Leadership Perspectives – Interview With David Ryan, MD City West Water

By People Leaders | People Leaders Podcast

Leadership Perspectives - Interview With David Ryan, MD City West Water PL

Today, as part of our leadership series, we’re sitting down with David Ryan, managing director of City West Water, a government owned retail water company, to hear his thoughts on leadership and running a large organisation.

The background is that People Leaders ran a six-month leadership programme for David’s team at City West Water in Melbourne. Based on the feedback and the shift in behaviour we've seen, it’s been very successful. David explains:

“Leadership is a journey of continuous improvement. You don’t ever arrive at the destination and that’s one of the things I love about it. You also have this huge capacity to make a difference, and I love that too. In our field, it's about water and essential services for the community, but seeing my people grow, as much as anything, is the bit I love most.”

David added that it’s this bit that provides the most challenges too, because the influence you have is so much through others.

On delegation

“You have to put away the self-fulfilment that comes from saying, ‘I'm doing this job,’ as you realise you need to empower and develop your people so they can to do the great things you need to do.

This was part of the reason we got People Leaders in to work with our leaders. We could see the changes we needed as a business had to be through our leaders. And it was an area we hadn't been putting enough time, energy and effort into. The changes have been profound and will continue to be. I love seeing people grow and develop. It gives me a real kick.”

We questioned David further about the art of delegation and the challenges in doing that.

“The first thing I had to realise was that I got promoted because I get stuff done. You're good at doing big complex projects or managing issues or whatever it may be, and then you have this sudden realisation that, jeepers, I'm actually going to rely on others. I have to trust. I have to delegate. And that means at times I'm going to be hanging out in the windmill. That was a realisation, and it didn't happen to me on the first day. It happened after a while when mistakes were getting made and I had to sit back and say, ‘Hang on, I've got a very different job here.’ And the qualities I was promoted for aren't necessarily the things that are going to help me into the future. And that's what I mean about continuous development. I'm constantly having to think about what I need to do to get better.”

We asked David if he has a particular system or process for reflection and contemplation around how he could do things differently or better.

“Exercise is where I do a lot of my reflecting. I'll start off, like many people, with a walk or a run. If I have a problem at the start of the run, it usually comes to the surface. I find removing myself from the situation and from work is really important. I just think things through and ask myself, why did that occur? Why did that person respond that way? I don’t have a structured time to reflect, but certainly exercise helps me think about things.”

On trust

Going back to the point he made about the importance of trust, we asked David to give us an example of trust-earning behaviour. This is a common issue we find comes up a lot so we asked him how he feels about the issue of trust.

“It's complex. Do we give trust from the start and then people have to work their way down? Or do they have to earn it? I like to start from a good place. But certainly, you earn trust by doing things you say you're going to do. But equally, a big one for me is when things are going wrong, how willing are you to come and have that conversation with me? Obviously, that means I have to create the right environment for people to be able to do that. If people come and talk to you about things that are going wrong, there are usually huge learning opportunities. It's sometimes hard to think about that in the moment. But it's often when things are going wrong, when you're relying on each other, that trust is built, and that's when you see people in their real element. So, to do that, you have to come and talk about mistakes, things that have gone wrong. People have to bring that to the table.”

At People Leaders, we agree. It's easy to be a good leader when you've got the resources and everything's going along really nicely. But you really see someone's true colours when they're being squeezed. That's the litmus test.

On creating the right environment

David often reflects on how important it is to create an environment that enables his leaders to come and talk to him, and in turn, how important it is that they do the same for their people. It's easy to say to somebody, "You didn't tell us about it," but if you're not creating an environment where they feel safe, then it reflects back on the leader.

David went on to tell us that creating that kind of environment can be really tough.

“The big one for me is having to hold my tongue. If somebody's coming to talk to a senior leader about a mistake they've made, there's a fair bet they've been awake all night rehearsing. I’d be doing that in that same situation. So, you have to listen and be open to their solutions as well. I’m working really hard on saying ‘yes’ more often. Part of that is about the evolution we're going through as an organisation where we're wanting to drive more innovation and see people grow and develop. There's nothing more disheartening for a leader to be faced with a constant ‘no’ or a risk-averse senior leader. I believe when people come to you with issues, as long as they’re armed with a solution, you've got to back them.”

On having the difficult conversation

We asked David about difficult conversations and whether he could share a scenario with us.

“Without going into the details, when I was first in a leadership role, we were doing a restructure and I had to have conversations with some staff through that process whose behaviours were not up to scratch. Those conversations, one in particular, didn't go very well, primarily because of my lack of examples. I went in knowing I wanted to talk about the behaviours, but I hadn't thought about examples. It didn't go well at all.

Certainly, in the role I'm in now, we've been through quite a lot of change. I've had to have conversations with previous senior execs around behaviours, and I’ve been much better prepared. It's only fair that you should be able to describe the behaviours you’re referring to, i.e. Here’s an example. Here's the impact I saw it have. Here's how it made me or another person feel. I’m well prepared and structured for those sorts of conversations now.”

 We asked David how he prepares the other person before these conversations. Does he book a room and tell them he wants to have a conversation? Does he do it on the fly? Does he take them out for coffee? Does it depend on the person or the relationship?

“It depends upon the person, the relationship, and the seriousness of the issue. We’ve had a number of execs leave the organisation since I've been here. That's not a conversation we do in a walk around the block. The first time I start to see some of those behaviours, I might take someone out for a coffee and say, ‘Hey, are you aware of this situation? How do you think that made the person feel? Here's some strategies. Let’s work on this together.’ That's more a coffee conversation than a sit down in a formal meeting room. But if you're in a senior leadership role, you've got to have capability across all of those. This is perhaps one of my leadership philosophies. It is about leadership in context.

