The Chiefs Podcast by Whiteark Episode 23
Blaine Slater | Servant Leadership
James Ciuffetelli has Blaine Slater (Group Executive – New Business, TSA Group) in the hot seat this week, talking all things leadership. Actually, to be more specific – Servant Leadership.
Having started as a frontline contact centre agent, Blaine’s progression through TSA group has given him a unique perspective on the real life goings on at each layer of their operations, and a deep appreciation for it. Perhaps that is one of the reasons he has just marked his 15th year anniversary with the group.
This conversation is packed with tips on how to lead with your people front of mind, and why that makes all the difference. From inspirational leaders to his lessons along the way, Blaine talks us through his journey with candour, honesty and humility – and it’s nothing short of brilliant.
About The Chiefs by Whiteark
What makes leaders tick? The Chiefs gives you insight into what makes our great leaders so great. With organisation’s top chiefs in the hot seat each week, we chat about the highs – and lows – and lessons along the way; tackling the biggest issues people are facing today. We know that leading can be a lonely role and we believe that learning from other great people is one of the best resources we have. So join us on our journey, and enjoy the stories behind some of the greats…
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James Ciuffetelli: Welcome to The Chiefs. The Chiefs is a Whiteark podcast aimed at specifically giving you an insight into what makes great leaders and entrepreneurs in a variety of organizations tick. We call them Chiefs. My name is James Ciuffetelli, and together with my Whiteark co-chief Jo Hands, we’re going to attempt to take you on a journey and talk to as many chiefs across as many industries as we can to give you an insight into A) makes them tick, and B) what makes their enterprises thrive and more importantly, what they’ve learned along the way. All right. Welcome to another edition of the Chiefs, and today I am thrilled to have Blaine Slater all the way out of Perth, one of the most dynamic young executives you will ever hear from and meet. Welcome, Blaine.
Blaine Slater: Hi, James. Thanks for having me.
James Ciuffetelli: It is great to have you on the Chiefs. And just by way of introduction, Blaine obviously resides aout of Perth. We are all very envious Blaine, that you’re out of Perth. Blaine Is a really dynamic young entrepreneur. He’s an executive at TSA Group. I’ve known Blaine for probably five or six years and have really marveled at the way he’s grown, his leadership and his career into really being one of the solid drivers of that very successful business model. Finalists in the 2020 Executive of the Year as I said earlier and one of the most credentialed young men you’ll ever meet in contact centre management in outsourcing works across a variety of industries amazes me his ability to sort of flip from telecommunications into advertising, into health, into energy. It’s quite amazing and fantastic to see and really has got a story to tell around, you know, really earning his stripes in leadership and really being focused on the customer from the word go so Blaine, Welcome to the Chiefs.
Blaine Slater: Thanks, James. You’re too kind with your overview. But look, I’m glad to be here and really happy to share anything that’s useful to your listeners.
James Ciuffetelli: Well Blaine, we’re thrilled to have you. The first question I always ask our Chiefs is, what’s your story? Tell us a little bit about how you arrived at where you are today.
Blaine Slater: Well, I think you’ll be able to tell from my accent, I don’t hail from Australia. So I have moved from rainier shores across in Scotland. I actually moved here around about 15 years ago and I was a telecommunications engineer for British Telecom when I came over. I had Bold ambitions of reactivating in my career in that sort of engineering field. But I fell into a contact centre role very quickly with TSA Group and I’ve never really looked back. It was a bit of an enigma of a business back then. We had one client in the telecommunications space. It was really sales focused and I didn’t actually see myself as a salesman, but I don’t know if it was a combination of just being quite driven and being quite a competitive job market back in the UK versus a very relaxed market here in Western Australia. But I tended to do reasonably well in that environment. And so I spent some time as a sales agent, probably around about two years, started to look at opportunities to progress in the business and moved into a range of different management roles. And probably the most bold position I took was I moved to Manage our Sydney office. I was quite young. It was actually directly after I got married. And that was kind of the catalyst for earning a lot of respect from the senior management team within this business. And upon doing that, I got exposure to a lot of different things which made me think about how TSA at the time with one client and one industry could really diversify and take that brand into different industry verticals. And so since that point, I’ve moved back to West Australia. I’ve got a young family now, a young growing family. You know, that last five years has now been focused on other industry verticals. How we can take the brand. What is your ideal client? How do we position TSA? And I’m pleased to say that we had a lot of success, a great response to what our value proposition is. And, you now, I’m responsible for engaging new clients and starting new business opportunities which I get a real thrill from and certainly, I pinch myself every day that I’m fortunate enough to do something that I love and get a lot of enjoyment from.
