Chairman of Icebreaker and Former CEO of Air NZ
Mechanical Engineering, 1983
Business Builder. Adventure Seeker.
Rob Fyfe describes his career as an adventure. From his first role as an Air Force engineer to his shaping of iconic New Zealand businesses Air New Zealand and Icebreaker, Rob’s path has anything but linear. “I haven’t had a choreographed career at all. I’ve always just been really fascinated by how things work – how you do business, how you treat people, how you achieve outcomes. That curiosity has taken me down some amazing paths.”
You’ve described your career as an ‘adventure’. Why is that?
It’s felt like an adventure is because it's been so unpredictable. I didn't set out with a grand ambition to be a CEO. I didn't really have any goal at all! I was a very inquisitive child, always taking something to bits and putting it back together, scratching my head at the extra pieces left over. I’m fascinated by how things work – how you do business, how you treat people, how you achieve outcomes. That curiosity has taken me down some amazing paths.
How did the adventure begin?
I joined the Air Force after high school. It was a great platform for my career because I was given a lot of responsibility at an early age. At 23 I was responsible for 80 people, doing engineering on a squadron of fighter aircraft, making big decisions and even dealing with aircraft accidents. I was really thrown in the deep end. It gave me the confidence that when faced with unexpected problems, I had the resilience and quickness of mind to respond.
Your career has seen you lead some amazing organisations!
It's been a really eventful career. I’ve worked in a whole lot of different countries in a whole range of industries, from running a pay-TV company in the UK to leading Air New Zealand and Icebreaker. It hasn't been linear at all. I find a challenge and put my heart and soul into it until it’s been solved. Then I look for a new adventure and another problem to solve.
What have you enjoyed most about your career?
For me, it's less about what I’ve achieved and more about the people I’ve met and the relationships I’ve built. The primary way I measure my success is in the impact I’ve had on others whether they’re customers, employees, colleagues or investors. Having a positive impact on people’s lives is what makes endeavour meaningful for me.
You studied Engineering at UC. Is that something you’ve found useful in your career?
Absolutely. Engineering is the perfect degree for someone that’s fascinated with solving problems. It gave me a logical framework for finding out how things work and how to make them work better. It also taught me to respect people who know more than I do. As a leader, my role isn’t about having the answers, it’s about knowing what and who to ask. Being able to frame up a problem correctly is often more valuable than knowing the answer.
Any favourite memories from UC?
I was a typical boy. I was always fascinated by cars and motorbikes and I loved mucking around with the engines they had at UC. I also loved the sense of community in the engineering school. Everyone knew everyone and was really supportive of each other. It was a place to build strong friendships and relationships.
Any tips for getting the most out of university?
With university I think there are two routes. One is when you're absolutely passionate and committed to a linear path. If that's you, you should focus on that and maximise your potential. But I think a lot of young people struggle with not knowing what to do. For them, I’d say choose a curriculum that allows you to develop as a person. Don't be too fixated on the outcome. Training yourself to absorb information and articulate ideas clearly are valuable skills for so many potential pathways. Even if you don't have a fixed idea of what you want to do, you'll still get so much out of university.
What personal characteristics have contributed to your success?
At heart I think it's my ability to relate to people. One of my big deficiencies is that I’m a chronically slow reader. I can only read as fast as I can talk. That’s caused me to become a very face-to-face person. If someone gives me a report to read I say, “Come and talk to me about it for half an hour”. My reading deficiency has ultimately become a strength for me because it's made me engage on a very human level.
Do you need a lot of confidence as a leader?
You need the confidence to fail. That’s probably one of the hardest personal attributes to develop. Society creates a strong fear of failure and that stifles opportunity. You have to know that you can fail, pick yourself up, dust yourself off and set off again. If you don't have the confidence to do that you'll take the safe path, and that's the path everyone else is on.
What’s the secret to unlocking such an interesting career?
Two simple things. One is always being alert to opportunities. It could as simple as noticing an old lady struggling with her groceries and stopping to help. Sometimes we’re so fixated on where we’re going that we miss an opportunity to lend a hand. Careers can be like that too. You can be so fixated on what you want to do that all these amazing opportunities keep passing you by. The second thing is to have the courage to jump into the unknown.
What's next for you?
I'm just constantly looking for the next adventure. I don't have a preconceived idea of where that will come from. I feel deeply connected to New Zealand so it will probably relate to that. I'm just looking for another problem to solve!