FACE TO FACE : John Hood – Engineering possibility

For man who’s just been dubbed supreme award winner out of the impressive lineup of talent that was being celebrated at last month’s World Class New Zealand Leaders awards, John Hood seems almost bashful talking about the career which prompted this accolade.
He may run one of the world’s most illustrious academic institutions, but Hood is not someone who presumes to have all the answers. Even when it comes to talking about his own leadership style.
“I find it extraordinarily difficult to stand outside myself and look in. I think other people are better to do that.
“But one of the things I learned early in my career at Fletcher Challenge is the power of the devolved, decentralised organisation. That means ensuring that every decision is pushed to the level at which the maximum knowledge for the decision rests. The arrogance of assuming you can make better decisions at the centre of an organisation is just that – sheer arrogance.”
Nor – when asked what advice he might give aspiring young Kiwi leaders – does he presume to have the right offering.
“Well, this is not going to satisfy you as an answer – but I believe it’s fallacy to think that one person who had the life they had can provide relevant piece of wisdom to another younger person. However, I am fan for the idea of mentorship where two people think this can be valuable relationship.
“What you find in those, is that there is not one piece of advice that stands out – it’s part of an ongoing process. It’s about trying to give someone confidence given the circumstances you find them in or trying to provide them with alternative views they might think about.”
The respectful exchange of ideas is something Hood learned about at an early age.
Born in Napier to teacher parents, he first attended school at Papakura Normal before moving to Helensville Primary for what would now be termed his intermediate years. There he was held back to do Form 2 again – though the repeat year didn’t fit any conventional educational criteria.
“I’d been ‘jumped’ earlier so I was barely 12 and my father who was headmaster at the time judged me too young to go on to high school. So he taught me by the Socratic method, one-on-one for year. And that was probably formative period in my life. That year helped me in all sorts of ways.”
With education authority approval, his father taught him across the subject spectrum from physics and chemistry to history and English.
“A lot of it was self-directed, where I had to do the work then go discuss it with him. He took me through English literature from Beowulf to modern writers. I worked in the journal room, played sport with the rest of the kids – was joined by couple of others for some classes. It was terrific.”
Certainly spirit of enquiry seems very much part of Hood’s makeup. It’s what took him to Oxford in the first place – as Rhodes Scholar to do Master of Philosophy in management studies.
At that stage, he’d already earned his engineering degree from the University of Auckland.
“I’d been uncertain what I would study at university but in the final year of school went to lecture at what was then the Auckland Institute of Technology put on by the Institute of Professional Engineers which explained what the different engineering disciplines do. I was captivated by one part of that presentation which showed what civil/construction engineers did in terms of designing complex bridges and high rise buildings and thought that was good way to combine my interest in aesthetics with that in physics and maths.”
At the time there was lot of interest in finding better techniques for analysing complex bridge structures – driven by some high profile failures – and that became the focus for Hood’s PhD. Meanwhile, because he’d been awarded cadetship with Fletcher Construction, he spent all his undergraduate vacations working on major construction sites around New Zealand.
“I’d go off in the holidays to live at construction camps in places like Tiwai Point and the New Plymouth power station. I also got involved in working on major construction arbitration – so it was an interesting way to develop an insight into the business side of engineering.
“I’d always wanted to complement my engineering education with some study on economics and industrial sociology so I’d be better equipped to work in the business world in engineering-related areas. The scholarship gave me an opportunity to go to Oxford and study change disciplines at graduate level.”
He loved it. “I had wonderful time, living and studying in what is very broad international community of very interesting students. I played lots of sports and studied things I wanted to learn.”
He retained his association with Fletchers while he studied.
“They were very tolerant. This was time when multiple degrees were frowned on in New Zealand industry but they took me back on.”
He taught briefly at the Engineering School on his return from Oxford before moving back to Fletchers, initially working in the executive directors’ department.
It was time when the structure of many industries in New Zealand was poor and there were opportunities for consolidation to get greater efficiencies and to enhance the innovation process.”
“The ’80s were time of huge structural change – it was an exciting time to be involved, says Hood.
“Change – often radical change – was part and parcel of what we lived with every day. And lot of that change was incredibly painful for lot of people.
While I think most was for the better, the process at times was too rapid and it took lot of time for communities and organisations to re-adapt – and get over the hurt.”
Asked about what mistakes he’s made and learned from, Hood grins.
“My life is full of them – far too many to enumerate. One of the great things about the way Hugh Fletcher led the company was that he always took the view mistakes would happen and we should learn from them – though he would be intolerant if we did it twice.
“But, in business, every minute of every hour of every day is journey into the unknown. There’s no predetermined plan you can lay out and think you can slavishly follow. It doesn’t work that way. Inevitably you make mistakes – and the difference between being brilliantly successful and miserable failure is very very fine line.”
Planning, he adds, is always dynamic.
“You can never predict what’s going to happen next because of the extraordinarily dynamic way in which we operate – and that’s as true in the university sector as in business.”
Hood has certainly injected some dynamism into his role at Oxford where he’s been regarded as controversial figure for spearheading recent attempts to reform its traditional governance structure by introducing more external members to its council and separating academic and financial boards. When these proposals were defeated late last year, there were rumours he might resign, but this, says Hood, was never at issue.
He acknowledges the proposed changes were perhaps “a step too far” for an organisation better suited to incremental change but doesn’t regard their rejection as personal defeat.
“What we did was evolved consultatively and collegially. One always has to think carefully about how one has done something in an organisation and if satisfied with the process and the proposals then one should stand by that. The idea of resignation in that context is redundant.”
He objects to the notion that running an organisation of academics is perhaps more like ‘herding cats’.
“I don’t like that expression. It doesn’t go with what I was saying before about academic freedom. If you accept academic freedom as fundamental value, you can’t herd. Academics find their own inspiration and they rightly hold extraordinarily cynical views about vice-chancellors and their administrative colleagues.
“Rather, you have to turn this on its head and say our job is to serve the academics and students and provide, as efficiently and effectively as possible, the ad

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