James Ciuffetelli: Blaine, it’s an amazing story. I mean, in 15 years, we kind of don’t do it justice in the 150 seconds there. But a couple of things I want to tap into. So young lad comes out from the UK, starts as a sales agent, moves up through management, then arguably, having spent a fair bit of time living in Sydney myself, moves to one of the toughest markets in Australia right now. Not an easy task. And you’ve probably sort of had to learn your feet there. Now he’s has come back home. You started with one client, I think you said, TSA had one client when you started there. What are a couple of the biggest learnings that you’ve had along the way? Because I mean, it sounds like from the minute you came across the UK, you got thrown in the deep end. And that’s been kind of consistent theme with your journey.
Blaine Slater: Yeah, I have to agree with you. I think that’s definitely been fundamental. And what’s been the driving force for me a lot of the time, it’s quite confronting to be dropped into a role or a position or in a project where you don’t feel comfortable. And what I think my main skill set has been is to face into that and actually start to get really comfortable with being uncomfortable. Fifteen years at any business is quite unusual. But what I like about TSA Group, and what’s really kept me motivated and engaged, is the fact that they give people a chance. They give people a crack. And so if I look at it and say yeah, I came into the business and I did have some skills and I had trained and skilled as an engineer with British Telecom, but most of the people that join our organization might come with no skills. And so what we’ve done as a business and now what I’m the advocate for as part of our executive team is how do we give people the opportunity to develop a career, develop themselves in a friendly fun environment? And I think that’s just really what motivated me to excel in terms of the new business that we’ve been kind of working now as we go along, which I tend to find that just by being open and transparent, that we haven’t got it all figured out that we are able to face into the things that we don’t do well and learn from them and grow. I actually think that clients find that quite refreshing when I speak to them. A lot of businesses, they give a facade of having it all figured out, and anybody worth their salt in a senior leadership position will know that that’s not the case. So I think that’s where my style in terms of how I approach sales is slightly different because I’m not trying to go into an industry and tell people how to do their job or where their failings are. But what I am trying to pick up on is how can we help you? How can we actually enhance what it is you’re trying to do? And if it’s not right for TSA, called that out, because I think it would be a lot of deals and a lot of wasted time on things that are just if you actually look at the start and analyse it, it’s not going anywhere. But I think from our perspective we’ve been very shrewd at looking at that and saying if we can add value to that industry, that market, that stakeholder, we’ll do so. But if we don’t, we’ll call that out early and move on. And it’s no skin off our nose if we do that. And it’s proving to be, as I said, successful and quite refreshing in terms of the response I get from people.
James Ciuffetelli: I love a couple of the themes that you’ve spoken about. I mean, you’re in a business, obviously, you know, it’s all about scale. You’ve got big call centres across the country and what have you. It could be very easy for you to just be chasing the next hundred or five hundred seat contact centre and what have you. But I didn’t hear you say that once as a leader. What I heard you talk about, and this is why you had been the most senior of the executives in the TSA Group you spoke about value, purpose, attitude. You spoke about your people first. In fact, that’s really refreshing. I want to tap on that in a moment. And I also love the humility and the honesty. When you said, look, you kind of chuckled in very Tottenham Hotspur kind of way, I’ve got to say Blaine. But anyway, chuckled around the fact that you haven’t got it all figured out. But you’re OK with that, right? And for you it’s all, and this is something I observed when you were partnering with us when I was a part of the Telstra group, if it wasn’t going to be right for us or you couldn’t deliver, you had no problem saying, hey, you know what, there’s probably a better way. Can I tell you that sort of humility is really rare, the ability to listen. So I congratulate you on that. I have got a question that I want to go back to the beginning with you. If you like Blaine, when did you know you wanted to be a leader or did you know? And then and then when you figured, yeah, I want to do that, what motivated you?
