Thursday, August 9, 2018

The perils of imported appointees

(First published on and in Stuff regional papers on August 8.)

I wonder if Shane Jones, the Minister of Macho Bluster, had a point when he called for a New Zealander to be appointed the next chief executive of Fonterra.

After all, our biggest company hasn’t exactly covered itself in glory under the leadership of the Dutchman Theo Spierings, who will quit later this year, or his Canadian predecessor.

And while it may be simplistic to assume that a New Zealander would do the job better, Jones has focussed attention on one of our more peculiar national quirks: namely, the assumption that important jobs are best given to outsiders.

We kid ourselves that we’ve outgrown the old cultural cringe whereby we automatically defer to people from supposedly more advanced societies, but the syndrome persists.

This is most evident in the public sector, where British appointees, in particular, are rife in both national and local government. It would be a rare Morning Report that didn’t include at least one interview with a bureaucrat whose formative work experience was gained in a country 20,000 kilometres away – one with a culture quite dissimilar to our own, and becoming less like us with every passing year.

Brits tend to be naturally officious, gravitating to jobs that often involve administering rules and regulations. They come from a more rigid, rule-bound society – one described last year by the British author Lee Child, who chooses to live in New York, as “very managed and precious, the epitome of a nanny state”. 

They also tend to carry a bit of nationalistic baggage from the days of empire, and with it a belief that British ways are naturally superior. This doesn’t always gel with our more casual, egalitarian culture.

No doubt many of them are competent administrators, but you have to wonder whether some bring attitudes, values and mindsets that don’t transfer easily to a New Zealand setting.

This probably matters less where decisions on pure policy are involved – as at the Treasury, where former British public servant Gabriel Makhlouf runs the show – than in jobs that call for an intuitive understanding of New Zealand culture and the ways in which it is unique.

Another risk with high-level imported appointments is that they may have no emotional stake in New Zealand or long-term commitment to the country. The New Zealand gig may be just another step on their career path. If they screw things up, they can walk away and start afresh somewhere else.

The public sector doesn’t have a happy record with overseas appointees. Remember the unfortunate Englishwoman Lesley Longstone, who lasted only 15 months as Secretary of Education? A Massey University academic euphemistically commented at the time that she was possibly not well-equipped to read the New Zealand mood.

Another Englishman, Michael Houlihan, brought big ideas with him when he took over as chief executive of Te Papa, but his disastrous four-year tenure resulted in massive financial losses and a lot of unhappy staff. It remains to be seen whether the man now in charge - a Welshman - has a better handle on what it takes to run a New Zealand museum.

Then there was the embarrassing case of Stephen Wilce, a senior Defence official recruited from Britain, whose dazzling CV turned out to be largely a work of fiction.

Questions might even be asked about the wisdom of putting an Irishwoman, Grainne Moss, in charge of Oranga Tamariki, the Ministry for Children.  

She’s obviously capable and committed (she swam the English Channel at the age of 17), but her background is in the aged-care and forestry sectors. There’s little in her CV to indicate she has the empathy and understanding necessary to run a ministry that’s up to its eyeballs in intractable social issues and has a very substantial Maori and Pasifika clientele.

Were there no suitable New Zealand applicants for these key jobs, or didn’t we bother to look locally? I have a friend in the corporate sector who claims that executive recruitment agencies prefer to cast their net overseas because it gives them an excuse to fly around the world and stay in posh hotels.

Part of the problem is that some of the most capable Kiwis end up taking their talent abroad because this country is just too small for them. Conversely I suspect we attract a lot of second-rate people from other countries because the bar is lower here. I suspect this is especially true in academia.

But it’s not just the public sector that seems to remain locked in a mindset that people from overseas have better ideas about how to run our affairs than we do. Under an English chief executive, New Zealand Football comprehensively lost its way and managed to alienate the entire Football Ferns team by importing an Austrian coach whom no one liked.

Both men are now on their way home, and deservedly so. But how often must we repeat these mistakes before the message sinks in?

FOOTNOTE: This column was written before Massey University vice-chancellor Jan Thomas issued her edict banning Don Brash from  speaking on campus. Thomas is an Australian who has been in the job since January 2017. Her background is in veterinary science. She is not a New Zealand citizen, but considers herself entitled to determine what New Zealanders can safely be allowed to say to each other. Whoever appointed her can now bask in the knowledge that she has done serious damage to Massey's reputation and probably succeeded in alienating more New Zealanders than any Australian since Greg Chappell.


Pdogge said...

Goodness, I agree with you.....very good analysis Karl.

Karl du Fresne said...

Have a lie down. It will soon pass.

Unknown said...

Nicely summarised.
As a Kiwi who has recently returned from overseas, my search for employment has thus far been futile. I'm not sure the exact reasons and I am not overlooking that I might just be suited to the checkout ('we can't all have our name in the lights') ha! - but it has been frustrating interviewing with South African and English middle managers who clearly have a specific 'type' in mind.

hughvane said...

While you're at it, you might mention the number of British (not just English) in broadcasting. Three names spring to mind: Ferguson, Hill & Rawstron. I'm sure there are others.

Phone your local authority any day of the week and you're likely to be greeted by, or referred to, a bureaucrat with a distinctly English accent. The poor Scots and Southern Irish however have a hard time because they're not as easily understood.

An Englishman I came to know very well returned to England because he could no longer tolerate the "egalitarian, casual culture" he continually encountered, despite doing very nicely out of it. A significant number of English I have spoken with say they've come here to escape the oppressive burden of bureaucracy in their mother country, only to perpetuate it in their chosen employment!

hilary531 said...

To me this issue goes hand-in-glove with the socially destructive 'cult of the CEO'. 'Oh, we have to pay people mega-bucks and look overseas if we want to get the best talent'. BS I say. Plenty of them cock up as much as anyone else, (we attract an inferior product you reckon karl?..perhaps so) profit handsomely, then bolt. In a few instances we might get a great talent but a Kiwi will've done just as well I'm picking & most will do the job for a lot less.