When I arrived in Auckland back in August 2013, I only planned to be here for 18 months to gain the experience and find out why Kiwi business leaders are so sought after for executive positions, eg 2 out of 4 major Aussie banks CEO’s are Kiwis.
The longest I’ve ever stayed in a city since I graduated from university is 2.5 years back in Tianjin, with a population of 15.5m making it the 6th largest city in the world by population.
As I reflect on the past 4 years, I realised New Zealand has changed me in four ways that I could never have imagined, and I’m liking who I am becoming.
HUMILITY WITHIN 24 HOURS.
I recall the first day of going to work at ANZ Centre in Auckland. Having just spent the previous 12 months in Singapore banking industry, I was pretty pumped about walking to the newly refurbed head office of NZ’s largest bank, for I had all the top notch corporate armour from my designer tailored suit to my limited edition baltic blue designer laptop briefcase.
By lunch time that day, I was introduced to many of the senior colleagues and realised I was an absolute shallow idiot. For I discovered very quickly that no one flaunted any designer brands in the head office across Asian and non-Asian colleagues.
Trying to find a shadow of LV monogram or that iconic Tori Burch buckle on ladies’ footwear was literally impossible.
Contrast that to Singapore, even the most junior front desk receptionist or EA can be seen wearing diamond encrusted Cartier and swinging the latest designer tote bags.
I quickly discovered that New Zealand is a country of humility. Some may call it tall poppy syndrome, but I like the fact that we are not competing with each other on success defined by materialistic attainment.
Humility is a value that permeates through to politicians as well. Having lived in 7 countries, the politicians and their party members in New Zealand are of a different breed – they are keen to be on the ground listening to the people and respecting everyone’s opinions. Even foreign government delegates adopt that attitude very quickly.
How did it change me? My leadership style changed by making sure I reach out and spend time with my skip direct reports, and treat everyone with the same level of courtesy and respect regardless of ranking. I was less hierarchical. It starts with the mindset of being humble first, then the clothing, then the words that you use (eg signing off an email with “Cheers”), followed by the things you do. My staff engagement score reached a record high of 90% and I saved a lot of money from not acquiring any designer items since moving to New Zealand.
COLLABORATION. NOT COMPETITION.
New Zealand is a tiny nation compared to other 34 members of OECD. For example, Australia’s population is 4 times bigger and geographically 29 times bigger than New Zealand.
A country with small population size means commercial market size will also be small. Competing fiercely in a small market is not strategic and yield limited results. Hence we often see businesses collaborate than compete, or carve out a niche in the market where no one is serving.
This mindset impacts on the attitude of Kiwis. When you start with a mindset of collaboration, your attitude shifts towards innovative collective outputs, you share beliefs and values, you support and encourage mutual growth.
In the corporate world, limited size of the market also means corporate roles are sandwiched, where you wear multiple hats in a single role. Those who come from Asia often complain about this, and will demand higher pay for added responsibilities.
My view is that it’s a rare opportunity to be able to double or triple hat in a role. Compared to other peers in Asia, it means you’re learning more in the same period. That makes you more marketable in the future – which is why leaders who spend time in New Zealand gain so much more experience and are qualified to manage large organisations.
The downside is the modest salary bracket in New Zealand. People don’t come to New Zealand to become millionaires, they come for the lifestyle and warm friendly locals.
How did it change me? In my current field of work, I always find common grounds with competitors and will mutually refer clients whom might be better served by competitors. Reflecting back when I was in the corporate sector, there are community issues that can be solved through the banks’ collaboration rather than competition.
AN OPEN HEART STARTS WITH AN OPEN MIND.
When you first arrive into a country, the very first local people you meet is very likely to be the person behind customs and immigration desk at the international arrival hall.
I don’t know if the immigration staff at Auckland airport are trained to be friendly, but I have always felt very welcomed when going through immigration, even with a Malaysian passport. There will always be small talks about the flight and the weather. At a minimum, there’s always a friendly smile before a “hello”.
The same can’t be said for many other countries, especially at Australia immigration processing where I’m always prejudged based on unconscious bias on my passport and ethnicity. I have to put up with the unfriendly attitude every time I visit Australia as a permanent resident since 1994. Attempts to change that by initiating a conversation with a smile or “G’day” just don’t seem to work.
Kiwi’s friendliness is well known and even earned them an accolade for being one of the friendliest countries in the world. Strangers are often treated as friends in New Zealand.
At a sporting level, nothing can better epitomise that open heart attitude other than Sonny Bill Williams giving his Rugby World Cup winner’s medal to a young boy tackled by security guard.
At a community level, Kiwis are opening their hearts more than anyone else. New Zealand is ranked 2nd according to the 2016 World Giving Index which is a leading study on global generosity.
At an international level, New Zealand is more open minded than many other countries. For example, we have the world’s first openly transexual mayor and Minister of Parliament Georgina Beyer and same sex marriage was legalised in 2013.
WE CAN LEARN SO MUCH MORE FROM MĀORI
The first settlers of New Zealand are Māoris in the 13th century before western colonisation in the 17th century, followed by signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840.
Origins of Māoris can be traced back from Eastern Polynesia. They have unique own beliefs and culture. They are connected with the land and the water that feed them. They are connected with the spirits and life essence that protect and nurture them.
In today’s example, before the start of formal public meetings, karakia prayers will be offered at the start to ensure gatherings go smoothly and at the end to ensure participants reach home safely. In contrast, in a western culture, we get straight into business, with clear action points to conclude meetings.
Another great Māori value that I relate to and respect highly is the concept of whakapapa (genealogy) and whanau (the physical, emotional and spiritual dimensions of a family or community living in the same area).
I was invited to celebrate the promotion of Assistant Commissioner Wally Haumaha at his Rotorua marae (a communal or sacred place that serves religious and social purposes). More than 500 people turned out and I was so touched by the gathering and how Wally was so connected with his whakapapa and whanau. I couldn’t help but felt in a spiritual sense that day his ancestors were there to give their blessings for Wally, his whanau and all the attendees.
Not many of us would have a whole village to celebrate with us and remind us of our whakapapa when we reached certain significant milestone or success in life.
What’s the common denominator across these 4 things that changed me?
By the way, did you know that Auckland was recently ranked again in the top 10 most liveable city in the world? Or New Zealand is the least corrupted country in the world? Or New Zealand is the most prosperous country in the world? The list goes on… but you get the picture by now, and it’s about the people – he tangata.
There is so much to learn and to love about New Zealand when you open your mind and your heart to connect with the people.
And when the people of the country change you from inside, it makes you want to contribute back multiple times to the people and the community.
I don’t think I’m ready to leave New Zealand just yet, so here’s to another 4 years.
Eric Chuah is the founder of Cultural Connections, a multicultural consulting firm working with government agencies, community groups, and private sector in New Zealand. He is currently serving as Independent Advisor forMulticultural New Zealand; Board Trustee for Auckland Regional Migrant Services; and Ethnic Media Advisor for New Zealand Human Rights Commission.