Jo – organisational development

Jo was leading the Change programme at Treasury when she undertook Ruku Ao in 2015. She has since moved to another agency. Jo has significant experience in change management, organisational performance and development, and the challenges facing public sector organisations in New Zealand. During 2014 she also spoke with  a number of private and public sector organisations in the UK and at the OECD. Jo considers the need and impact of Ruku Ao to be profound on multiple levels: for organisations, for leaders and for individuals. Having participated in leadership development previously, she considers that “there is no comparison between Ruku Ao and other leadership development programmes; the degree of reflection on how leaders present at work, and how you learn from each other, is unmatched”.

Jo’s work in New Zealand has focused on the challenges faced by organisations to deal with complexity and ambiguity, innovation, and the lift of services for citizens.  She has also spent time on collaboration, and the building of diverse and inclusive cultures and notes that many organisations from both NZ and overseas are recognising that traditional approaches to addressing organisational and public policy challenges may not provide solutions to the complex challenges faced by organisations today. This change requires a radical shift for organisations from their current operating models. Jo considers that Ruku Ao is building skills to do so. She has seen the programme create new norms for doing work differently in organisations. At Treasury, where she participated in the programme with around 6 other participants, she found the programme worked to encourage the cohort to stop and listen, slow down to connect, deal with the challenges of ‘not knowing’, and create an ability to engage with diverse perspectives within their teams and the organisation. The programme sat concretely with Treasury’s organisational goals to build diversity and inclusion, Maori capability,  and capability for external engagement. She believes Ruku Ao gives participants tools and experience to address these challenges.

She found Tikanga Maori to be a significant element to the programme. Despite growing up in New Zealand, Jo had not understood the reasons for Maori processes around connection until she participated in Ruku Ao. Previously she had not well understood practice such as pōwhiri;  Ruku Ao enabled her to see the purpose in connecting people in order to be able to work together.  She realised that to be able to understand diverse perspectives different to our own, we need to have connected with people.  She has also realised that this is what is needed in organisations; for the public sector, and more globally, to work differently, to be able to collaborate and build inclusive cultures, it needs to invest in forming connections and behaviours so that we can understand others’ perspectives.

The effects of Ruku Ao are transferring to the new organisation that Jo has moved to, and have been noticed by her new manager, who observed after working with her for some time: “There’s no ego in your work, you just do what is needed”.  Jo says that she instantly recognized this as an effect of Ruku Ao on her practice as a leader.


Angela is a manager at Treasury, and undertook Ruku Ao in 2015. Angela has found that Ruku Ao has significantly enhanced her practice as a leader. She now has more courage and openness to innovate in the workplace, and constructively challenge, where she may not have before. She considers that others around her will have noticed this difference in her. She has become more conscious of the importance of ‘purpose’, in a way that is different to how she has approached purpose in the past.  “In a policy context, we are used to talking about purpose in terms of objectives as part of a policy framework. Since Ruku Ao, I now see purpose as a way of approaching and leading situations, instead of a standard framework to apply.”

This gives rise to questions in situations like, as a leader in this room with these people, what am I here for, and what is my role? What is happening in the room that I need to be present to and aware of, so that I can respond most usefully? Angela says these questions require a different level of presence and self-awareness compared to how she approached her leadership previously. She considers that she has become a significantly better leader through her participation on the programme: she no longer needs permission to take responsibility for leading. She is applying her learning from the programme in her work across Treasury (see below).


Toby is a Principal Advisor at Treasury and undertook Ruku Ao in 2015. Toby has experienced a radical change in his approach to leadership since participating on the Ruku Ao programme. Toby has been part of a number of leadership development programmes before, both as a participant and a facilitator, some with an experiential focus. None have created the changes in him and others in the way Ruku Ao has. Ruku Ao has challenged and grown him to develop his intuitive leadership capacities, and provided him with the stimulus and opportunity to learn for himself how to grow his intuition, instinct, and emotional intelligence. Toby says that for the first time, he understood what a good experiential leadership development programme is really like; with Ruku Ao “I felt it”. Toby is now able to be more alert to his instincts, understand them, and identify how to respond to the leadership need. Toby defines his main learning from the programme as “responsive leadership”; the ability to read a group in a particular moment, being conscious of his potential role, and what is needed to move the work forward.

