Ngai Tahu's new boss has strong whanau focus

20:48, Aug 23 2012

For those of you that follow such matters it will have been of interest to note that, this week, Te Runanga o Ngai Tahu announced the appointment of a new chief executive officer.

It is a role I once held and, it is fair to say, one of the most interesting and challenging executive positions in the South Island.

The person appointed is Arihia Bennett, ONZM, who has Ngai Tahu and Ngati Porou whakapapa and also has deep roots in Canterbury. She is a trained social worker, has experience in tourism operations and management, as well as significant leadership experience in social services and community development.

She is fiercely whanau-oriented, which has translated into how she views architecture, to the point that Arihia and her family have constructed a multi- generational, family-oriented house in their traditional kainga of Tuahiwi. Arihia will impress many who meet her, simply because she is a person who lives by the values that are espoused by many, but not necessarily followed.

Taking on this role is a bold choice for Arihia as, although the complexity of Te Runanga o Ngai Tahu's ongoing challenges are attractive to a certain type of aspiring executive, it is hard to know where such a job fits in a classic career pathway.

For the commercially oriented it may be seen as a sideways step, for someone with a public service background it would be hard to "cross over" back to representing the Crown after leading the charge on behalf of an iwi, and for that reason it perhaps make sense for someone with a career of social-development leadership to take on the role.


Regardless of the importance of the appointment to Ngai Tahu, it is also important to the wider community for a number of reasons.

First, it is now considered one of the pivotal positions of influence in Canterbury and has been elevated even further in post-earthquake Christchurch. Since settlement, Te Runanga o Ngai Tahu and its subsidiaries, most notably Ngai Tahu Holdings Corporation, have grown in reputation and credibility as they have achieved what they always threatened to - a solid, conservative, apparently long- term presence that complements South Island economic and political aspirations.

Arihia is already intimately involved with the machinery of Cera, and this is one area where Ngai Tahu has not only been included in their newly recognised civic leadership role, but has also been challenged to take the step up and respond accordingly. Earthquake recovery may have highlighted the role, but the reality is that the responsibility and recognition is here to stay and the leadership needs to be prepared to respond to that.

Secondly, the new appointment is occurring at a time of general change within the organisation. Greg Campbell, the Ngai Tahu Holdings Corporation CEO, is also moving on to take over the reins of Ravensdown, the Ngai Tahu representative elections have begun with some changes already occurring, and therefore the ground is fertile for new and inspirational leadership.

Over the past 15 years, Te Runanga o Ngai Tahu has focused, very positively, on building political capital and doing all they can to not put a foot wrong with their investment strategy. This has served Ngai Tahu very well but there are new possibilities that have been debated by the tribe but as yet not properly adopted.

This is understandable, as a hierarchy of priorities needs to be agreed on because, despite the perception, Ngai Tahu do not have the resources to do everything they want whenever they want. It is very likely that Arihia will promote whanau wellbeing as a priority and I believe the timing is right.

Finally, there is significant satisfaction in appointing a woman to the role for the first time.

The Maori world is not devoid of great female leaders, but the combination of Maori cultural leadership and senior executive leadership in a primarily political realm is a difficult ceiling to break through.

Over the past month we have lost some significant Ngai Tahu women leaders. Winter generally takes its toll on our kaumatua and this year has been no different. In the space of a couple of weeks we lost Maruhaeremuri Stirling from Tuahiwi, Priscilla Stone from Rapaki and Marama Higgins of Moeraki - although closely connected to all the Canterbury marae.

Each of these women provided their own leadership for Ngai Tahu but they were also all mothers and grandmothers who were responsible for raising a new generation of success.

I am sure Arihia will be cognisant of these pillars of leadership passing on at the time when she takes on a powerful mantle on behalf of the tribe.

Although Ngai Tahu has claimed a gender-blind approach to tribal political leadership, this is the first time a woman has taken on the top role. The message to daughters and granddaughters must be positive.

The Press