LEADER -- Mind games

He’s helped the All Blacks to victory and supported his firm’s franchisees after the Christchurch earthquake. All Blacks’ mental skills coach and Harcourts International senior executive, Gilbert Enoka, tells Real Estate Business how top leaders thrive under pressure

These are challenging times for many small business owners across Australia. Increased competition, lacklustre consumer spending and an uncertain global economy are just some of the hurdles that principals face.

But as tough as it is, spare a thought for what it was like for our Trans-Tasman neighbours following the 22 February 2011 earthquake that rocked Christchurch. The magnitude 6.3 quake destroyed swathes of New Zealand’s second largest city, killing 185 people.

At times like these, business and commercial interests come a distant second after the life-and-death issues facing human beings. That said, it’s still an opportunity for business leaders to show their mettle.

In the case of Harcourts New Zealand – a real estate group that now has a presence in 10 countries, including Australia – it was imperative that the company and its leaders stood up and helped employees following the catastrophe.

According to Gilbert Enoka, general manager at Harcourts International and mental skills coach for the All Blacks, winners of the 2011 Rugby World Cup, the best approach in a time of crisis is for leaders to roll up their sleeves and face the personal issues that confront staff members.

About half of the 26 Harcourts offices in and around Christchurch were closed as a direct result of the earthquake. One, which had housed 60 sales consultants, had to be demolished.

“The first thing to do is to be there in times of need,” Mr Enoka told Real Estate Business from his Christchurch office.

“The leaders have to stand up, they have to be available, and they have to provide direction,” he says. “That’s what the leadership has done here in New Zealand and in Christchurch. They’ve ensured that individuals are given what they need to manage their way through.”

The other New Zealand Harcourts offices, along with head office, provided monetary support to their Christchurch-based  colleagues.

“The best leaders I’ve ever had in my life are the ones that are not scared to get their hands dirty,” Mr Enoka says. “They roll up their sleeves – especially when the mundane and the tough things need to be done.”

Partly, it’s how people react to high-pressure situations that has inspired Mr Enoka’s career path, including his 11 years as mental skills coach with New Zealand’s All Blacks.

“I come from an international [sports] background,” he says. “I played international volleyball for New Zealand and had 10 years touring the world playing it. I have an innate love for sport; I love the challenges; and I love the pressure.”

The All Blacks have had their fair share of pressure in recent years. Since winning the inaugural Rugby World Cup on home soil in 1987, the supremely talented team had been unable – until last year – to reclaim the title.

Ironically perhaps, their victory over the French in the final followed the loss of star performer Dan Carter earlier in the tournament, due to an untimely injury that was widely expected to cripple the All Blacks’ campaign.

The less skilled players who stepped into the breach performed admirably in Carter’s absence, something that Mr Enoka puts down to effective planning.

“We really spent a lot of time in making sure we understood that the Rugby World Cup was different,” he says. “It wasn’t the same as a test series, and we ended up having 12 tests in 14 weeks, which has never been done before. One of the consequences of that, or the cost of that, is that you’re not going to get all of your players through. With Dan Carter, we obviously talked about what our response would be if we lost him.

“So, rather than hoping some of these things didn’t happen, we actually prepared for their eventuality.

“The reaction of the senior players and others on the field when the young people came on was a huge influence on the outcome of their performance. [The senior players] slapped them on the back, and said ‘I’ve got your back’. They still concentrated on their own tasks but trusted them to do what they had to do.

“Most times people fail [it’s because] they read that the people around them don’t back them, or don’t think they can do it,” he says. “Teammate belief is huge.”

Mr Enoka’s experience with coaching and sports psychology has helped him explore and develop skills to enhance performance that have real relevance to his role in the business world.

Being able to effectively interchange players – or staff – and maintain consistency in performance, even when the person you’re replacing is a leader, bodes well for the broader group, Mr Enoka explains.

“The test of a great leader is not so much about what happens when they’re present, it’s about what happens when they’re not present,” he says.