Blaine Slater: Great question. It’s actually something that’s probably come naturally, as when I was really young. I’ve sort of been thrown into different environments. That meant that either you would sink or swim, effectively. So I think from that perspective, I’m quite resilient and something that my parents have drilled into me. It’s a very Scottish thing, actually. If I think back to childhood, it was always about never getting too big for your boots, always giving your best. If you did something that was never about celebrating the win, it was always about what did you not do well enough and how could you do that next time? And that sounds in the modern world like that was a terrible environment because I’ve always been educated by my wife about how we’ve got to create this nice, stable, secure, comfortable, happy environment for the children. And I’m completely bought into that. But there’s also an element of, you know, how do we actually put people into situations, as I said at the beginning, where they’re not comfortable and see how they respond to that. And I think that’s what my parents did really well when I was growing up, because they were always there. I was aware that there were always there to support me, but they didn’t do that for me. They made me go out and learn. They put me in uncomfortable positions. And when I was younger, I was big on soccer and acting. And so in acting, you’re constantly going out to an audience and having to put yourself out there and not knowing how the lines you read or the jokes that you tell as part of the show are going to be reacted to. And every audience every night was always very different. So I feel like I got a really good baseline capability to present and to engage and to relate to people from that, because you have to put yourself out there. You have to be comfortable with what you’re saying and you’re not sure what response you and the audience draws their head off. That’s great. The next night they’ll say nothing, used to laugh to keep going. The show must go on. I guess I apply some of those skills and that thinking to my day-to-day life now, I’m certain that all of my colleagues would say that most of the time. I’m just actually acting as opposed to doing anything, you know, particularly meaningful.
James Ciuffetelli: You know what I love there, just the foundations, the values that you got from mum and dad in terms of always giving your best and always be learning right. So always be engaged and they’re two clear the values that you’ve carried forward. I want to ask you, who do you look up to as a leader? Like when you look for guidance, I mean, you’re at the top of your game now. And obviously, you’re a mentor to so many people within your organization, outside of your organization, even your family really get inspired by either today or historically as a leader?
Blaine Slater: Yeah, another great question. And certainly, I like to follow and take inspiration from people who drive real outcomes and a difference. So if I look at an unpack that a bit more, I don’t think a business exists just to make a profit. I think that’s an outcome. So I think businesses that are really grounded in their values and that they really put them at the forefront, it just so happens that they also become the most profitable businesses that you see. So from that perspective, it’s a no brainer. But someone like Satya Nadella. Microsoft’s business was established, it had great revenue streams, extremely profitable. But he had to come in and make bold calls. He had to put forward a vision, believe in that vision and transform that business. And I am certain at the point at which he was putting that forward and predicting the decline in the traditional revenue streams that he would have faced and to a lot of resistance and a lot of challenges. But guess what he held firm, he stuck to what he believed in and now the business is one of the most valuable in the world, again, with a completely different operating model and a completely different product set. So I think someone like that, you can’t help but take inspiration from. But what I love about him is the way that he engages and the way that he operates. He’s so unassuming, you know, it’s not flashy, it’s very much under the radar. He’s very calm and suppose I take inspiration from him because that’s not me. I’m a lot more high energy, a lot louder. So I think from that perspective, the reason why he is appealing to me is that I try and seek out people, that have got skills that are different to mine and then try and add that capability into my toolkit.
James Ciuffetelli: That’s awesome. I love the example you get because it keeps relating back to learning and seeing what you can actually see in others. I mean, you go to Microsoft and Satya Nadella example. What a great example. Completely transformed that business. Right. Talk to me a little bit about how you’ve arrived at this level today, how it’s different to what you thought it might be, or is it exactly what you envisaged?
Blaine Slater: It’s definitely not what I envisaged.
James Ciuffetelli: No boozy lunches?
Blaine Slater: Yeah, I thought the rule of an executive was to just tell other people what to do. I massively underestimated the amount of work that you have to take responsibility for. But I think we’ve got values within our business and one of them that we talk about regularly is servant leadership. And so as a rule of us, as a leadership team, to serve our people. And I was telling my wife this the other day, our executive team have a mantra that we repeat before all of our monthly meetings. And one of the things within that is we have a responsibility to two and a half thousand or so people within our company to make sure that we deliver for them and that we’re here for them. That’s really grounding for us as an executive team because we don’t want to forget that if we get it right, then so many people are impacted by that. But if we get it wrong, the same thing applies. And so we were really fortunate that we had embedded within our culture quite a lot of the self-reflective capability in our executive team, because through covid we were tested in ways that we would never have anticipated. But what we had was a way of working together, a way of solving problems quickly. And, you know, anybody who’s done business with a BPO or an outsourced contact centre will know that we exist to deploy things quicker. That’s why you would use us, because we’re faster. We bring technology. Our processes are really slick and well organized and operate well. And so even through covid, we were really tested. But because we had that underlying mantra that we wanted to address, we never forgot that the decisions we made and the way that we organized ourselves and how we operated impacted so many people and their families. But I’m glad to say that we actually were able to sail through it, and looking back to think about that now makes me shiver a little bit because I wouldn’t want to go through that type of situation again. But I’m so proud of all of my colleagues, my team and everybody in the business, because it really all stems from the mantra that we were able to navigate through it.
