Diving in deep

When Steve Cox stepped into the role of CEO with Destination NSW (DNSW) in May, it was difficult to imagine a more daunting set of circumstances. 

The coronavirus outbreak had shut borders and forced lockdowns, bringing visitor traffic to a halt – but that was only the half of it, says DNSW chair John Warn. 

“We already had very strong headwinds, having just faced horrific drought and bushfires. When COVID happened, it was really the trifecta, it was the perfect storm of major challenges,” he says. 

“At the start of the year we were in the midst of leadership change, preparing for a new strategic direction – it was not just like riding a bike and changing the wheel at the same time, but doing it in a thunderstorm, with no helmet on, and not being able to see.”  

Cox left a role as managing director of Dymocks to take up the DNSW role. He and Warn were already acquainted, having met more than a decade earlier, when they were both employed as General managers at David Jones. 

Months before Cox officially started at DNSW, the lead tourism and major events agency falling under NSW Treasury, he and Warn re-established a strong working relationship by catching up on a weekly basis to discuss current projects and future plans. 

“John also helped forge connections with key internal stakeholders, as well as those within government and industry, who all provided ideas and feedback, and helped to shape my initial thinking,” Cox says. 

“So when I started on day one, not only was I mentally ready, but the organisation was mentally ready, government was mentally ready and industry was ready. 

“The day I started, each of the executive members of the organisation had been briefed, and had provided a full and detailed outline of the current challenges, works in progress, and things that needed to be done. 

“I received a robust handover document, literally on day one.” 

Revamping the Visitor Economy Industry Action Plan 2030 to reflect the drastically changed macro economic and industry conditions was among the first tasks Cox tackled.  

Then, on June 1, he launched the newly-tweaked #LoveNSW campaign which encouraged people to spend locally, and hit traditional and social media at a time when travel restrictions were just starting to ease. 

“It’s a fantastic endorsement of what the team, with Steve at the helm, is capable of,” says Warn, who assumed the role of chair of DNSW 2.5 years ago. “The speed and agility that they showed in delivering that for the state was remarkable.” 

Yet as with any project involving multiple stakeholders, it’s rare that everyone sees eye to eye. 

Indeed, balancing the needs of diverse stakeholders, from individuals at senior levels of government through to small business owners who form the backbone of the visitor economy, is an inherently challenging part of the role. 

Yet moving beyond tangibles like promotional campaigns and strategy documents, both Cox and Warn emphasise that “breaking down silos” to build a more consultative and collaborative culture within DNSW, and critically across industry and government has been a bigger picture goal. 

In 2019, for example, The Sydney Morning Herald reported that an internal review at DNSW had identified the need for strategic and cultural change. 

 “Often we’re saying ‘no’ to people who come to us for partnerships, or investment, or endorsement, but how you say ‘no’ to people defines your relationship,” Warn says. 

“That’s something that has been a challenge, that we’ve got a lot better at. Steve has had such a strong impact with our stakeholders in the most difficult of times.

“Ultimately, we wanted to reset the brand and the mindset of all our stakeholders, so a lot of our focus is around that relationship and stakeholder management.  

“I think we’re doing a terrific job there, but there’s still a lot of work to do.” 

Warn says the shared vision he and Cox crafted over those early catch-ups provided a road map through the initial few weeks of the pandemic. 

“It gave us a solid framework for what we both needed to see achieved, and we could support each other through that period,” he explains. 

During tumultuous times, a temptation for board directors is to “get more involved”, Warn says, but he adheres to a policy of “noses in and fingers out”. 

“There’s a really important line that boards need to draw around how much they get involved in day to day management, and how much they can slow executive teams and organisations down,” he explains. 

“My role as chair was quite challenging at times, in that I was needing to keep board members fully abreast of things, liase with key senior NSW Government officials, our Minister and the broader industry.

“It was happening at breakneck speed. Through this, my role was supporting, and providing breathing room and space for Steve, without getting in his way or slowing him down as a new CEO. 

“As a board, we do disagree at times (meaning that) healthy debate, and seeking input from all is key, but because there’s a clear vision and mutual respect, we’re able to make the best decisions and move on.” 

Cox says that difficult conversations are most productive in an open, transparent environment. 

“It’s about having the trust that you can say what you need to say, without being worried about, ‘Am I going to be here tomorrow?’” he says. 

Cox believes there are opportunities to drive further organisational change off the back of COVID-19. 

“We don’t want to waste a crisis, we want to come out of this stronger than when we came into it,” he says.  

In line with the principle of inclusiveness being modelled across the organisation, both men are keen to ramp up efforts to promote NSW’s attractions beyond Sydney, and Sydney’s attractions beyond the Opera House and Harbour Bridge. 

To that end, Cox spends at least two days of every month in the regions, viewing new product, talking to local operators and getting feedback on what’s working and what’s not. 

“It’s just like when you’re running retail businesses, you walk the store and you can tell how the organisation is going straight away by talking to the customers and directly being connected on the ground,” he says. 

Warn, having deep family roots from the small town of Crookwell located in the Southern Tablelands of NSW, says regional areas of the state are also close to his heart. 

“Having connection in country NSW keeps me anchored there and one significant change we’ve made in my time is that we aim to hold about every third board meeting in regional NSW,” he says. 

“That’s been a little tricky through COVID-19, but it’s something that is very symbolic. 

“We used to have 12 meetings a year in the DNSW offices in the Rocks in Sydney, but we’re now having meetings in Dubbo, Kingscliff, Hunter Valley, Albury and so on. 

“In doing this, our stakeholders really believe that we’re representing all of NSW and not just Sydney and it’s a really important point for all of us at DNSW because this is a legacy opportunity.  

“We have to do something different for the state, to ensure NSW remains No 1.” 

BIO 

John Warn GAICD 

Based: Sydney/Gold Coast 

Roles: Chair, Destination NSW; NED, Mainbrace Constructions; NED, Bradman Foundation 

Studied: Monash University; Melbourne Business School; Stanford University Graduate School of Business(USA)  

Worked: Odgers Berndtson, Scentre Group; Westfield Ltd; David Jones 

Steve Cox 

Based: Sydney 

Roles: CEO, Destination NSW 

Studied: Macquarie University; Macquarie Graduate School of Management 

Worked: Dymocks Retail; Dymocks Children’s Charities; Specialty Fashion Group, David Jones 

A version of this story appeared in Company Director magazine. Read it there.