This responsive approach to leadership recognizes that different actions are required in different situations: sometimes being quiet, in others supporting, challenging or directing depending upon the dynamics at play at the time. Before Ruku Ao, Toby says that he wouldn’t have properly noticed or understood his emotions, let alone thought about why and how to most usefully respond. Ruku Ao has developed Toby’s capacities to direct his own learning, and find direction from his own internal reference. Having seen the benefits of the programme, Toby is trying to expand the influence of Ruku Ao across the Treasury, to other people leaders, and the public sector.

Transforming an organisation’s people leaders

Angela and Toby saw an opportunity to apply what they were learning from Ruku Ao to Treasury’s people leaders’ forums. They wanted to open up Treasury’s people leaders to the possibility of greater personal responsibility for leadership, to grow the organisation’s capacity as a ‘learning organisation’, and to grow the use of  experiential leadership development techniques in the organisation. They also wanted to encourage the forums to be more aware of the process of engagement, rather than just content. They developed a plan for three forums over the year, and introduced techniques learnt through Ruku Ao, including a focus on connection and relationship from a Tikanga Maori lens.

Their initial reflections on how the forums went have led to continuing to run the forums for the following year, with an adapted approach. Treasury’s Executive Leadership Team has signaled its desire for Angela and Toby to continue their initiative to transform the people leader forums. Angela and Toby’s initiative has led to increased motivation and interest in Treasury for further application of experiential leadership development techniques, to find new ways of growing better people leaders. The series of people leader forums is now called Akoranga, to show that it is a time and place of learning.

Naima – personal transformation and waiata ropu

Naima is a senior policy analyst at MBIE and undertook Ruku Ao in 2015. Naima says that Ruku Ao has awoken a “sleeping giant” in her, to offer more of herself to the work at MBIE, as well as to MBIE as a work place. For Naima, Ruku Ao woke up her sense of self and worth, enabling her to identify her strengths, value and what she can offer.  Ruku Ao has also developed her abilities in assertiveness, questioning and challenging the status quo in an effective way. Naima finds that these aspects have made her a better leader. She is now able to identify a leadership need and opportunity, identify what she can offer, and step into the leadership space.

The elements of the programme that draw on Tikanga Maori resonated for Naima; developing skill and understanding of group learning through collaboration, innovation and translation, promoting the awareness of difference and the rigour around group learning. They have enabled her to be proud of her Samoan heritage and to embrace the cultural diversity at MBIE.

Naima considers that her leading the waiata ropu is one translation through a Tikanga/Samoan lens that has pushed her into a space to lead a project that is important and valued. She saw the need for someone to bring together parts of the organisation together through waiata; she sensed that people needed and wanted a cohesive waiata group at MBIE, but were unable to do so. She also saw that waiata was increasingly being drawn on to welcome and farewell staff to the organisation, including senior leaders.

She credits Ruku Ao for enabling her to step into the leadership opportunity to lead MBIE’s waiata ropu, as she had skills she could offer.  The group has now grown, Naima has been profiled on MBIE’s internal Link for Maori Language Week, and is now called on regularly to lead waiata for high-profile MBIE pōwhiri. Naima continues to receive feedback on the significant value for the organisation of her leadership of MBIE’s waiata ropu.

Shannon – MBIE Proud initiative

Shannon is a senior policy analyst at MBIE who undertook Ruku Ao in 2015.  Shannon considers herself privileged to have undertaken Ruku Ao, and she strongly values the leadership capacities it has developed in her. She considers it has created a step-change for her, and has also clarified her career aspirations.

