I spoke with Holly Kramer, Non-Executive Director of several large Australian companies and former CEO of retailer Best & Less, about strategies for unlocking better performance and achieving operational excellence in the age of technology.

Why do you feel it’s important for today’s organisations to refocus on operational excellence?

Business has never been more competitive. There are new players coming into the market to win over customers and disrupt existing business models. No-one can afford to be complacent or risk averse in this environment.

What is the role of culture in unlocking better performance?

Culture is the key to how an organisation operates. It’s culture that determines whether people want to be there or not, whether they give you their best efforts.

Holly Kramer, Non Executive Director at Woolworths Limited

Defining the culture in your business starts with your leadership. You exhibit the values that you want your employees to live by, and you create the purpose that gives meaning to why they are there.

How can organisations ‘eliminate waste’ and find time to drive positive change?

As with culture, the most effective way to eliminate waste is to engage your employees in the process. When I was the CEO at Best & Less, we introduced The Enlighten Program to improve our productivity. This initiative involved changing the way people work and increasing the degree to which we monitored their activity.

In many companies, this change would have been seen as a threat to jobs and it would have been met with resistance. However, we had spent the time building up trust in the organisation, and we took the time to explain why we were making the changes. People understood that the productivity changes were key to making the business profitable – and to keeping stores open and jobs intact.

What are the three key drivers for building an impactful business?

Even in the age of technology, people, culture and purpose are key to building a successful business. People are far more committed to an outcome when they believe that there is a purpose and a meaning behind it. If you’ve got a great culture that’s focused on serving customers, you will have the best people and happier customers.

What advice would you give to leaders struggling with talent retention?

If you’re struggling with talent retention in your business, the most important thing to do is to understand why. It’s similar to understanding why customers do or don’t like your products – you need to do some research to find out. Whether it’s conducting an engagement survey, exit interviews or focus groups, talking to staff is the only way to find out what they are thinking.

What advice would you give organisations wanting to expand regionally and globally?

When moving into a new market, don’t change too much at once. Rather, stay within your core business and your core customer segments. It’s also important to do your homework to deeply understand the new market. Bring in local expertise and make sure you’ve got your risks managed well.

How important are technology and innovation in remaining competitive?

Leaders need to understand what roles technology can play in improving their business, whether it’s about driving out costs, providing the ability to communicate to your customers in new ways or improving the quality of products and services. If you don’t embrace technology in this day and age, you’ll be left behind.

It’s the same with innovation – the world is moving so quickly that if you don’t innovate, someone else will come in and take that space from you. Innovation is a way of life; a way of looking at new and better ways to do business.

We used to be able to get away with transforming our businesses every 10 years or so – now it’s something we need to do on a continuous basis.

What are some key leadership qualities?

Leaders need to be humble. Listen to others and challenge yourself to listen not just to the people who are going to tell you what you want to hear. Listen to people with different points of view and really think, “What could I be missing in my view of the world?” Diverse viewpoints will inform and challenge your thinking in positive ways.

My other piece of advice is to trust your gut, and be willing to take risks. Don’t take the safe route all the time because often the safe route doesn’t get you to a new and interesting place.