Business

The mana of Simon Moutter

Simon Moutter’s leadership at Spark was all about change. Under Moutter, the telco changed its name, its business model and the way its employees work.

But as Mark Jennings writes, Moutter, the man, also changed significantly during his seven years in the top job.

When Simon Moutter stood up to give his farewell speech to a group of industry colleagues, Spark’s biggest customers and the media in Auckland last week he did what many CEOs do at formal gatherings - he greeted the crowd in te reo Maori.

While the trend is to be encouraged, rattling off a few well-known sentences to start with can have a tokenistic feel. But halfway through his speech Moutter again broke into te reo, the words were unfamiliar to most in the room and he followed up with an explanation in English.

It was clear to those present Moutter was not trying to emphasise his language skills or improve his political correctness credentials. There was confidence and commitment in the way he used the language.

Earlier, Spark's chair, Justine Smyth and new managing director Jolie Hodson, in thanking Moutter for his contribution, also spoke in te reo. They weren’t as fluent or as comfortable as Moutter but their effort was discernible.

The next day in his office Moutter told me that rise of Te Ao Maori (Maori values and concepts) at Spark emerged out of the “uncomfortable truths” speech he gave nearly two years ago at a Global Women event in Auckland.

Moutter told the conference he had commissioned an independent survey of senior female leaders at Spark after several had left the company and he wanted to know why.

Here’s an extract from that speech: "The feedback was crystal clear that we are not as inclusive as I hoped we were…..Many feel our diversity and inclusion (D&I) efforts are just lip-service, that we are still excluding women and minority groups…. As the saying goes, diversity is about being invited to the party and inclusion is about being asked to dance. And we have clearly not been asking enough people to dance.
Hearing these uncomfortable truths from very senior women leaders about the gaps between Spark's good intentions around D&I and the way that shows up for some in the company I lead has hit me hard and has made me think deeply about my own leadership of D&I."

Moutter said it was the hardest speech he’s had to give.

“It was a fessing up that we’d done a poor job and oddly this made me a champion of change.

The speech was mainly about the lack of gender equity but Moutter says it also pulled the cover off ethnic diversity and fairness in his workplace at Spark. Maori staff came forward with new ideas. “I was massively impacted by Maori values and insight and how they have a people centric focus.”

Moutter began learning basic te reo two years ago. “Man, I found it hard but I have become more comfortable because I embed te reo every time I am talking to a group of people and I have learned the rhythm of it and Maori staff here have helped me get my pronunciation right.”

“What changed after the uncomfortable truths speech was that I moved from a logic driven approach around diversity and inclusion to a much more heart-led approach. It has made me a better leader and a better man.”

BET THE PADDOCK NOT THE FARM

Moutter says leaders of many of New Zealand’s businesses are willing to stand up on diversity and issues like climate change and sustainability but most are risk adverse when it comes to innovation.

“Fewer of them are willing to push the boat out as far as we (Spark) have on true innovation and put reasonable amounts of money into trying to compete in higher risk digital or new areas of their business and I’d urge more progress. I often use the phrase don’t bet the farm but be willing to bet the back paddock.”

Moutter is not a fan of companies moving into adjacent areas of business and gives the example of energy companies supplying broadband services.

“ I just don’t get it. If you are in one highly contested business (power retailing) why is the next best thing you can do to enter another area of business that has 80 players and is structurally challenged and no one makes much money – it is an odd thing to do.”

Spark, under Moutter, has had its share of failures but it has developed new areas of business like cloud IT and cyber security which have annual revenues of $300 million and $40 million respectively. Moutter would also count Lightbox, the video on-demand service with 350,000 subscriptions, as a significant success. He tempers this though, with an illustration of how hard it is to take on the big US digital companies.

“ When Netflix entered the New Zealand market, guess how long they took to overtake us? One day!”

DON’T WORRY ABOUT THE RWC

One of Moutter’s biggest bets has not been against a multi-national but against what was one of New Zealand’s biggest companies, SKY TV.

In Moutter’s words he bet the back paddock on the Rugby World Cup and a clutch of other high profile sports.

It is not just the big sums of money Spark had to spend on the rights and the streaming platform to handle a big number of concurrent users but also the risk to its reputation and brand if there are serious hiccups during matches.

“It’s a great story (for the media) that Spark might muck up the Rugby World Cup and there is probably no story but if it goes okay.”

As he speaks, he is only days away from leaving the company but Moutter gives the impression he will remain at this particular coalface until his final minutes.

“We launched the app on the month we said we are going to launch it. It has now run over 300 live events, we have had small problems with five of those and last month our streaming performance was at 99 percent. The platform itself has not failed once, the only issues we’ve had have been human related. All the infrastructure is ready to go and we will now start hammer testing it. It comes out of beta in the next week which means all the modifications will stop …..and operational hardening will begin.”

“I think Kiwis are going to see an incredible new way to engage with sports media and look at the effect it’s already had on the incumbent. The price of SKY’s fan pass has gone from $99 to $59 a month. Would this have happened without Spark Sport arriving on the scene?

Moutter could well be sitting behind the CEO’s desk of another big New Zealand company by the time the All Blacks’ kick off the RWC with a match against Springboks on September 21; but he knows and accepts that a good deal of his mana will be on the line that night.

“ Of course I will be slightly nervous on the night, I'll be watching….to see it all comes to fruition.”

Whether Moutter’s bold decision - his manawa kai tūtae - pays off for Spark will be known a few minutes after the referee's whistle sounds at Yokohama stadium in Japan.

See more on Moutter's career in this piece from Newsroom Business Editor Nikki Mandow earlier this week.

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