It has developed her understanding of new ways of leading, including leading from behind, co-leadership and looking for a space to lead; as well as identifying the role that different people can play in different situations, to lead effectively and address a leadership need. Shannon’s skills have been advanced in reading the room, making sense of the dynamics around her, and identifying how she can best respond.

One of the key elements that Shannon has valued in Ruku Ao is the encouragement of experimenting with small risks to create innovation. She also considers the Tikanga Maori lens is unique, and critical to facilitating New Zealand’s advancement: Ruku Ao provides an authentic and new way of integrating Te Ao Maori into the way we operate, respecting our bi-cultural society, and Treaty of Waitangi expectations. Shannon found this element profound.

Shannon has applied these new skills to develop an organisational initiative, called ‘MBIE Proud’, that she saw was needed to address a gap in employees’ sense of pride in the organisation, and as a tangible way of applying her new skills. The initiative responds to negative media publicity and wider cynicism about MBIE, and aims to celebrate and value the positive elements of employees’ experience of MBIE. She credits Ruku Ao with developing her skills and capacities to identify and step into this leadership opportunity. She also wanted to apply elements of Ruku Ao that re-created the empowerment and enabling of individuals that she had observed amongst the students at Toi Whakaari.

She has developed a small co-leadership group at MBIE to help lead and drive the initiative. The MBIE Proud initiative has been selected through a competitive process for support from SLT and MBIE’s Chief Executive, and the initiative continues to grow and develop, providing tangible value for the organisation.

Ezra – ‘the osmosis effect’

Ezra is a project manager, working across public sector agencies, who has been exposed to Ruku Ao through his partner undertaking the programme in 2015. Ezra was initially invited to undertake the programme with MBIE, but declined due to timing. What appealed to him was that Ruku Ao offered answers to challenges he was facing in his role as a project manager, where he deals regularly with uncertainty, change and complexity. He saw that Ruku Ao offered approaches to address problems that the organisation needed to solve around change, culture and transformation, in order to achieve its outcomes.

Having been exposed to the learning from Ruku Ao through his partner and colleagues, he has seen the programme be of significant value to his partner, colleagues, and his own work, he says of a transformational scale that he has “never seen before”. He considers that the programme has provided tools to address cross-government objectives, including Better Public Services objectives for responsiveness and dialogue across agencies. He is experiencing on-going benefits to his work through Ruku Ao. These include effective and positive techniques for dealing with human behaviour, which may have otherwise led to difficult situations.

A major benefit of the programme has been the reduced time required to do his work, due to the network of relationships, trust and support developed through Ruku Ao. Ezra estimates this increased efficiency, in one case, to be a saving of one month’s work over the length of a three month contract. On a personal level, Ezra considers that the programme has enabled all parts of himself, both personal and professional, to be brought together into what he offers to his work and life.

Ruku Ao has significantly developed his resilience, his problem-solving abilities, and interpersonal skills. Ezra has found ‘the osmosis effect’, and the on-going spillover benefits of Ruku Ao “transformational”.

He also finds the Tikanga Maori lens to be “pioneering an approach to harness New Zealand’s diversity and advancement, in an effective and unprecedented way”. Through evolution and innovation of the programme, Ruku Ao has developed a local initiative in Manutuke called Ruku Po, which addresses local policy issues in collaboration with the community and Toi Whakaari leaders. Ezra considers the effect and achievements of this innovative approach to policy to be profound.

Jinny – enhancing collaboration, community engagement and relationships

Jinny is a Senior Social Scientist at ESR (the Institute of Environmental Science and Research), and undertook Ruku Ao in 2015. Jinny has found that Ruku Ao has strengthened her ability to develop a new and different kind of leadership – collaborative leadership – that goes beyond her previous understanding of mainstream concepts of effective leadership.

The processes used in Ruku Ao, of being challenged through complex, uncertain, and unexplained situations, have forced her to ‘unlearn’ previous elements of herself and her approach, and develop her comfort at working with the unknown.  “I was struggling to make sense of all these new and different stimuli presented through attending Toi Whakaari and MBIE; watching other people and the students at Toi in kōiwi; not being sure what I’m seeing and supposed to be learning; being plunged into something really different and unknown; this process of losing an anchor point and re-building it has strengthened my ability to ground a different type of leadership”.