James Ciuffetelli: Such a socially responsible and amazing statement that you talk about servant leadership and I’m going to say, quote unquote. So this is something that really comes out loud and clear from this insight into you and into your style. We have a responsibility to two and a half thousand people that we serve to the families, to the lives that are impacted. That’s just amazing and a credit to you and to Luke, and the whole TSA Group, but really a credit to your leadership mantra, so well done. You touched on something and I swore I wouldn’t talk about this in this interview, but I’m going to. Covid. I didn’t want to say the word again. covid-19. Here we are in 2021 and we’re still talking about it. Talk to me about that impact on you as a leader. And I mean did that whole servant leadership really come into play there? What what did you do to get through it? It seemed like so long ago now that some rich learningss I’m sure.
Blaine Slater: Yes, there’s two hats that I wear. There’s one within the executive team where we’re setting the strategy of the business and then how we want to make it a great place to work for our employees as well as a great place for our clients to partner with us. From that perspective, it was really quite testing because we had to make decisions rapidly. We had to stand up. We’ve got most of our people are in offices and call centres. And so we had to move them from an office to home with the complexities of having a business that spread across Australia and the Philippines. So that was an added complexity within that. But we really relied on, as everybody would have, virtual communication. We remained in regular contact with each other. We were always checking if everyone was OK. Sounds like such a small thing. But at the end of a lot of the days, we were just ringing around to make sure our team were ok. We sent out care packages, we did virtual quizzes on a Friday night, like things like that. That meant everybody could share any frustrations, or any issues, because it wasn’t just about the stress that people were doing that they of the jobs, they were managing children at home or they had family members that were impacted by the virus. So there’s a whole range of things. So we just try to be available. That was the main thing is we’ve got to be visible, available and respond quickly. But the other hat that I wear is being responsible for growing the business. That one, when it hit I thought my life was on the roads, I spent most of my time travelling from state to state to meet businesses, to finalise deals. And I was really concerned that that would impact my ability to do my main role, which is to drive growth within the business. I’ve been very pleasantly surprised at how well everyone’s adapted to virutal communication. But one thing that we’ve done as an organisation which has been really successful, is we haven’t just opted to do Zoom calls. Where it’s just one on one. We’ve used other assets to try and engage potential prospects and clients. And I’m not going to go into the details of that, James, because a lot of that is now what I would consider it to be TSA IP. But what I will say is that we’ve tried to be as creative as possible to stand out and that those decisions we’ve made and the things that we’ve implemented have actually been really well received. And certainly from our perspective, are fundamental in us continuing to grow in spite of us not being able to go out and meet people face to face. So we’ve brought on two new clients in the last six months, and I’ve never met those individuals in person. And I would have told you before covid that that was not possible. But we’ve actually been able to do that, which I’m really pleased about.
James Ciuffetelli: Can I say, it’s a credit to you, Again. And you know what I love, I’ve asked lots of people over the last year through this Whiteark Chiefs forum about covid, what happened. And everybody, you know, all great leaders, their first response was about looking after the teams and no different. Your perspective is that you had them here and abroad in the Philippines and your first objective was to make sure they were safe and well. It goes back to the servant leadership mantra. You then spoke about communication, but you didn’t speak about it just in a singular context. You didn’t say, well, OK, we looked after our teams and then we made sure that we all got them on Zoom and what have you. You actually spoke about it in the context of a leader which was around checking in and being available. And I think it’s something that a lot of organisations potentially are now trying to work out a year on. But you guys got in and you spoke about some of the new IP and what have you. But the thing I love that you spoke about, Blaine, was you still had a growth mindset, so you didn’t bunker in and say, we’re okay, we’ll let this storm pass us by and then we’ll worry about it later, which we’re finding at Whiteark a lot of organizations are still doing it now. They’re scampering going, jeez, well, how do we get this growth mindset? Where are we going to look for transformational strategies? And that’s ok Blaine, because we’re happy to help them. But you guys have grown your business through this period, so kudos to you. You’ve got people, communication, the new mantra for leadership, which is being available, being present. And it doesn’t mean spend more time at home with his wife and kids, which is a tick for for him. But he’s also been there and present in lots of ways for his people. But he’s had a growth mindset, two new clients that he hasn’t even met. Amazing. Now I promised blaine that I would only go for about 25 minutes. But I think we’re going to go for about three hours. I’ve got a couple more questions. Last question on your leadership at TSA. When people write their book on you, Blaine, as a leader of TSA because Luke’s shaking in his boots right now, you’re going to be the next CEO very shortly. Tell me what they’re going to say about you. One word.