We hear a lot of talk about leadership styles. Clearly, we've all got preferences, but I don't think we have the luxury to say, ‘This is my leadership style’ because we’re constantly having to adjust based on who we’re dealing with and the context. You constantly have to develop your skills and capability in this area. But equally, we've still got to be ourselves and bring ourselves to those situations.”

David runs a large organisation. He’s got a lot of complex things going on. And yet it really does still boil down to those one-on-one conversations. We suggested to him that it's all about people. That’s how he gets things done.

“Absolutely. Businesses don't do business with businesses. It's about people. And it's the same with departments or groups or teams. It is absolutely all about relationships and how you can improve those relationships and improve performance. This is the bit that's most fascinating. This is what makes it fun.”

On the importance of wellbeing

“For senior executives and leaders, the bit about being technically strong is just the ticket to the garden in many ways. And for many people it's not even important. I think there's a huge physical and emotional element these days, and that's going to get bigger and bigger. It's so much more about connecting with people, setting a vision, telling a story, and I see the future of work being more and more in that space. I think the days of a senior exec just sitting at their desk for 14 hours a day, having a range of meetings is over.

The future workforce wants the vision set. They want you to tell them where we're going, how we’re going to get there, and why they should be a part of this organisation. And that's a lot of energy. You have to be front facing for a lot of that. It's an emotional and physical commitment. Hence looking after your wellbeing is so critically important these days.”

We asked David if he has a process to balances his wellbeing.

“So, as well as exercise, I drive for a little bit to get to work and that's where I reflect and get ready for the day ahead. Driving home, I reflect on what's happened during the day. But I think it's also important to design the job to allow time for those things and for looking after your health and wellbeing, because being constantly on the go is not sustainable, and then your people aren't getting what they need from you.”

On staying curious

We put David on the spot by asking him to name one characteristic he felt every people leader should have.

“Curiosity. I heard recently that the relevance of skills and capabilities we have in our jobs as senior leaders is decaying. You need to constantly replenish your skills, your capability, your emotional wellbeing, whatever it may be. You need to be curious and look out there for inspiration and ideas. It's podcasts, it's reading, it's talking to people, it's finding out who's doing a really great job and asking them for a coffee.”

He went on:                                            

“I can't get over how giving people in senior roles are, and I used to be (and still am) reasonably nervous about asking someone for a coffee. But I recently met with a very senior executive who's had a long career. He didn't know me from a bar of soap but I walked up to him and said, ’You've been highly recommended to me as a transformational leader. Would you mind catching up for a coffee?" And straight away, he said ‘Absolutely.’

Now, I'm two years into my job and thinking about the next piece of drive both for me and for my organisation. That was how I framed the discussion. We ended up going in a whole range of different directions because he understood the job, the pressure and the role I’m in.”

We asked David if he would do anything differently as a result of that meeting.

“It really challenged me around whether I’m getting out enough and telling the story for my people. So, I’m making sure I'm out walking the floors, talking to people, having a discussion, all those sorts of things because it’s not just about getting inspiration, it’s got to be practical, you’ve got to turn it into an action. If you can't pick up an idea or two from these people, then you're not listening hard enough.

On being yourself

We asked David for the one piece of advice he would give to someone stepping into a people leader role for the first time.

“This is advice built on personal experience – go in and be yourself. Yes, it's important to bring a range of different tools to different situations, but you have to do it in your own way. When I was first promoted onto an executive team, I followed a visionary transformational leader who was a huge mentor for me - Chris Chesterfield. I was promoted when he left the organisation, and I spent probably six months trying to be like Chris. But I was never going to be like him and I was disappointed in myself and felt others would be disappointed in me because I wasn't like him. Eventually, it started to affect my health. I developed a tick in my eye and I wasn't sleeping. I was so focused on being like Chris. (He would laugh if he heard me saying this!)

It was only through reflection and talking to others about how I was feeling that I started to realise, I just needed to be me. Once I started to have a bit more faith in why I was in the gig and started doing my own things my way, I felt better. I know my people started to feel better as a result of that too. I was actually doing the job I was in there to do instead of trying to be something I was never going to be. So, go in and be yourself would be my number one lesson.”

On giving and receiving feedback

We asked David if people gave him feedback around how he was operating at that time and how he dealt with that.

“That's a big one because it can be really tough, and I'm talking about both giving and receiving feedback. In terms of giving feedback, when I was able to tell myself that it's actually of more value to the person I'm giving this to if I'm really upfront and give them real examples. They'll get so much more out of it. That's the same whether it's good or bad and there's no doubt we need to focus more on high achievers as well, giving them more positive feedback.

The receiving bit is about closing the mouth and opening the ears. It's hard. It really is. But I do. I think if somebody's giving me feedback, they've probably thought about it for a while so you need to treat that with the respect it deserves.”

On what’s most important

Our final question was to ask David for one practical strategy that he’s used and found useful.

“I still think it's about looking after your health. Leadership programs 10 years ago were about the technical elements of leadership. Today, everyone's realised that senior leadership can be bad for your health. It should come with a health warning! But you can overcome that if you get better at looking after yourself. It will have a profound impact on your role as a leader, and it also will set a great example for your people as well.”

We loved chatting with David and the things that really resonated for us were about having the courage to have the difficult conversation. When things are going wrong, get in early. And remember how valuable it is for the person you’re talking to to be prepared. What also resonated for us is the importance of developing the characteristic of curiosity – because there's no judgement in curiosity. There’s a very open, learning, inviting energy around it. So ask questions and be courageous.

We encourage you to think about what your key takeaway is from this post. And then we encourage you to move into action, because it will make a difference. And remember to give us some feedback and let us how you're going.