Xero NZ managing director Craig Hudson is on a mission to improve Kiwi SME owners' mental health. (Photo: Supplied)

The great imposter: Xero boss Craig Hudson on his mental health battles

The New Zealand head of accounting success story Xero talks to Maria Slade about battling his demons, and helping Kiwi businesses through their own dark days.

Many people would think Craig Hudson has it all – sporting talent, good looks, a lovely wife and four children, and a great job as New Zealand managing director of cloud accounting platform Xero.

Yet the former New Zealand Sevens representative has endured moments so dark that if it weren’t for good friends and family he may not be here today. Suffering from “major imposter syndrome” has shaped his leadership style and created a desire to improve the mental health of Kiwi small business owners, he says.

The biggest problem for 80% of small businesses is isolation and the fact that they’re in it alone, Hudson says.

Xero has around 300,000 SMEs on its platform across the country, so it’s in a unique position to be a voice for what has almost been a hidden economy, he says.

Business confidence surveys drive him mad, because they’re based solely on sentiment. “How do we put factual information out into the mainstream, rather than something that’s just putting the boot into someone that’s already struggling?” he says.

Is poor mental health an issue among business owners? 

Yes. It manifests itself in further isolation, because you’re already thinking you’re alone, there’s a stigma around it still, and it impacts on not only you as the business owner but also your family life and business connections.

Has Xero done much research into the mental health of small business owners? 

We’re in the process of kicking off something in that space at the moment. If we’re going to do it, we have to do it right, so it’s early days.

I’ve got a little bit of a private passion around it with my background, it’s also something that comes up on a consistent basis with small business owners, and isolation. The downside of being able to work remotely is that you don’t get that sense of community. The things I’m looking at are around how can we, together with multiple different avenues and agencies and businesses, create more of a community and sense of sharing? There’s multiple different support things everywhere, but it’s filtering that through to someone in Taumarunui that’s running a plumbing business and have always only done it themselves.

So you’re passionate about this because you’ve had your own battles?

I’ve personally probably had battles with mental health all through my rugby career, now that I look back, which manifested itself in lacking confidence and being my biggest critic, which meant that I never really felt like I deserved to be anywhere and ended up having to work harder to try and prove it to myself, which pushed me to the point of breaking, where I was forced into early retirement at 23.

Since [then] I’ve battled with the inner voice of not being able to provide for my family, not being good enough, not having a degree, not knowing what I’m doing and faking it and thinking that I’m going to get found out. Major imposter syndrome. If it wasn’t for the support of my wife and certain close friends I probably wouldn’t be here, I think it’s safe to say, with where I was at a point in time.

One of the darkest points was when my second child was born. I almost missed the first year of her life because I was on medication and struggling along the way. She’s now 10. I still have guilt around that, I almost compensate with her because of it.

But being able to reach out and having, in my previous employment, my boss (Allan McFall of McFall Fuel) realising something was going on and setting up support for me through an external business coach who’s also a psychologist, gave me some practical tools to be able to help me through that. And it was a big step for me, to be able to, one, have a conversation with my boss, but then for him to be also in the same thought process of wanting to help. Realising that he can’t help other than being there kind of set my foundation for what I do as a leader.

Why did things get so bad around that time?

I think it was a combination of things. I struggled for identity, because I’d made a comeback and made it into the New Zealand Sevens. In 2003 I had a virus that attacked my heart, when I was playing up in Europe. I got over-training syndrome. Then I got talked into coming back into the Sevens, and the 2006 Commonwealth Games. It was the stupidest decision of my life. I made it back into the team but noticed my body was starting to give up again. The Hong Kong Sevens was the tipping point, I collapsed again, and got rushed into hospital.

My first son was born then, just after I was forced into retirement for the second time. And I had no job, nothing to fall back on. I was trying to find out what I was good at, with a young baby, and then having another one quite quickly afterwards. All I was was a rugby player and all I ever wanted to be, and for that to get taken away was a hard process to go through.

My wife was a teacher, so we were going back to a beginning teacher’s salary. The sense of isolation I had when my wife was going off to work – I got a dog to drag me out for walks every day as part of the routine to get me better and give me something to focus on. That was really important, but it was a constant battle.

It took me 12 months to get back into work, and my first job was as a part-time swim coach. Then I fell into a job that was phone-based sales. I was good at it because I was able to fake things. But I wasn’t enjoying it, so my wife made me quit even though we had a brand new baby. If she’d have made me stay because we had two kids, I probably wouldn’t have got better. Starting afresh meant I was able to join Alan McFall’s business.

You’ve obviously learned a lot about how to deal with it – what kinds of things keep you on track?

