Meet Ted Zorn

Humility and following his instincts are just two of the traits that Dr Ted Zorn from Massey University says have guided him to becoming not just a manager but an effective leader. Here at IMNZ we’ve been talking to some of New Zealand’s most inspiring leaders, and we were excited to hear what Dr Zorn credited as being his no. 1 problem-solving technique.

Dr Ted Zorn has a stack of job titles and degrees that point to him being an exemplary manager, but the Pro Vice-Chancellor and Dean of the Massey Business School, Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Massey University, and former Professor of Management Communication, says his on the job learning has taught him his greatest skills.

Dr Zorn credits problem-solving being the final piece of the puzzle in his role as a manager, but possibly not in the way people may think. “One thing that surprised me from my early experiences as a manager is how often people will solve a problem for themselves if you listen and help them work through the situation. “People come into my office, they say ‘here’s a problem’, ‘here’s something I’m upset about’ and I ask questions.

Sometimes I don’t even have to say all that, and I just listen and by the time they have finished they’ve figured it out for themselves.” Dr Zorn adds that a manager is not an island and the team around them is the most invaluable resource when it comes to finding creative solutions.

“You’re not in it on your own,” he says. “You’re in it together with the team, so you don’t have to make all the decisions yourself. “Ultimately, you don’t have to be the smartest person in the room, you don’t have to be the most talented person in the room, but you can bring those talented people together, and together you can make a great decision and make great progress as a team.

Dr Zorn is coy when it comes to his individual success saying that success as a leader “very much” rests upon success as a group. “If an individual succeeds, we succeed as a group. It’s not really about me succeeding; it’s really the success of the group that is your success as a leader.”

Dr Zorn has had varying managerial, directorial and chair roles inside and outside academia, in a career straddling more than 30 years. But he says what has given him most pride is when his team pulls together for the success of all. “Our department got the highest teaching evaluations in the university,” Zorn beams. “There’s a great joy in seeing the collective sense of achievement that everybody feels good about.”

But hindsight is a fruitful place says Dr Zorn, adding that if he could coach his younger self on the first day of the job, he’d say three things: “relax, listen very carefully and trust your instincts”. “I think we underestimate how close attention people pay to us as managers. One of the things I’ve learned is you cannot not communicate,” he says. “Everything you do, and even the things that you don’t do communicate to people.

If you don’t explain yourself, people will read into what you do or what you don’t do,” he says. The job of manager is not without its irritations, however, and Dr Zorn acknowledges a deep frustration when he isn’t able to get “everything done in one day”.

“There are always more things to do than you can possibly get done. But you have to accept that it’s just not possible.” The solution, he says, is acceptance, being cognisant of the continued need for rest, and a engineering high quality of work life balance. He adds that what has helped in is “getting some perspective on what’s really important, and focussing on those things.”

It’s not all about being serious all of the time, says Dr Zorn, adding that as a leader, his role is to always be authentic. “We’re able to enjoy the time that we have together if we have a sense of, ‘we’re real people, none of us are perfect, and all of us are working together’,” he says. Academia often is about people working collaboratively on projects and Dr Zorn says his leadership style is a reflection of that.

“Leadership is really about working with people to shape a collective vision of the kind of team or organisation that we want to be and what we’re trying to accomplish, and then really encouraging people to work towards that.” As for mistakes, Dr Zorn is neither immune to them nor sees them as being negative.

“I’d seen my share of other leaders make mistakes so I certainly assumed that I would make them too,” he says. “I think that what’s really critical is that you’re humble as a leader; you are going to make mistakes. When you make mistakes, admit them and learn from them. Stop and say what could we have done different? What might we do next time so that we can avoid making that mistake? It’s OK to make mistakes as long as you learn from them.”

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