THE MANAGEMENT INTERVIEW : Jerry Mateparae – New Zealand’s warrior chief

The youngest person and first Morito be appointed Chief of New Zealand’s Defence Force, Lieutenant General Jerry Mateparae wears his mantle of leadership with relaxed ease.
He may be this country’s official warrior chief but 51-year old Mateparae is also happy to include amongst his interests “helping [wife] Janine in the kitchen”. Around his own office at Defence HQ in Wellington, he’s known simply as “CDF”.
This is not quite your average corporate HQ. Access to the inner sanctum means going through couple of security doors and checking in on the cellphone. But Mateparae’s office is modern with scatter cushions on the bulging off-white couches.
“CDF” is in uniform with an open-necked shirt. Save for the red flashes on his collar, the badges of rank are unobtrusive. The people who have to know, know where to look and what those symbols on the epaulettes signify.
When an aide offers coffee or tea, Mateparae opts for hot water. believer in homeopathy, he takes his health seriously. He probably needs to – he runs one of this country’s largest and most complex organisations.
The New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) comprises more than 11,000 military personnel and 2192 civilian staff spread across army, navy and airforce. It runs on an annual budget of $1749 million and currently has personnel serving in 19 missions around the world, from Afghanistan to Timor.
Plus the NZDF is inevitably target to flak of the political variety. Is it spending its budget as well as it might? Does it have enough resource to do the job it’s been tasked with? Why is it investing in equipment that’s too limited/outdated/incompatible/inadequate/expensive? And so on.
In other words, this is not job for those with weak constitutions or faint hearts.
It is not position young Jerry Mateparae from Wanganui had imagined he would have when he joined the Army in 1972 at the age of 18. He rose through the ranks, commanding infantry units of increasing size before being appointed to series of general staff positions, becoming Army land commander in 1999 and Chief of the Army in 2002. Along the way he commanded New Zealand units that were part of international forces in Bougainville, Lebanon and East Timor. In May this year he became Chief of the Defence Force.
He says much of his rise came about because the right opportunities presented themselves, but he also credits factors such as commitment, persistence and the pursuit of excellence.
“You have to be able to adapt to different conditions. Successful leaders bring forward different parts of their personality to match the circumstances. You have to be confident that you have the right grounding, that your decision-making processes are sound, that you are able to think logically and also trust in those you work with.
“All of these things are, I suspect, common for most people who are leaders.”
Leadership is key organisational factor that crops up everywhere in Defence Force documents and, as Mateparae emphasises, it’s not just the top-down variety.
“You have to delegate authority; in the current parlance we have mission command. You make sure that people are working to coordinated strategic plan, but you implement that in distributed way.
“When you look at the Defence Force, we are like conglomerate. We’re running our own airline, the Air Force, our own shipping line with the Navy and our own land-based workforce, and we’re doing it onshore and offshore. We have to engage strategic partners to facilitate our activities in certain parts of the world.
“We have huge shareholder grouping in the people of New Zealand who want to make sure that they are getting value for the money they put in. In that context it is like any large organisation. I cannot think of anyone who would say they make all of the decisions in an organisation as broad as this.”
The Defence Force concentrates on developing leadership, giving new members responsibility and accountability commensurate with their duties from the outset, says Mateparae.
“We have professional development programmes, both collectively and individually. As leader you have to get credibility within the organisation so that you can implement your vision. There’s not only the personal aspect, but also the collective – you have to be able to work in team.
“It is also matter of how you make decisions: the context in which you make them, the access you have to decision-making tools and information, and then the confidence that you will make good decision.”
Mateparae acknowledges that there is an intuitive aspect to decision making.
“If you were to follow through on deliberate decision-making process only, you wouldn’t make too many decisions. Sometimes your intuition is the brain making logical decisions based on its ability to analyse and conceptualise.”
Nevertheless, decision making should be as deliberate, structured and conscious as possible.
“It helps if you have some checks and balances, both in the people you have with you and in the processes and tools. We train our minds to think in logical way. There are some frames around which defence people build their decision making.”
He recounts how he did project management course few years ago and the consultant said he might recognise the approach, which was similar to the military appreciation process.
“It takes all these different aspects and asks couple of questions. You then come up with deductions that lead to some possible courses of action to the point where you put people and assets into the equation.”

On the corporate battlefield
The application of military approaches in commercial life is widely acknowledged. In business, people talk about strategy, tactics and campaigns. There’s “ambush” marketing. Chinese warrior-philosopher Sun Tzu’s treatise On War has been adapted as business guide.
Do the principles really translate from war to business?
“It’s interesting,” says Mateparae, “when you listen to business people using words that in military context have profound meaning. I’m not uncomfortable with it, but I’m sometimes bemused. In war it’s about survival in human terms, about catastrophic loss.”
In his view, the military terms are used because they describe natural dynamics that are found in many spheres of human endeavour. But the influence of military methods on commerce goes beyond terminology.
“At the end of the Second World War number of processes, principles and methodologies were taken from mobilising and conducting wars into the economic and business sector. There are lot more parallels than there are absolute differences. You’re talking about people and activity, you’re talking about procurement and use of technology, so there are lots of commonalities.
“For us, it’s not-for-profit motive, but we certainly want to be getting an efficient and effective use of the resources that we have.”
Measuring the success of the Defence Force is not as easy as looking at bottom line, even triple one. In its own documents, it talks about latent capability, functioning in potential rather than in actuality; its key functions is to be prepared for something that might not happen.
“While on the one hand we’re not at total war, on the other hand we’re very busy. There’s lot of real things going on as well as preparation.”
The Defence Force, says Mateparae, has learnt to measure its success in increments. “Every time you meet request, when you can put New Zealanders into an operation and they can fulfil mandate, that is success. There is never real end state, we accept that. We’re meeting our mission, which is the security and protection side of what we do, being able to deliver aeroplanes and ships and soldiers and an organisation that can do real tasks. It’s also about the other things that go around running any large organisation.”
An important shift that people have to make is to reassess the role of the military.
“The public’s perceptions of what we do might need to change and from inside w

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