Norm Thompson (former Deputy CEO, Air New Zealand)
recently spoke at Young Enterprise HQ. He told us the story
of Air New Zealand’s journey from rock bottom in the early
2000s, to the national treasure that it is today. The secret to their
success? Culture change. They redefined their brand and put their
focus on what would make their customers happy, and chose to cut
costs only in areas which their customers would hardly notice.
They knew that their customers wanted basic operations to
work, of course. They wanted their planes to fly smoothly and
safely. But they also realised that simple measures could make
a customer’s experience more valuable. Their tongue-in-cheek
safety videos are a perfect example. From their ground-breaking
‘Bare Essentials’ body paint video, to The Hobbit productions, to
the recent Men in Black/All Blacks mashup, Air New Zealand has
reinvented the experience of sitting through a flight safety briefing.
Other examples of simple measures which make Air New Zealand
one of New Zealand’s most-loved brands include the kind and
informal way their staff greet you on a plane, the AirNZ booking
app, and innovations like the ‘cuddle class’ SkyCouch.
Culture isn’t just defined by how a team tr eats its customers
though – internal culture is hugely important. Some of our
students have been lucky enough to tour Xer o’s offices in
Wellington. Just walking into their offices, you can see how
amazing their team culture is.
Despite the Xero team’s mammoth growth, they still retain
many principles more common to start-up’s. For example, their
employee values are:
• Follow your Passion
• Shape the Future
• Make People Smile
• Change the Game
• Blaze your own Trail
At their Wellington HQ, every floor has a fancy coffee machine
for employees to utilise (and sometimes even an in-house barista
on hand to help). They have a ping pong table, free vending
machines, and a paddleboard shed full of equipment for workers
to use at lunchtime on the Wellington waterfront. Everything is
open plan to invite collaboration and openness. They even have
tables set up for anything – from meetings to lunch to puzzle or
It is that sort of environment, which builds a modern, exciting
team culture. Topping it off, of course, is the wonderful leadership
behind Xero. CEO and founder Rod Drury has become
synonymous with down-to-earth entrepreneurialism. In one
student tour, we walked up the stairs to find Rod casually chatting
to some employees.
Immediately he came over to meet the students, introduce himself
and make them feel at home. Leadership has a massive impact on
team culture – something which is particularly applicable for YES
teams, who don’t usually have a budget for coffee machines!
Team and brand culture are shaped by environment, leadership,
vision, shared values and the team itself. It is this business culture
that determines how successful a team can be. For a large
business, that culture can be the difference between victory and
catastrophe. And for our students, on the cusp of their careers (in
business or otherwise), thinking about what culture they want to
build or be a part of is just as essential.
If you’re interested in hearing more, Norm Thompson (Air New
Zealand) will be speaking about ‘Culture Eats Strategy’ at our It’s
Business Time conference in December.