Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Realising Potential - University of Otago Graduation speech


Visitors from afar
Welcome to this day of great importance
And greetings to you all

Chancellor, Vice Chancellor, distinguished Guests, Graduates, Families and Friends

Today is a very special day for you all and I am extremely honoured to be part of it. I have attended many graduation ceremonies at the University of Otago, with eight members of my immediate family having attended this University, including my father, my brothers and sister, myself and my children.

The University of Otago is a bit like that. It is inter-generational, it draws people back. Many of you in the audience today, here to proudly support your sons and daughters, will be graduates of this university. Many of you graduates, although you don’t know it yet, will have children who are drawn back to the University of Otago because you were here. It is just like that.

In attending these ceremonies I have always been conscious of the liberal use of quotations on the part of the guest speaker to get their point across. I grew up in Rotorua and before I attended University a quotation was what you got before you replaced the piston rings on your Triumph 500 speed twin motorbike. However, I do not intend to buck the system and today have structured this address around quotes or statements that have impacted on my life. The first has direct relevance to my time at the University of Otago. “He has been indolent at school and would be well served to seek a useful apprenticeship.” These words were contained in my headmaster’s reference that I carried with me to the University of Otago together with a duffel coat, an electric blanket, a motorbike and not much else. I was schooled at Rotorua Boys’ High School and I was indeed, indolent. I was lazy and I did not know the value of learning. The content of my reference was a significant disadvantage in my early University days. Being described as indolent, meant of course I didn’t have a chance of getting into a hostel and I was regarded with significant suspicion, justifiably, whenever I had to produce my headmaster’s reference, to make headway in Dunedin. Years later I attended a school reunion at Rotorua Boy’s High School. My headmaster was there and I explained to him quite forcibly how his reference had been a significant disadvantage to me in embarking on a tertiary career. He asked me what I had achieved and I explained that I had recently finished a BSc honours in Zoology and a post graduate Diploma in Business. His only words were “I rest my case.”

I am sure that at University I was determined to prove him wrong!

What happened when I attended the University of Otago was that suddenly I learned how to learn. That was one of four extremely important things that I gained out of my time at University. No-one was forcing me to learn, as no-one forced you to learn. We had to learn to learn and you did, because you are all here today. The other three, just by the way, were that I developed a unique set of friendships throughout my University career which I have held on to and still highly value today.

The University of Otago, being a University which attracts so many people from so many different places, has a unique capacity to encourage the development of National and International friendships which are extremely important later in life.

The third significant factor was that I learnt a lot while I was at University. Clearly I have forgotten most of it, but at least I know where to go if I need to find something out. That in itself is an important part of a University education. Lastly obtaining a degree, definitely lowered the hump into my first job and set me on a very interesting career path.

My first job was with Wilson Neill Limited, a Dunedin based leader in exporting. The company has gone now, but its legacy lives on. I spent a total of 21 years in Dunedin, much to my surprise and loved every minute of it. In Wilson Neill we were doing some extraordinary exciting things. We were cutting new boundaries in International markets with new products.

I learned a really valuable lesson about product integrity which has stayed with me throughout my career while I was at Wilson Neill. Despite being a conservative company Wilson Neill was prepared to take significant risks. Some paid off some didn’t! We decided that there was an International market for Canned Boysenberries and we used our German Agent based in Hamburg as an importer for canned Boysenberries from New Zealand into Germany. This was a new product and we shipped several containers of freshly Canned Boysenberries into the German market having had them contract packed at a North Island Cannery. I was early to work one morning about six weeks after the Boysenberries had been shipped and went into the main office to find what looked like a place of mass slaughter. There was bright purple blood coloured liquid dripping from the roof, sliding down the walls and all over the floor. The sample packs of Boysenberries that we had held back from the multi-container shipment into Germany had exploded. Apparently the acid in Boysenberries – and we were pioneering canned Boysenberries at that stage – had interacted with the solder on the seam of the can creating an extremely volatile chemical reaction which had caused the cans to explode after time. We learned a valuable lesson about product integrity and testing products before entering export markets, And the quotation? On the telex machine was a message from our German importer. It read “There are cans of Boysenberries exploding in supermarkets all over Germany”, that is a statement I will never forget.

I have spent a lot of time since September, 4 2010 dealing with the post-earthquake environment in Christchurch. It has been quite an extraordinary experience, I remember telling my team at the Canterbury Employers’ Chamber of Commerce that it was a terrible thing to be involved in an earthquake, but to make the most of it, because it was a once in a lifetime experience. Little did I know at that stage we would have another significant earthquake on February 22 2011 and 53 aftershocks of over 5 on the Richter scale. Hardly a unique experience, but I guess, in total, a phenomena of nature that we have all had to cope with. Dutch Leonard, the Professor of Public Affairs from Harvard University, has been in Christchurch several times since the earthquake. He deals in post-disaster community issues. His quotation which I will remember for as long as I live is “As you recreate Christchurch you must recreate it to ride the great tailwinds of our time, not the tailwinds of yesterday.” That is more profound than it sounds and certainly something we intend doing in Christchurch. But having thought about it often over the last 2.5 years it is of course, something we should all being doing all of the time. We should be concentrating on how we, as graduates of the University of Otago, learn to ride the great tailwinds of our time and not concentrate on riding the tailwinds of yesterday.

We have found new ways to do things in Christchurch because we have had to and that has had a marked impact on productivity, economic activity and exciting new business models. One thing that has remained consistent however, earthquake or no earthquake is that in my opinion we all only tap into a very small part of our potential. Most of us are never put into an environment where our full potential can be harnessed. It is one of the reasons why in New Zealand our productivity is relatively low; we simply don’t tap into our full potential.

I have a theory that is called my partial vacuum theory of management whereby I believe it is the responsibility of all leaders, and you are all sitting out there now, to encourage the people you work with to explore new boundaries, to create a partial vacuum around them, to draw them into exciting new opportunities and to test their capability. To continue to allow them to develop and grow right through their careers through the partial vacuum of opportunity. I have applied this theory for many years and I can assure you that it works. Of course today, it is called empowerment but it is more than that. It is operating an empowering and flexible environment, where people are actively drawn into opportunities. As many of you get into leadership positions as graduates from this University, think from time to time, about the partial vacuum theory and how you can apply it. If we do not realise our full potential that is a real shame and a real waste.

The last quotation I want to give you today is mine. It is “Wow what a ride”. That is what I want to be able to say when I have reached the end of my career. You see the other option is, “was that it?” and I suspect that many of us might feel like that, under-fulfilled and under done because we have not explored our full potential, because we have not been put in unique situations, because we have not been subject to the partial vacuum theory of management and because we have been indolent. Right now I have no time for indolence and I would encourage every one of you, to work actively towards getting to a position, where one day you can say with pride, “Wow what a ride”.


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