A lot of stuff that I learned is around my triggers – so diet’s really important for me, fresh air, so walking meetings now at work. Being able to know when things are starting to go off the rails for me. The statement is, ‘I’m okay today’, because I know tomorrow I might not be. Realising when things start to go astray and being open at home around what’s going on. And also knowing that I can be open with my staff, so that they know that they don’t need to be okay all the time.

Do you think people perceive it as a weakness?

There’s some people who still do. If you look at someone who is vulnerable in the workplace, traditionally they’d be called emotional, they wear their heart on their sleeve, they’re drama-hungry, whereas actually they’re just being real. It’s your ability to be able to hear and guide based on what they’re going through that’s really important.

Do you think people who have a tendency towards depression should watch their use of social media?

I do. We need less digital and more human interaction.

There’s an element of people living behind Facebook and looking in and going, ‘man those guys are amazing, my life’s crap’, when actually the reality of things is a bit different.

I’m a little bit addicted to my phone, we’ve got a lot of social interaction with Xero. But I find myself getting trapped a little bit with social media, you see the instant gratification that you get from putting something out. But for every good post there’s probably 10 bad ones that could potentially go up, but you don’t see the bad stuff.

A lot of leaders wouldn’t be prepared to talk about this stuff the way you have. Do you see it as a personal mission to change the view of leadership? 

Yes, I do. Not for my sake. I’m ridiculously thankful for being in the position that I am, and I’ve still got a little imposter on shoulder saying ‘how the hell did you get there?’. But I think it gives me the opportunity to be able to be heard a little bit more. For my team, first and foremost, if I’m able to help them understand themselves better and to come work to do the best work of their lives, whereas a traditional boss would say ‘you need to leave your personal baggage at the door’, actually someone saying ‘bring that baggage that’s part of who you are and that’s okay’, is quite a shift.

Despite all the support systems that are around for SMEs such as co-working spaces and incubators, do you still feel that there isn’t enough?

Co-working spaces are in big cities but there’s still whole chunk of regional New Zealand that doesn’t get access to that. How do you create an environment of sharing, and vulnerability, I suppose, of what’s going on? Is that where business mentors come in, is that where your trusted advisor comes in, your accountant? Do they become a voice of reason of what’s actually going on in the small business economy? That’s what bugged me the most about the negative sentiment around the business confidence surveys, that it’s all based on feelings. And then we get a little bit of actual data and, lo and behold, the business confidence bounces.

There’s a lot of fear around growth, so not being sure whether now is the right time to grow, their business is going okay on the whole. The survey we did a little while ago showed that only a third of businesses want to grow, and a large amount of that nervousness is because with growth comes pain, so needing someone to drive them through that tricky part. Small business is hard – you’re hustling, begging businesses to pay their invoices, which we should be way better at. There’s limited access to capital, how do we give small businesses seamless ways of being able to get access to decent capital, not at loan shark-type rates?

So you’re proposing practical solutions?

Yes. Access to talent is a big one as well, hiring the right staff at the right time. When you look at our data it shows small businesses are growing at 7-10% year-on-year in terms of employee numbers, so the access to regional talent is going to dry up way faster than it is for big businesses where the national average is only 3%. How do we help them find the right people, and attract people back from overseas if we have to? Because unemployment is already really low.

A lot of it comes down to education, getting entrepreneurial and business skills taught earlier. On average sole traders are around 55 – you talk to them about the traditional millennials, and they don’t want to go anywhere near it. How do we dispel the myths around what the workforce are actually looking for, how to harness them better?

Are younger entrepreneurs better off, in that they often form communities and hubs?

I think only for a small percentage that’s true. Because you still have to be an element of an extrovert, or be a bloody good actor like I am, to be able to get out and network with people outside your immediate circle.

Where to get help

Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor.

Lifeline – 0800 543 354 or 09 5222 999 within Auckland.

Samaritans – 0800 726 666.

Suicide Crisis Helpline – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO). Open 24/7

Depression Helpline  – 0800 111 757 or free text 4202. This service is staffed 24/7 by trained counsellors

Samaritans  – 0800 726 666

Healthline – 0800 611 116

Youthline – 0800 376 633. Text 234 for free between 8am and midnight, or email talk@youthline.co.nz.

0800 WHATSUP (0800 9428 787) – Open between 1pm and 10pm on weekdays and from 3pm to 10pm on weekends. Online chat is available from 7pm to 10pm every day at www.whatsup.co.nz.

For more information about support and services available to you, contact the Mental Health Foundation’s free Resource and Information Service on 09 623 4812 during office hours or email info@mentalhealth.org.nz


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