO, Powell is confident the business remains strong.
“Retail is highly competitive but The Warehouse Group is well-positioned for the future.”
Moving on to discuss leadership, Powell says that leadership isn’t something that’s inherent in people - instead, it can be learned. It’s not about looking good, or personal success, he says, but about achieving goals.
“Leadership is a function, it’s not a role or a status.”
A leader needs to be clear about three points, Powell says:
- Purpose. Where is their team headed?
- Principles. Their values must be clear: “How do we get things done around here?”
- Priorities. A handful of key focuses must drive the leader’s agenda. They should also encourage a “high involvement culture” where other team members feel able to contribute honestly.
Powell also adds a fourth priority – people. He spoke often of the support his executive leadership team at TWG gave, saying leaders need an aligned, diverse team around them: “Because you can’t do it on your own.”
Powell believes that social purpose is central to the success of businesses, saying that businesses and societies need to establish a mutually reinforcing relationship.
“If they can’t get flourishing customers in safe societies where the rule of law is good, businesses can’t flourish.”
Businesses should step up and do their bit, he says. While this focus on social good has been financially advantageous for TWG from a branding and staff engagement perspective, Powell also felt it was important to note that social responsibility is morally and objectively the right thing to do.
“Staff want to feel part of something that is not just about money.”