In 2014, Ezra McInnes jumped on the phone with nothing but determination and a copy of the White Pages to sell wine. Two days and 1,400 cold calls later, he had sold his first case. Just last year, as Managing Director of The Wine Group, McInnes was selling more than 100 cases a day, despite there being no need for him to still be manning the phones. It’s safe to say that this commitment sums up how McInnes leads: with extreme effort and by example. 

 

In the five short years since forming The Wine Group with Chief Winemaker Phillip Casella, their tiny upstart of a business has grown to become Australia’s leading online cellar door. This path to ever-increasing success is paved with McInnes’ unparalleled diligence, his clear set of principles and a backstory that makes him one of the most unique business leaders in the country. 

 

This is how Ezra McInnes leads, in his own words.

When a wrong turn leads to the right path

In my younger days, I had a brief stint as a professional basketball player, but I put it to the side as there wasn’t much money in it at the time. Instead, I tried my hand as a real estate rookie only to get swept up in something else. 

I began selling drugs, and being young and reckless, I failed to consider the consequences of my actions. I ended up paying for them and serving three years in prison. 

My early 20s, then, became a process of quickly growing up and figuring out that the man I had become wasn’t who I wanted to be. With an amazing wife sticking by my side, I spent the three years bettering myself and developing an ethos of hard work, which I couldn’t wait to put into legitimate practice. 

Once given that chance, I joined a call centre and began selling wine. I didn’t know exactly where it would take me, but with my knack for selling and the motivation to make things up to my wife – I wasn’t going to stop until it took me somewhere.

A leader in an employee’s body

Perhaps the most significant moment in my career came when my criminal record became common knowledge at work. Up to that point, I was selling harder than anyone – arriving at the office before it opened and only leaving when I was kicked out late at night. After being given a hard time and realising I was being pushed out by my manager, I walked into the boss’s office and told him that I would be leaving, because I knew I didn’t deserve that kind of treatment. No one deserves that kind of treatment.

Instead of accepting my resignation, the boss — having had no idea of management’s behaviour— told me to go take a break. By the time I returned, he had fired the general, customer service and sales managers. And off the back of my work performance, he gave me a shot to run the call centre and sales team, which I took to with more determination than ever. 

That boss was Phillip Casella, who is now my business partner at The Wine Group.

Effort on effort

Not long after the first company I worked at was sold, Phillip asked if I wanted to partner up with him for a new business venture. After taking the sales reins and selling only one case of wine after two days and 1,400 cold calls, he asked me whether I wanted to stop. I didn’t – I kept at it until I was selling 10-15 cases a day. It wasn’t long until I oversaw a team of 30 salespeople. 

I knew deep down inside that if I kept working hard, that The Wine Group was only going to grow. So, I put my money where my mouth was and took the 30-strong sales team to an office that could fit 150. Only two-and-a-half years into the three-year lease, and we needed a bigger office. 

Over the past six years, during which time I became a father, I have made sure to put in maximum effort while at work to help this company grow. There have been times when I’ve worked 12-hour days, been a family man until midnight, worked until 2am and lived on 4-6 hours sleep. I know it’s not for everyone, but for me, the extra effort is worth it. 

The time management I’ve put in place has allowed me not only to make up for the three years I lost, but also to catch up to and lap everyone that was in front of me.

Leading from the front

I’ve focused on my struggles and relentless work ethic because both have been integral to shaping me into the leader that I’ve become. I’ve always operated under the mantra “don’t ask anyone to do something that you aren’t prepared to do yourself”, whether that’s making 300 calls a day, taking the bins out, or picking something up at someone’s door. The way I see it, if I expect an employee to do something, I’m going to show them that I can do it as well. This kind of attitude goes a long way in creating a culture in which employees love to work. It’s all about leaders leading from the front. 

If you can inspire somebody, they’ll follow you. If you can motivate somebody, they’ll follow you. If you have a clear goal and objective that will benefit both you and them — such as becoming the largest and best direct-to-customer independent wine company in Australia — they’re more likely to come on board for that journey. 

Leadership, then, is just as much about serving others as it is your bottom line. Words cannot explain the enjoyment I get out of seeing the success of someone who’s never sold anything before. Because of my background, I’m very accepting of who I bring in and I give young people a chance. I put energy and effort into not only growing their skills, but helping them change their lives through goal plans and regular one-to-one check-ins. 

If you successfully invest in somebody else, that investment gets paid back 10 times over.

Finding your ‘why’

The best piece of advice I can give to anyone — from leaders to those starting out — is to figure out the ‘why’ behind what you’re doing. Every time I’ve set a new goal, whether that’s selling one or 100 cases of wine, or growing to become a top Australian company, or expanding into the US market, the actual goal is never the same as the ‘why’. You have to go deeper. 

The ‘why’, for me, is to make up the ground I lost; to give my family the best possible life. Goals then, just reinforce my purpose. Every time I set a new goal, I’m setting another one, because I’m so locked into why I’m going after it, that I don’t have to think twice. 

Once you find your ‘why’, everything you do becomes more meaningful. If I come across a young person who has no direction in life, nor any idea of what they want to achieve, I ask them “what’s your ‘why’”?

Do it all with compassion

Throughout the initial years of my career journey, I fell into the trap of expecting way too much from my teams too soon. I expected them to work at the same relentless pace as I did, without really considering what motivates an individual to excel. Over time, I have matured and realised that compassion wins.

When a leader is compassionate, when they see an employee as a unique individual whose work performance isn’t merely determined by skill, but by how you best support their purpose, everyone benefits. The goal is not to push an employee to perform, but to implement great processes that set them up to self-manage. If you trust someone, and your purpose is aligned with theirs, you can quickly get to the point where you don’t have to manage them at all. 

The need for compassion is more important than ever, especially since the pandemic. At The Wine Group, we have implemented health and wellness counselling for all employees, and I believe that mental health is probably one of the biggest issues that we face these days. We continue to ensure we are supporting the mental health of all employees, and as time goes on, I plan on becoming heavily involved in the issue outside of the organisation. 

Amidst all the time, effort and hard work I’ve put in and will continue to put in, coming back to compassion, whether for my team, my family or for myself, is how — and why — I lead. 

Celebrating inspiring leaders is our thing here at Salesforce. Read more incredible leadership stories from global and local leaders in our How I lead series: