Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Realising and Celebrating Inherent Potential

University of Canterbury Graduation Speech - 17 December 2014


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.  It is a day that you will all remember for the rest of your lives and for that reason alone I encourage you to make the most of it.

The Graduates that are here today are a special breed. You have had your own unique set of challenges: 
  • You have been victims of seriousl seismic disruption
  • You have had to camp out in temporary buildings
  • You have had to be extraordinarily adaptable and tolerant as you have been moved from one place to anther in the context of a rebuild zone, and
  • You have had to do what you have done in the context of your university education in an environment of continuous disruption and sub-optimal learning conditions.
The fact that you are here today is testament to your perseverance and tenacity. It is likely that you are the better for it. You will be a little edgy, a little entrepreneurial, have a high capacity for risk taking and be experienced in more disruption than most, which in the volatile environment you are all about to enter into, will certainly stand you in good stead.

The University of Canterbury is an extremely proud institution. It has a long and distinguished heritage and an extraordinarily influential alumni. You are now about to enter that alumni and I know that you will be making your own significant and distinguished contributions to our community and beyond.

I would like to recognise Richard Ballantyne, a life member of the Canterbury Employers’ Chamber of Commerce, who is being honoured today. Thank you Richard for what you have done for our community.

In my experience there are four fundamental benefits of attending university.

The first is that you develop new social contacts that will remain with you for the rest of your life. You have been thrown into an environment sprinkled with new people, new behaviours and new challenges. Mark my words, the people you have come through university with will remain friends and colleagues for as long as you live. Many will remain very special people in your lives.

The second benefit from attending university is that you have probably learned how to learn. I remember when I attended secondary school in Rotorua my headmaster informed me as I left school in my reference that I had been indolent and would be well served to seek a useful apprenticeship. At secondary school I was lazy and I had not learned how to learn. In the university environment where there was no-one forcing me to do anything it suddenly dawned upon me that if I was to succeed, I needed to apply myself. No-one else as going to do that on my behalf. I have no doubt that many of you in this room have learned just that.

The third benefit from attending university is that you have qualified with a degree that will assist you in specialist fields of activity. Many of you, however, will not pursue specialist areas directly related to your qualification and you will forget most of what you have learned. However, you will know where to go to find out relevant information should you need it. I can vouch for that as a graduate majoring in Zoology and spending my whole life in commerce.

Having a degree will also assist you in obtaining employment. But the significance of your degree will fade over time as your experience in the workplace increases in value.

Of course you are going into a completely different world that I entered into after my graduation in the 1970s. Once I had graduated I determined a job that would suit me, in my case it was export marketing, and I have more or less stayed in that field for the rest of my life, in one form or another. In your situation your career path is not so much a path as crazy paving. Most of you will have several changes in career and be involved in a relatively restless career path. You will jump from one career pursuit to another. That is just the way things are these days and it will provide you with a varied and rewarding pathway through life.

As graduates most of you will end up as leaders in your respective communities. I have a theory which I have applied throughout my working career which I call the “partial vacuum theory of management”. It is your responsibility as leaders to do whatever you can, with the people you work with, to create a partial vacuum in front of them, to encourage them into new areas of activity, to encourage them to take risks, and to encourage them to go where they might not have gone without your leadership influence. It is really about empowerment. But it is more than that – its empowerment with some subtle direction into new challenges.

In my opinion we all have almost unlimited potential. Unfortunately for most of us that potential is never fully realised. If we are put in an environment where we are encouraged to take new risks, where we can make mistakes without blame, and can learn from them, where we can work on results rather than processes, and where we can be responsible for setting our own performance criteria, we will be able to realise much more potential than we knew we had. In a strange way the events of 4 September 2010 and 22 February 2011, together with the 53 aftershocks of over 5 on the richter scale and 11,000 aftershocks over 3, which we all remember.  

In a strange way the events of 4 September 2010 and 22 February 2011, together with the 53 aftershocks of over 5 on the richter scale and 11,000 aftershocks over 3, which we all remember well, have created a unique set of circumstances for us. With all the tragedy aside, as terrible as that was, we have become a unique enclave of people. We have had to deal with absolutely unprecedented circumstances, with chaos we didn’t think was possible, with human responses that have been unexpected and extraordinary, with material destruction that is unprecedented in the history of this country, and with social consequences that are still playing out. It is very clear to me that some of us are still suffering from fatigue because of the enormity of the event we have been through. We with the various psychological phases that we have gone through since that event have now reached the stage where every cell in our body is tired. I have heard it called cellular fatigue. It becomes particularly prevalent around Christmas and given we are just one week away, I am amazed that you are not all nodding off out there!

However, the opportunity the natural disaster has put before us is extraordinary. We have the opportunity to participate in the rebuild of a city. I am reminded of a quotation by Dutch Leonard, the Professor of Public Affairs from Harvard University, who has been in Christchurch several times since the earthquakes and deals in post disaster community issues. One of his statements which I will remember for as long as I live is “as you create Christchurch you must re-create it to ride the great tail winds of our time, not the tail winds of yesterday”. That is more profound then it sounds and certainly something that provides enormous opportunity for us. Having thought about it often over the last 2.5 years it is something of course we should be doing all of the time. You need to concentrate on how you, as graduates of the University of Canterbury, learn to ride the great tail winds of your time and not concentrate on riding the tail winds of yesterday.  

We found new ways to do things in Christchurch because we had to and that has had a marked
impact on productivity, economic activity and exciting new business models. It has put many of us into environments that we never expected to be in. Environments where we can indeed explore the boundaries of our potential. 

I remind you to think about the partial vacuum theory of management and how this current environment pre-disposes itself to encouraging everyone to be drawn into new and exciting opportunity.

As many of you get into leadership positions as graduates from the University, whether or not you remain in Christchurch, 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. For me it is pretty much summed up in all of us developing an aspiration which will enable us at the end of our careers to say “wow what a ride”. The other option is “was that it” and I fear that many of us might feel 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 be subjected 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 everyone 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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