Ruku Ao has also enabled her to be a better leader through developing insight into her own tendencies, and developing her abilities to create a more constructive dynamic in the workplace. The syndicate work where participants were challenged to expose and discuss individual tendencies, allowed Jinny to deepen her self-awareness in relation to others.

Jinny says that Ruku Ao has given her a better understanding of the strength of her role in her organisation, and she is now able to better align the different and diverse aspects of herself to constructively challenge and innovate in her science, policy and community engagement work. “Ruku Ao has reactivated my abilities to respond more fully, by drawing on my whole self and building collectively and supportively with others, rather than compartmentalising or focusing on my own immediate interests or piece of the work”. Ruku Ao has also deepened Jinny’s confidence in pursuing her PhD on improving how science and policy systems reflect multiple worldviews.

Being immersed in Tikanga Maori rituals such as pōwhiri and whakatau, and concepts such as tātou, has enabled Jinny to develop a deeper appreciation of the “transformative value” of these frameworks. “It no longer feels like a ritual, but a vibrant and vital part of the work of connecting with others and building common purpose”. Observing how the facilitators of Ruku Ao did this work has enabled her to be more comfortable ‘holding’ complexity and exploring difference between individuals and perspectives, rather than aiming for commonality or jumping into a fast solution. This has been significant for Jinny’s work, which involves community engagement with science, and relationships with tangata whenua.

Jinny also highly values the experience at Manutuke marae, which has led to collaborative alliances in her work. She says she is “grateful for the ‘mana aki’, the uplifting of confidence, trust and connectedness that flows from Ruku Ao, which has helped build broader connections and deeper relationships in my environmental work in Tairāwhiti. These collaborations are proving invaluable in anchoring a kaukapa of how science can be more supportive of mana whenua aims and aspirations; strengthening the interface of our western and indigenous knowledge systems; and building the long-term and future capacities we need to transform the way we collectively manage complex environmental issues, such as waste, our waterways, and human and environmental health.”

Annette – across agency, work and life boundaries

Annette undertook Ruku Ao in its first year in 2014, while she was a manager at MBIE.  She has since moved agency and now works at the Ministry of Defence.  Annette has found Ruku Ao “life-changing”; she says it has fundamentally changed the way she operates. The programme has given her permission and confidence to operate in ways that she always knew she was capable of, and wanted to. Observing the ways Toi Whakaari staff and students operated, in contrast to the public sector, were inspiring to Annette: working relationally with people, openness to challenge and ideas, and a curiosity to find better ways of working. Working in a group at Toi, experiencing the different setting, and the resulting uncertainty and discomfort of doing so, she found that the experience of live coaching stripped down the constructs of the way Annette operated and who she thought she was. After repeated experiences of this, Annette says she developed a curiosity.

She observed the students working in kōiwi as a group, with a collective responsibility; co-leadership for what the group was producing, and the group’s purpose, revealing the importance of casting; and how our leadership role changes depending on what is required of us at a particular time in order to achieve the group’s purpose.

Annette was inspired to recreate what she saw and experienced at Toi, with her team at MBIE. She implemented a number of processes with her team. Inspired by kōiwi, where she saw strong relationships and trust, she conducted the annual performance agreement as a group discussion, with individuals sharing what they wanted to achieve this year, including what the team and organisation needed from them.

She wanted to generate collective responsibility amongst her team, strong relationships that could handle and resolve conflict, and appreciation of individuals’ different working styles. Feedback from team members, and observers, was that the approach created appreciation of difference, engagement, and innovation among team members.

Annette is continuing to apply the lessons and insights from Ruku Ao to all spheres of her life; in her new role at another agency, and to drive new ways of operating in her business.  She also credits Ruku Ao with inspiring her to set up her own business.