“It’s an influence relationship. The leader has got to influence people to follow them so, in a principal’s case, it’s getting the people to engage in the activity that’s going to generate revenue for the business. In sport, the leader has got to influence the players to follow the game plan and also to make good decisions.

“Each team has its own culture. As long as you’ve got the right leaders at the top, you’re able to channel a lot of that ability and skill into some sort of collective outcome.”

Some business owners would say this is easier said than done. So what else is involved in getting a team to work at peak performance, particularly when times aren’t so flash?

“It’s a good question,” Mr Enoka says. “[Following the Christchurch earthquake], a lot of the work that we did with all the offices and people got them to understand that the first person that you’ve got to get right when things are tough is yourself. If you don’t, then you’re not going to be able to impact on the other people that you connect with in your world.”

You need to ensure your view of the world comes from accurate sources, he adds.

“When the GFC hit, it really amazed me because I’d come into the office and I’d see principals reading the newspaper and going, ‘hell, what’s going to happen here?’

“In sport, we get that every week. You pick up a newspaper and you’ve normally got some punter or some journalist saying, ‘well, these guys are a pack of tossers and they’re useless’. So, in sport we have learned very early on that the media is the media. They have a job to do, but they can’t be the place that you get your reality from.”

“In the end, there are just different types of market.  All you have to do is adapt, adjust and overcome; [ensure] you hone the skillset that’s required in that market for that moment; and have structures in your week and day that enable you to deliver what’s needed to catch the fish in that particular situation.”

In business, in sport and in many other areas, keeping people happy is essential, particularly when good talent is hard to find. But ensuring goodwill is not abused is also important.

When the individuals in a team feel valued, good teamwork will be the result, according to Mr Enoka. “Without doubt, any time invested in assisting people to feel valued is important, and you do that by allowing them to contribute, allowing them to weigh in during discussions, to buy into things, using language about ‘we’ not ‘me’ and being inclusive not exclusive,” he says.

“Getting that balance right and making sure someone is pulling their weight is about getting their expectations right at the outset. This is best done before you get into emotional situations where conflict may arise.

“A principal needs to be very, very clear on what they expect of their sales consultants and agents, and vice versa. The principal should feel comfortable asking the sales consultant or agents what their expectations of them are. Then they have a sort of mandate for an operating landscape and can move forward in a positive way.

“In terms of accountability, [the conversation would be] ‘what do you expect of me? Well, this is what I expect of you’. So, you have four or five key areas where you write the rules and guidelines, and then that becomes a mandate for the operating landscape.”

This approach, he adds, isn’t just about setting specific sales targets. Personal issues may also need to be addressed from time to time, although at what level will depend on the level of trust between employer and employee.

“I think you’ve got to delve into some of the more sensitive areas, so if you’re my principal, you might say to me, ‘when you’ve got something sensitive to discuss with me, how do you want to approach it?’ And vice versa.

“Then I can say, ‘when I’ve got something sensitive to discuss with you, this is how I’d like to do it with you’.”

The idea, he explains, is to create “pathways” to discussion when it comes to challenging the way things are done, something that typically creates problems for people.

“You need to understand there are times when it’s important that some of those personal issues need to be processed,” Mr Enoka says, “and there are other times where you’ve got to plough on and work in and around them so the job can be done.”

Mr Enoka believes that his role and area of expertise is gaining traction and greater credibility in society at large, although some stigma still exists.

Some people still believe that if you need assistance in the mental health area, there is something wrong with you, he says.

“It’s crazy, because if you want to develop strength, you go to gym and you work three times a week on your core strengths,” he says. “It just seems that if you want to develop your ability to concentrate and focus, and to be flexible in what you do from a mental perspective, wouldn’t you apply the same [approach] to that particular endeavour?”

But how should people train their mind?

“The key thing for us is to understand what happens in the brain under pressure. If you think about it, performing under pressure is the ‘mecca’ of sport because you want to be able to deliver your best when it matters most.

“You’ve got to train people’s ability to focus on what they need, to keep their attention on the now and not in the future or the past.”

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