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Queenstown’s new gold

I moved to Queenstown, New Zealand about a year ago and was excited to join this small creative bustling community of just 17,000 people. The smallest town I have ever lived in – it was sure to serve me some lessons, and I was curious.

Queenstown (Maori: Tahuna) sits in one of the most beautiful mountainous valleys in the world, famous for its heritage as a high-country sheep farm and gold mining town. A town of pioneers, in a country of explorers. A town about to experience its biggest shock arguably since the glacial movements that created it some 15,000 years ago. I had walked into the eye of the tornado.

Immediately on arrival I noticed some dramatic differences in the way people lived and worked. Isolation from not only the rest of the world but also most New Zealand cities, and a cultural heritage bred from the early gold-mining days of scarcity, competitiveness and hard physical work, had bred a business community built on competition, privacy and pride.

Riding off the back of decades of limitless growth since the first global business established itself here (AJ Hackett Bungy in the mid 1980s), Queenstown had made itself accidentally famous for migrating far from its roots – to one of the world’s most loved adventure tourism destinations. Capitalising on the natural resources the valley and lake provides, enterprising enthusiastic people – with often little or no other business experience – gravitated here, and created some of the worlds most loved ways to experience and access nature. Gradually Queenstown found its purpose – becoming the gateway to New Zealand’s natural beauty, attracting over 3million visitors a year. Quite an achievement for such a small population – now a community of hosts, squeezing visitors into every corner of this tiny town transporting them furiously around the region and learning to profit, from the new gold.

What we have all now learned looking back at the phenomenon that has become the “Corona Coaster”, is accidental growth and rapid ascension in profits doesn’t necessarily prepare cultures and communities for disruptive shocks.

When Covid hit Queenstown, its was like the rivers ran out of gold. Suddenly tour companies (such as Real Journeys taking people into the world-wonder Milford Sound) which would normally host 6000 guests a week, were hosting 500. Hotels that would normally sit at 90% occupancy all year, were reduced to 10%. Micro-businesses such as taxi drivers, literally had no customers.

This was no ordinary business crisis, this was a catastrophic shock to the small business owners and residents that were the world’s hosts. And many, had become my neighbours. Most businesses in Queenstown are family owned, small, with their founders reasonably hands on. Business and personal life is therefore intrinsically interlinked and the impact on individuals, families and communities was – in my opinion – harder felt than in many other parts of our small nation. Many cities – like Auckland & Wellington – had the ‘buffer’ of Government or global Corporates employing much of their population.

Here? Almost everyone lives or ‘plays’ next to a business owner, and most of them have faced up to 50% or more reduction in their income and their prospects, for over a year. No ordinary business continuity challenge. That just doesn’t happen when you live in comfy corporate life. It’s someone else’s problem and so you are disconnected to the impact.

So I was interested to get involved. I thought, having lived through ‘global crises’ before, I could have a part to play. I was appointed to be part of the Te Kakau* recovery programme – a Council sponsored initiative to support people in the community that were ‘vulnerable and valuable’, through this seismic shock. I joined the leadership team alongside others from Leadership Lab which was a privilege, and I showed up with my usual enthusiasm.

What happened next, was astonishing. I witnessed first hand what happens in small communities, when people are prepared to rise above their circumstances. When they are not happy to sit back and just accept the oncoming tsunami. They activate, they energise, and the true human spirit to connect, survive, and adapt goes beyond any management theory or consultants ‘powerpoint’ on recovery plans. People launch into a ‘bias to action’ and look out first for the welfare of the humans they are deeply connected to – their employees – and then their organisations profit, realising the hierarchal dependence. They take a real & personal responsibility for the lives and wellbeing of their community on the line.

So, through this initiative a group of business owners gathered together – many for the first time. Collaboration you see, and sharing of experience, had not become normalised in a continuously upward ascending economy. Yet, when it turned, they turned to each other. And through some courageous coaching conversations, converged on some new ideals for this ambitious historic town.

With their permission, I am sharing here some of those insights:

1.”Showing vulnerability & owning the fear – has been empowering” When you are continuously having to be the ‘leader’ and have all the answers, it’s hard to show vulnerability. In a crisis, you have to ask your staff to be different – so you have to be different too, and show how you are prepared to adapt. When everything is going well, you never learn to do this. A crisis, enables you to be open, to try and to fail – and show your staff it’s OK.

2. “Reduction in the size of my business, has taken me back to why I’m in business” When you’re growing you lose sight of why you started your business. When it halves in size, you remember – or you’re reminded – of why it matters. And you do whatever you can to keep the ‘wheels turning’ because you know what you are doing is having an impact in people’s lives. Surviving, is about letting go of what you can’t control, and focussing on what you can. Not just for you, but for those that rely on you.

3. “Never work from the top down – always operate from the middle” A crisis can help you realise what you’re strong at, but also what you’re fragile at. When you start reaching out to those around you – those in your own team and asking them for help – you start to see that you have a much stronger network than you ever realised. Right there, in the middle of your operation.

5. “Its not about ‘growth mindset’ anymore – it’s about people seeing me as one of them” When you are in a continuous ‘growth mode’ you lose sight of what matters. Resets like this enable you to get back to why we are in business and focus only on the things that matter. “And that has gotten us closer to the people that we rely on – our landlord, our suppliers, our contractors, our customers, and our staff”. Suddenly you are not just chasing the next 10% YOY growth, you are making sure you are chasing sustainability in your relationships.

6. “We need to become more conscious of the reciprocity towards our environment” When you have made a business on something that you have assumed will remain unchanged, you become blind to the sustainability of the opportunity. These moments remind us that we have to consider the impact continuous growth is having on our environment and getting back to ancient principles of reciprocity, inclusion and respect.

7. “Everyone can learn from everybody – covid is contagious, and so should our networking” This has enabled us to realise that we are not a ‘community of individuals ‘ but ‘community minded individuals’. By connecting and working together, we have a chance and a ‘moment’, to become greater than the individual parts. We can use this moment to create a connected community where we share ideals, resources, problems and solutions.

8. “This reset is an opportunity to leverage – how can we collaborate to make a stronger ecosystem” They say never let a good crisis go to waste. You start to believe – that maybe – you are actually in the ‘right place at the right time’. Yes, you’ve been challenged, and so you have two choices. Hold on to what you know and what you had; or dream bigger and strive for things to be different. This crisis has enabled us to look around and look at how we can focus on collaborating, rather than competing. And creating a new ecosystem that is stronger and more viable than what we had before.

These are not my thoughts. They are what I learned, from the leaders of the smallest town I have ever lived, in the bottom of the world. But one that through adversity, is striving to become even greater than ever. I hope you gain some wisdom from their experience, as I have.

Kia Kaha, Stay Strong

Melissa Jenner

Founder, START Now + Host of Build a Career to Love

*Te Kakau (which is Maori for ‘the stalk or the stem of the plant) is a QLDC sponsored initiative in Queenstown to retain leaders through the COVID 19 crisis. To find out more about this initiative visit: https://www.qldc.govt.nz/recovery/te-kakau

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