Chellie Spiller, outside the traditional Maori 'marae', or meeting house
Looking ahead: Chellie Spiller, outside the traditional 'marae', or meeting house, wants more Maori in management and leadership roles © Jessie Casson

Not far from the sparkling Waitemata harbour sits the University of Auckland Business School, where sharp modern lines contrast with the carved portals of the university’s marae (meeting house). Chellie Spiller, the New Zealand school’s associate dean for Maori and Pacific, evokes the journey of the waka, the Maori oceangoing canoe, to explain the values taught on Auckland’s postgraduate diploma in business in Maori development.

Traditionally the wayfinder, the navigator, “assumes the waka is stationary and the world moves past”, she says. “Their job is to stay still, to calibrate to the different signs: the star path, the wind, the ocean currents.” Adaptability and taking account of the conditions around you is key, whether they are environmental or social.

The non-linear journey of the waka represents the Maori strategic approach, in contrast to the Pakeha (European) mode, “to set the goal and plan the most efficient linear route towards accomplishing that goal”, Dr Spiller says. The wayfinder approach, she suggests, is more attuned to the communal, relationship-based Maori social model, with a successful wayfinder needing to display humarietanga (humility).

“It is about losing ego. That is hard, and it is not how western society often treats leaders,” she says. Humarietanga sits with other core leadership values, alongside kaitiakitanga (guardianship of the environment), whanaungatanga (nurturing of communities), wairuatanga (spiritual dimensions) and manaakitanga (caring for others). Underlying these are the “five wellbeings” — spiritual, social, cultural, environmental and economic — that are the basis of the holistic Maori approach.

Dr Spiller is steering the latest students on the two-year part-time diploma taught by the Graduate School of Management (which offers an option of a masters in the third year). There are 28 students, aged between 24 and 59, of whom 18 are women.

The course is aimed at established leaders from business, government and community organisations, including the burgeoning Maori health and training sectors. Entry criteria are a degree and two years of relevant experience, or five years in a relevant managerial role. Most students work so the course is in the evenings. Participants pay fees of NZ$15,438 ($18,856) and receive a study grant of NZ$5,000 from the school.

The course is intended to meet the needs of an expanding “Maori economy”, which has grown from an asset base of NZ$9.4bn in 2001 to NZ$37bn in 2010, according to a report from the government-appointed Maori Economic Development Panel. This includes the assets of iwi (tribal) organisations, under settlements to compensate Maori for colonial land confiscations, and almost NZ$26bn attributable to Maori employers and self-employed. The figure includes significant shares in tourism and industries such as agriculture, fishing and forestry. Iwi-based businesses, such as Wakatu Incorporation, owner of the Tohu wine brand, are beginning to make an impact overseas.

The Maori economy needs “more Maori in management and leadership roles”, says Dr Spiller. With Maori, who comprise 15 per cent of the Kiwi population, faring poorly in inequality indicators, they need to find these roles in their own way, she adds.

The development of the course has traced that of the Maori economy. Dr Spiller’s predecessor, Prof Manuka Henare, co-founded the course in 1993, as a Maori renaissance raised demand for Maori business education. He acknowledges the “remarkable Maori business and economic recovery”, but “the memory of the pittance [left under land confiscations] remains”.

Manuka Henare
Manuka Henare

Now it is about navigating the future. Dr Spiller says the course has helped build “a mind-blowing suite of Maori who are talented and engaged”, including recipients of Auckland’s annual Maori Business Leaders Awards and iwi leaders such as Sonny Tau, who is leading the Ngapuhi iwi, based north of Auckland, through negotiations for one of the final compensation settlements.

“Most Maori values point to relationships and reciprocity,” says Dr Spiller. Students tend to form themselves very quickly into a whanau (family), where the emphasis is on working together, though that does not always make for plain sailing.

The course is open to non-Maori and not all teachers are Maori. It offers, says Dr Spiller, a “full suite of stock standard business education”. As organisations such as the Bank of New Zealand offer specialised divisions to engage with the Maori economy, graduates may not end up in specifically Maori businesses. “All New Zealand businesses have customers who are Maori,” says Dr Spiller.

However, the course is basically about “the unique tensions Maori face — the emphasis Maori place on certain things”, according to Dr Spiller. The foundation course on Maori society “goes right back into the history of Maori as traders and businesspeople, and takes it to the present day — that is not going to happen on an MBA”.

University of Auckland Business School
University of Auckland Business School

The content often includes case studies relevant to Maori people. Kiri Dell, who finished the course in 2008, remembers the accounts of Ngai Tahu, a South Island iwi and a success story of the post-treaty settlements, being used as a case study. She is doing a PhD to research Maori competitive advantage, while running a corporate team-building business based on Maori values. As Maori move from focusing on compensation to economic development, she says, “we need more programmes like this”.

Johnnie Freeland, manager for Maori strategy at Auckland council, started the course in 2002 and has returned to complete outstanding credits. In between, he has developed a bicultural strategy for New Zealand’s largest city, where a quarter of Maori live.

Dr Spiller teaches the management and governance paper. “We are able to have a conversation about the kind of challenges Maori face in organisations today,” she says. “What, for example, is your human resources strategy when you believe in mana?” Mana, which translates loosely as prestige, is a core element of relationships and it could make simply firing someone difficult. “They might be part of your community — you might be related to them. You cannot have that conversation easily in an MBA classroom,” she adds.

“The kinds of people we graduate are exceptionally good at working with complexity,” she adds. “They are able to look at different perspectives and give full consideration to different value systems.” One assignment places Chinese shareholders in a Maori business. With China becoming more of a factor in New Zealand’s economy, “when delegations are sent to China, the Maori in the delegation will speak to the relationships, make those connections around ancestry and place, that are very important in an Asian context”.

By gaining such skills, both Dr Spiller and Prof Henare hope to see Maori taking their economic development on to the global stage. Dr Spiller, meanwhile, plans to keep the waka moving forward and to stave off what she referred to in an article this year as a “dark arm of unhealthy corporatisation” reaching into Maori enterprise. She believes that in some cases traditional Maori values are being compromised, with neglect of values other than the economic.

By 2017, she hopes, in conjunction with New Zealand’s seven other university business schools, to have transformed the diploma into a masters programme and put teaching of Maori economic development on a national footing, which will mean students “are in the waka the whole way through”.

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