Heather – creating organisational and public sector change

Heather is an Associate Director at the Johnson Group, undertaking Ruku Ao in 2016, and describes the programme as “mind-blowing”. She feels she has found a confidence, her voice and her place. As a leader, she has realised her own uniqueness, what makes her different from the group of Ruku Ao participants that she finds herself with, and the leadership role that she can play. She has become a better leader through observing the students and teachers at Toi: she has been inspired by the students’ empowerment to stand up and lead when they see a need, without being asked.  She has also realised that she needs to be willing to look at herself and identify her own blind spots before she can lead others.

She found the visit to the marae in Manutuke, as part of the programme, “transformative”.  Her experience at the marae gave Heather a new respect for Maori culture and New Zealand’s diversity, in ways that her education in New Zealand has not. The conversations at the marae revealed to Heather individuals’ difference, the deep divide between Maori and Pakeha in New Zealand, and the need for respect for others’ difference and diversity.

The marae experience also revealed to Heather what she sees the public sector is missing: emotional intelligence, trust, empowerment to make decisions, respect for difference, and humanity. Instead she sees a fear-based culture and risk-aversion, that does not allow for inclusion, diversity, high-achievement, growth, development and happiness.

From Heather’s experience in recruitment across the public sector, she considers that Ruku Ao is needed to reveal many leaders’ blind spots to themselves, so that they can lead others better. Heather is implementing her insights from Ruku Ao to her organisation, to create better connections and a better functioning organisation. She says her colleagues have noticed a significant difference in her since she has undertaken Ruku Ao, and are inspired to attend the programme.

Grace – creating change in small ways

Grace is a manager at Treasury and undertook Ruku Ao in 2015. Grace found Ruku Ao the most confronting and challenging leadership development programme that she has done, and considers that it has made her a more effective leader. Grace has been applying many elements from the programme, in what she considers to be “small but important ways”; that there is not just one silver bullet for applying and reaping the benefits of the programme.

Ruku Ao has defined for Grace what good leadership looks like for her, and what makes her most effective as a leader. Ruku Ao has assisted Grace to develop her view on the role of a leader ‘to provide space, support and credit’ that she now applies to leading her team at Treasury. She creates space to allow people to learn for themselves; she provides support, which she considers is the role of any leader; and she ensures credit so that people are recognized for their work. She has developed this understanding from her observations of the students and ways of working at Toi, where the student body leverage from each other’s difference and individual strengths, to combine these to achieve a purpose as a group.

The Maori concept of Tātou, explored as part of the programme, assisted Grace to understand how individuals can be valued for their difference yet connect as a group. Grace has applied these concepts to her team to encourage them to focus on better connections and working with each other to achieve joint goals. Grace considers the value of the programme to be in getting groups to work together better, and addressing the challenges of collaboration both within organisations and across the public sector. She also finds it a practical tool to work with diversity in the workplace.

Ruku Ao has helped Grace develop insights into herself and develop her own strengths in curiosity, resilience, and being connected and effective.

Pete – collaboration, diversity and emotional intelligence

Pete is a manager at the Ministry for the Environment, undertaking Ruku Ao in 2016. Pete considers that Ruku Ao has transformed his abilities to achieve collaboration in the workplace, and enhanced his emotional intelligence as a leader. Pete returned from his stay at the marae with a passion to drive diversity, collaboration, engagement and emotional intelligence into his organisation. He is also now more comfortable with ambiguity, uncertainty and complexity.

The part of the programme based at Manutuke marae, opened Pete’s eyes, as an immigrant Pakeha, to Aotearoa and its diversity, and the value of Tikanga Maori. These elements of Ruku Ao have provided Pete with tools to enable him to understand the concept of lineage and New Zealand’s history at a deeper level, to embrace and celebrate difference and diversity in his team and the workplace, and to engage more authentically and ‘with heart’ with his organisation’s stakeholders.

