Leading Differently

Written by Pia Waugh, Project Manager for NFIC International Strategic Initiatives

Last week a diverse group of digital leaders from private, public and community sectors got together in Wellington to discuss how to affect change. It was a fascinating conversation peppered with personal stories, different perspectives, questions and some ideas about how to lead differently, in particular how to lead effectively. The need for clear, concise and compelling messages in all we do was discussed, so here is a hopefully clear, concise and compelling overview of our discussion.

Delivery is king!

A lot of the discussion kept returning to the idea that delivery is critical for affecting change. A lot of challenges can be overcome by letting the work speak for itself, which means you have to strive for excellent in what you do. We discussed the need to show what good looks like, to change through demonstrating, winning hearts and minds by showing people you are willing to try something new yourself and the need to use transformation to do things better, not just change for changes sake. Sometimes the status quo is just habitual, and it is only by showing a better way that people will understand and be motivated to change. Persistence and resilience in leadership was discussed as critical for longer term change.

Keep it real

Another consistent theme was authenticity and dealing with real people and their real concerns. The idea that you need to be authentic in all you do to build trust and affect change but also needing to always stay connected with how your actions will affect actual people, and the need for believing in your vision (though taking the time to validate it often) and having confidence to drive it forward whilst also respecting those around you. Examples were given of individuals being authentic with the people they work with and how much that was appreciated.

Another example of continual and sometimes repeated consultations without context from which there is no clear outcomes from government was given as a frustration of the public sector in government keeping it real. We discussed how “consultation” in NZ has been clearly defined as meaning there is a chance to change the plan, not just getting feedback or trying to communicate an intent. We discussed the oftentimes gap between intention and action, and how action is ultimately how you judge an organisation or person.

We are stronger together

The need for networks came up repeatedly, whether for support, for learning, for connecting with new ideas, exploring, experimenting, learning different approaches, and celebrating each others successes. My personal favourite was how powerful empathy is as a way to stay real stay connected with the people you are working with and trying to influence, and that cultures are changed through people, not just processes or vision statements. This means sharing stories, seeking context, helping humanise what we do and bring people on the journey. After all, revolutions are bottom up, not top down.

Harnessing the power, energy, experience and expertise of the broader community was discussed as an untapped resource, particularly in the democratic and government context. Finally, we also spoke about self awareness, and the importance of leaders in organisations being willing to change themselves if they want to affect change across their organisations.

Doing means trying

The importance of being willing to try implies being willing to wear some failure in the pursuit of a better outcome. Often failure is seen as a bad thing but failing small and fast gives the opportunity to try things and then find the right path, rather than heavy investment in a path that may turn out to be the wrong path. We spoke about the need to be willing to give things multiple goes to get it right, and the role of entrepreneurship in innovation. We spoke about the need to be comfortable with ambiguity and comfortable to discover new ideas, insights and paths as they arise. One company spoke about the need for them to use fear and reward tactics to get government agencies motivated, raising the question of how you get systemic change in a distributed system.

Do I need permission?

As there were a few public servants in the room, there was some discussion about the authority to do things. We swung back and forth from the idea that to lead you need to be willing to break the rules, to the idea that there needs to be a greater “authorising environment” to empower public servants to innovate. We spoke briefly about the need for a strong public service to innovate for the community it serves and the pressures on it from community, industry and politics. However, the hierarchy of the public service often implies a hierarchy of capability, which can be quite disempowering to many public servants, until you remember it is just an abstract concept that you don’t need to be limited by. We also spoke how actual domain experts in government used to be involved in briefing Ministers however, now there are more layers between the domain knowledge and the decision making.


Transparency was raised a few times as both a way to keep it real, to keep people naturally motivated to do the right thing, and how transparency has to go both ways. Not just from government, but also from industry.

Many thanks to all the participants and we look forward to the next NZ DigiLeaders Salon. Thanks to our sponsors Assurity Consulting and Catalyst for their ongoing support.

Comments are closed.