Face to face: Pat Snedden – On Transformation… And servant leadership

There’s story Pat Snedden tells about his grandfather – cricket player/selector and partner in family legal firm that can boast several generations of service in Auckland.
“Back in the 1920s, his partner gave some shonky advice to one of his clients – advice that led to that person sustaining significant loss. My grandfather fired the partner, then took out loan which he paid back over 30 years to recompense the client.”
It is, he says, family story with ongoing resonance. Since then, neither his father (a successful lawyer) nor brother (now running the firm) has taken any corporate position that might compromise their ability to give free and frank advice.
“It’s story that is very important one for us in terms of business ethics and in the sense of doing the right thing by people and standing for what you believe in and paying the price for that. That stream runs through the cultural backbone of our family.”
His own ethical watershed came in the 1980s when he joined Ngati Whatua protestors at Bastion Point. He’d been studying anthropology and was very aware of the manifest injustice that over 112 years had reduced proud people, able to gift thousands of acres to Governor Hobson for his new settlement, to landless few living off the State.
“Bastion Point was particular point of focus for me – the thing that gave me sense of where the bits of New Zealand were not fitting together. Yes it politicised me, very strongly. In the second occupation I got arrested and I’ve often said it was the best long-term business decision I made in my life because it gave me connection with the Maori community – and whole set of valuable friendships I’d otherwise not have had.”
It also gave him an emerging insight about the way in New Zealand “we need to stitch together our historical narrative lot more cleverly” in order to make the best from it. “I found using my business skills alongside having anthropology to understand what I was doing in cross-cultural context was quite valuable skillset – one that’s helped me right through my business career.”
Those insights allied to his strong embrace of the “servant leadership” model have helped inform his tenure of bunch of high-level public service roles and are now being seriously put to work in an ambitious multimillion-dollar government project that has nothing less than “transformation” as its goal.
The Tamaki Transformation Programme that he’s chairing is 20-year initiative that is about thinking and working differently in order to get better results. Its mandate is deceptively simple. Take the $150 million or so of government dosh that is annually spent on housing, welfare, health and education in Tamaki’s colourful but challenging community and use it, not to support the status quo, but to make real difference.
The only way to do that, says Snedden, is from the bottom up. The community has to engage in and drive the process of transformation. And at its front end, that can be somewhat messy process.
“There is enormous energy in the community to engage, but at the moment it is clumsy. State agencies and communities don’t easily participate in the matter of reprioritising what they do. There are all the questions around who’s in and who’s out of the conversation, how extensive can it be, what sort of flexibility have we got? State agencies aren’t used to working with permission process – it’s usually more prescriptive.”
Even the language to frame the process is compromised – the public service essentially has language of consultation not of engagement and participation. What the programme is trying to achieve is very different, says Snedden.
“But I’m very optimistic – we will find ways through this.”
Passionate, articulate and forthright, Snedden draws on the strength of pakeha Whakapapa that is deeply entwined with New Zealand’s business, sporting and cultural heritage.
“Our history is fifth generation Irish Catholic blended with stream of Scotch Presbyterian. We grew up in an environment where what you think about things counts.”
He can claim great grandfather (Alexander) who was involved in the original purchase and draining of land for Eden Park. Which makes it kind of fitting that brother, cricketer Martin Snedden, is now heading World Cup Rugby 2011 – masterminding the major sporting event for which Eden Park is now being massively upgraded.
“We’ve got very strong sporting lineage running through generations of my family – cricket in particular,” notes Snedden.
Self-employment is also theme – the family law firm has been going since the early 1900s and Snedden’s own work career is that of self starter. At university, he mixed his study of economics and accounting with anthropology.
“I was encouraged into the latter by my girlfriend, later my wife, who was an anthropologist – so I think I was natural prey. It proved enormously helpful because it gave me kickstart on getting to grips with New Zealand’s indigenous history and the relationship between Maori and Pakeha which has been such formidable part of my business life.”
Post graduation, his first job as 24-year-old was running the Catholic newspaper. Five years of that gave him sufficient grounding in publishing to start his own business – publishing farming newspapers, community directories, educational and medical publications.
The business skills he learned helped, says Snedden, when, in the mid-1980s, he started consultancy advising not-for-profit organisations. He ran that alongside his commercial interests for over 15 years until selling out of what was his second publishing company in 1999.
Meanwhile his ongoing involvement with the Maori community – as economic adviser to Ngati Whatua, business adviser for Health Care Aotearoa (a primary care network of Maori, Pacific Island and community groups in the health sector) and founding director of Mai FM amongst other things – added to his store of knowledge and understanding around Maori-Pakeha relations.
So when Don Brash’s rise to power was fuelled in part by speech at Orewa in which he talked about the “dangerous drift toward racial separatism”, Snedden was moved to explain why, as Pakeha, he thinks the Treaty of Waitangi is central to the heart and soul of our nation.
In 2006, his book Pakeha and the Treaty, Why it’s our Treaty too won first prize in the first author, non-fiction section of the Montana Book Awards.
“It was really well received partly I think because here was Pakeha person writing about Maori stuff as being dead normal, and understanding it in terms of our whole historical-cultural narrative – not just seeing it through one set of eyes. I think that was good thing to do. If there is any one thing in my life – the feedback from that book from all around the country was probably the most profound experience.”
His speeches to range of different audiences on the Treaty deal head-on with Pakeha unease about Maori claims – putting them not just in an historical context but an ethical one. As he stresses over and over, this is not about money but about mana – honour, integrity and respect.
The decision (with Treaty claims) to lift the lid on history, allow all voices to be heard and reparation made is, he says, about pursuing the greater good in our dealings with each other. It is, he said in one speech, about self-belief – “the soul of our nation that either recognises the seeds of its own genius and the consummate ability within ourselves to articulate and solve our own problems, or loses its nerves and resorts to one-size-fits-all”.
When that central relationship isn’t working, we seem to lose our confidence as nation that can forge its own unique path in the world, he suggests. Respect and empowerment went helluva long way for Ngati Whatua whose first act on being given back their own land at Bastion Point was to gift huge chunk of it back to Aucklanders. And from b

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