Inspired by observing the confidence of Toi’s students to lead collaboratively, Pete volunteered for a difficult project in his organisation to deliver the stakeholder strategy. The project had previously entailed challenging people dynamics, and Pete saw an opportunity to apply what he was learning about collaborative leadership through Ruku Ao to achieve collaboration amongst different and diverse parties and perspectives. To be successful, the project needed input from all parties.

Pete applied principles of authenticity, transparency, and open debate to the project, focusing on building relationships amongst the parties and achieving buy-in to a collective purpose. The project was delivered to time and the organisation has obtained significant insights into its stakeholders as a result of the approach Pete took.

Pete has come to realise that emotional intelligence is critical to achieving successful collaborative initiatives, and he considers that Ruku Ao has significantly enhanced his emotional intelligence as a leader. He has realised that collaborative initiatives require an acute focus on ‘the audience’: the ability to listen to others and their needs and perspectives, to set aside one’s own ego and individual agenda, and to address one’s own blind spots.

They also require the ability for collaborative leaders to be vulnerable and to connect with others. As a result of Ruku Ao, Pete considers his leadership significantly enhanced in these areas, and also considers others have noticed his increased confidence to lead.

Pete has also been applying insights from Ruku Ao to achieve engagement within his management team. Observing the students and culture at Toi, Pete was struck how individuals are able to be themselves; he wished to bring this to his workplace to build engagement, by better recognising  individuals’ difference and strengths.

By conducting an exercise with his management team, sharing vulnerabilities, identifying strengths, and making subtle changes to individuals’ work to play to strengths, the management team is now more motivated and takes a more shared approach to work.

Gus – Leadership as connecting with others and the value of Tikanga Maori

Gus is a manager at MBIE and undertook Ruku Ao in 2015. Gus considers one of the main effects of Ruku Ao on his leadership is deeper self-awareness and insight into his tendencies and behaviours, and has enhanced his ability to connect, slow down, listen and properly understand the valuable perspectives of others. Gus considers that these are critical leadership capabilities. He thinks this is a key value of the programme: awakening leaders to how they are with others, and how they need to be to effectively lead those around them.

A defining moment on the programme for Gus was the syndicate work at the marae, where small groups of individuals were challenged to have confronting conversations about their own individual tendencies and how these affect the dynamic of the group. Gus says “unless I really understand others’ different perspectives, personalities and the context that they bring with them, genuine connection and buy-in from, and with, others is not possible, and the outcomes that I seek are unlikely to be achieved (or take much longer)”. Gus is applying these reflections to his work where he is engaging with a range of stakeholders on some complex policy work: Gus realised that unless he stopped to genuinely understand their perspectives, the relationship and partnership would be difficult.

Ruku Ao has also further defined for Gus how he leads his team and his group, and the importance of understanding individuals’ unique strengths. Observing how the students at Toi operated as a team of leaders, has inspired Gus to see his role as leader as not the ‘expert’ at the front of the room, or the person who necessarily leads from the front; but a leader that supports others to do their best, to provide what they need to do so, and to help them play to their individual strengths.

He has used this particularly in developing young leadership talent in his team: “I encouraged them to have strength in their own unique voice, and to put that to use in meetings. I was heartened to see them grow into their own leadership”.

The Tikanga Maori elements of Ruku Ao are a valuable and unique element of the programme for Gus, and he considers these elements “a powerful way of harnessing New Zealand’s unique cultural tools and techniques for bringing people together; connecting to better understand each other’s perspective, and have better conversations which lead to more enduring outcomes”.

Despite growing up in New Zealand, he had not previously understood some of the reasons for Maori processes, like waiata and whakatau. Ruku Ao enabled Gus to see that these processes provide a way to connect with others at a deeply human level that goes beyond title, or situation. “These processes provide a way of connecting with people, understanding others’ context and perspectives; and that we are all human, fearful and vulnerable. Connecting in these ways, allows for the conversations that we need to have, to get the better outcomes that we are all seeking for New Zealanders.” Gus is applying his deeper appreciation of Tikanga Maori to consultation with Maori stakeholders in his role.