Blaine Slater: I don’t know if he’d be shaking in his boots. I don’t envy the position of CEO. I actually quite like sitting in the executive team at this point, I’m happy there. But
James Ciuffetelli: We love Luke so it’s alright.
Blaine Slater: I think they’d say a passionate leader. I wear my heart on my sleeve, And certainly probably to my detriment, see this business as an extension of me and certainly defend the organization. The standards that we set, as if it’s my own, is quite interesting. Hearing you unpack your feedback on the things that I say, because one of the downfalls of being in a business as long as I’ve been is you don’t really get a litmus test for how successful some of the things that you implement are. I do think it’s quite useful to hear you relay that and we say, OK, well, we were doing what we thought was the right thing. But to have the validation from you that, you go you know what, that was real top management is really great. But that still comes back to we’re a business that puts up a score, not a story. We certainly don’t get too ahead of ourselves. A lot of that does come from Luke, he definitely drives that mantra within the business. But, yeah, I think from my perspective, if I was looking at what would people say about me and what I type of leader I am. I’d say probably passionate, challenge the status quo. I’m certainly open to learning, or at least I hope that’s what they would say.
James Ciuffetelli: That’s beautiful. I love the passionate piece. From one passion to another. And I think he touched on something there, Blaine from my own personal experience I know having spent almost 20 years in an organisation and loved every moment of that journey. I think sometimes as leaders, we don’t stop and reflect enough and we’re quite hard on ourselves. Right. Especially when you have got that passion and even your mantra around treating the business as though it’s your own, which is completely evident. And that’s why you have the great success you do. But every now and again, we weren’t really taught or maybe we didn’t observe that it’s okay to come up for air and reflect on what we’ve achieved because we always reflect the more we haven’t it and we keep driving forward. So credit to you. All right. Looking back on your career, what would you tell a young Blaine Slater? What piece of advice would you give yourself knowing what you know now?
Blaine Slater: A big question. I think it would be practice the art of patience. So it’s kind of like Warren Buffett’s time in the market. He was timing the market. It does take time to master the skill and you need to respect that. Certainly, there’s been times where I have pushed for things to happen faster than I should of and I should have maybe stepped back and actually said I need to work harder or do more to master this skill before I put myself in that position. So I think from that perspective, I would say, don’t be too hard on yourself, don’t focus on the end, go focus on the journey and be patient. Because when I look back on some of the more like material movements within my career, when you look back, you go that wasn’t as long as I actually thought it was going to take. Butat the time you’re so focused on getting to that end goal, it feels like a little bit of patience and a little bit of just stepping back and taking it all in would probably be the right thing. So hopefully that answers your question, but yeah, Patience and really respecting the time it takes to master your craft.
James Ciuffetelli: Patience and time, love it. All right. Last question. This is the monster question. Okay, so if you weren’t a group executive at TSA, what would you be?
Blaine Slater: What would I be or what would I want to be? Because I suppose I’d want to be playing English Premier League football.
James Ciuffetelli: For who?
Blaine Slater: Probably for Liverpool at a push. But I mean, any of them would do, to be honest with you.
James Ciuffetelli: We’d get you a gig at Tottenham. We need a good central midfielder at the minute.
Blaine Slater: Yeah, well, I’m a Celtic fan, but I don’t think they pay enough for me to be interested, but. But yeah. What would I be? I’d probably still be in a role where I would have to lead. I think that it would be you know, I like to think of TSA as a 23 year old startup because we’re constantly creating new divisions and channels and opportunities. So I feel like I’d probably thrive in that startup type environment. And potentially if I did have the opportunity to relook at my life, I have the confidence to maybe go out on my own at some point and start something. And that’s something that I really respect about you, James, with what you’ve done with Whiteark, as you know, it does take a lot of courage to do that. And so that’s probably where I would hope that I would invest my time and thinking if I wasn’t here. But trust me, I love my job. I love what I do. I love this company. And I’ve got no plans to do anything like that at this point.
James Ciuffetelli: That’s really open. And I appreciate that feedback, really honest. And I think the way you run TSA, it really is an extension of you and you run it like it’s your own business, I think you’re already achieving what your dream would be. So, look, Blaine, I thank you so much for taking the time to come on board with The Chiefs and give all these young entrepreneurs and various private equity firms an insight into you, into what makes you so passionate, your love for your business, your love for leadership, your servant leadership. But most importantly, you share with everyone the journey from really the front line all the way from the UK right to the executive line. So Blaine Slater, thank you so much.
Blaine Slater: Thank you.