Meet Philippa Geere-Watson: Insights from a Decade of Leading Transformation.

30 Aug 2023

We are delighted to welcome Philippa Geere-Watson to the HG team, a highly motivated and influential leader, with a well-honed ability to facilitate change. Over the past decade, her career has revolved around leadership roles within Auckland Council, Australasia’s largest local government organisation.

In this special feature, Philippa reveals the intricacies of her personal journey and sheds light on the crucial significance of cross-sector collaboration in addressing pressing community challenges. Here is what she told us:

Can you tell us about your journey and share some insights from your previous roles and how it has shaped your approach to leading transformational change?

The last 10 years of my career have been dedicated to various leadership roles in Auckland Council which is the largest local government organization in Australasia.  In 2010, 4 city councils merged into a ‘supercity’ , now known as Auckland Council. 13 years on it is still trying to make the most of the efficiencies that come from its size and scale.

Given this complex operating structure, the model of local government is unique and aims to meet both regional and local needs, and give the city the resources it needs to grow and develop.

Auckland is Governed by 170 elected members (politicians)– 21 Councillors and 149 local board members. Alongside this, Tamaki Makaurau (Auckland) has 19 Iwi groups that we work closely with to ensure we are forming trusted, respectful relationships that meet our statutory obligations in relation to the Treaty of Waitangi and ensure the Te Ao Māori worldview is woven into our decision-making processes.

Needless to say, I deeply understand what it means to navigate complexity, manage relationships and negotiate beneficial solutions for stakeholders and politicians in an ever-changing environment.

My most recent role was accountable for leading a Unit that transformed the way we give advice to our  Elected Members (politicians).  Traditionally, investment decisions for Auckland have resulted in infrastructure and asset-based short-term solutions.  The reality that the Council operates in now is that budget is limited, and this approach is unsustainable.

The transformational change that I was most recently part of was working toward improving the quality of our advice as a council, to ensure the elected members and the communities they serve understood the fact that they need to think differently and make investment decisions that are future focused rather than short term wins.  Such as, investing in digital solutions, partnering with community and commercial organisations, divesting assets, rather than building new facilities. This is a huge shift in thinking for the politicians and for council kaimahi (staff) providing the advice. It is essentially changing nearly 20+ years of ingrained ways of working and behaviour. It must be transformational for it to make a difference and shape the Long Term Plan that guides the city into the future

What my experiences have taught me is that transformational change takes time and sometimes you need to take a few steps backwards to move forward. To be successful everyone involved must be taken on the journey and be supported to understand the reason behind the change,  and see personal benefit themselves in the end result.

Therefore, my approach to change, be it minor or transformational, is to seek to understand and listen before moving too fast. Form the relationships, understand the concerns but never lose sight of the end goal. You need to believe in where you are headed and the outcome you are seeking before anyone else will follow you. Also, change for changes sake is never a good idea. People will see right through it so make sure the rationale for the change is strong and people can understand the purpose.

 I believe my experience as a senior leader in this complex ever changing political environment, and in a similar environment in the Ministry of Justice prior to council, puts me in a strong position to successfully support a broad range of clients across the public service sector.

I have in depth knowledge about what it takes to be successful in the local and central government context in Aotearoa New Zealand and I am excited to bring this knowledge, experience and network into HardyGroup and support the growth of great leaders across the broader public service industry.

My time at Auckland Council has given my firsthand experience of the benefits of cross sector collaboration to adequately support urgent community challenges.

Auckland Councils mandate is far broader than some might imagine, it covers everything from maintenance of parks and waterways, to building consents, bylaws and building new and maintaining old infrastructure. It also has a huge community facing accountability- from service centres, to homelessness to libraries ANZAC day services and regional events and Arts and Culture Grants.

What this means is that, when the community faces a challenge, the council faces a challenge, is highly visible and often criticized.

Some recent examples include:

Local Government has a role to play when it comes to a crisis but equally it has a responsibility to understand who across the sector it could work with to make sure the community is supported as quickly and efficiently as possible.

In the constrained economic environment the world is facing it just makes sense to look across sectors to find solutions. This isn’t always easy, especially when something happens quickly and out of the blue. Communication can break down and the speed at which things need to get done often gets in the way of sensible and well timed collaboration.

In 2011 I was living in Christchurch, New Zealand and on 22 February 2011 our world changed. The Christchurch Earthquakes were a devastating natural disaster. It took years of cross sector, cross Government collaboration and ongoing commitment to build the city back from rubble to where it is now. As someone who was there at the time, I can say it was far from perfect, there was very little communication, there was chaos, uncertainty and pain but over time the likes of Central Government, the Earthquake Commissions,  Civil Defence, NZ Police, Christchurch City Council, Department of Building and Housing, numerous NGOs and Community Organizations  etc started to work together and support the city.  This was a learning opportunity for the country and the world.

I have seen the same learning applied through the COVID response and recent flooding events by Auckland Council. When the floods hit the council was in the media very prominently, but people didn’t see the mammoth effort behind the scenes. Council staff and elected members were working day and night with Civil Defence, Central Government departments, the police and emergency services, community groups, charity organisations – all to make sure the people on the ground were as safe as they could be, particularly in the vulnerable communities. Recovery continues and cross-sector collaboration is making it possible.

 The Community is stronger when organisations work together in challenging times. It is not always smooth sailing and political agendas and bureaucracy can get in the way but every step is a step forward and we need to build on each difficult situation and understand what worked and what didn’t in order to become a more resilient and supportive community collectively – this applies to individuals and businesses.

Needless to say, that now, more than ever I strongly believe that cross-sector collaboration is crucial. It brings us closer and strengthens the very fabric of society. As leaders of large-scale organisations we all have a role to ensure this continues.