John Allen interview with Management magazine

Be. Institute Chair, John Allen, speaks to Management magazine about what New Zealand's future might look like post Covid-19 and how we can support accessibility going forward.

Image of John Allen on the left and logos of Be. Lab and Management magazine on the right

In this interview with Management magazine John Allen, Chair of the Be. Institute, speaks about how he got involved in this social change movement and what his hopes are for the future as we look to rebuild our communities post Covid-19.

John provides some interesting insights to possible future scenarios based on his decades of experience in various industries across both the private and public sectors.

Listen to the full interview here.

Interview transcript:

Annie Gray (AG): Hi, my name’s Annie Gray, I'm the editor of Management magazine and with me here in our virtual podcast is Cathy Parker, our publisher, and John Allen, our special guest. Hi John, hi Kathy.

John Allen (JA): Good morning.

AG: John is the Chair of the Be. Institute and he's also been a really senior leader and CEO of a huge variety of organisations such as New Zealand Post, the New Zealand Racing Board, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, as well as several board appointments. So, since we're in this virtual meeting can you tell us a wee bit about where you're working from? We're at level three at the moment, so are you at home?

JA: I'm at home – I’m in my study surrounded by my books. It's been an interesting experience getting to navigate all of these technologies that are now linking us and enabling conversations that actually can occur now more easily than I think they could previously. It's been a huge learning curve for me but I think it's also been a very interesting transition for the New Zealand economy.

AG: It has been a big learning curve for all of us, hasn’t it? Even getting the camera to work, I find! So, we were wondering a bit about the Be. Institute and how you find your role as Chair there against your previous government and business roles?

JA: Well, Be. is a small organisation that has a very, very driven mission and so it's different from many of the organisations that I've been involved with in the past. The language is different, the passion is different, the focus and prioritisation that's necessary because we just don't have enough money to do all the things we want to do. We want to change the world and it's hard to do that on a very limited budget but it means you've got to prioritise a good deal more effectively than perhaps you do in corporates and you've got to be hugely adaptable. If you try things and they don't work then you've got to be able to turn on a dime and try other things. It’s been a fascinating experience over the last ten years to see this entrepreneurial social change organisation grow, develop, deliver and very significantly change and evolve.

Cathy Parker (CP):So were you involved with them right from when they were founded, John?

JA: Yep, pretty much. Minnie came along and asked me whether I'd be prepared to chair the board very shortly after they were founded and fortunately for me I said yes. It's been a remarkable journey since then.

CP: So did you have any personal connections in that area other than knowing Minnie? Is it something you had a passion for before then or did you develop that?

JA: No, I didn't. I don't identify as a member of the community as such – the access community – but I was, at that stage, chairing an organisation called the Employer Disability Network which was a group of large employers who came together to try and wrestle with some of the opportunities and challenges of getting more people with access needs into employment. I think it was probably because of that Minnie came to me – I didn't know her before that – so it was an opportunity.

I think the reality though for all of us is that we're all getting older, the community is ageing and so while I say I'm not currently part of the community, the likelihood is that in the next 15-20 years as I get older I probably will be. There are a million people who identify in this country as being disabled or having some sort of access need, and we expect that number to grow as these demographics change.

CP: Yes, I was fortunate enough to be at the launch – at the [Auckland] Museum – of the Be. Institute through some connections I have and I guess a big message that came from that is that people with access needs aren’t just those with disabilities. For mothers pushing prams, ramps and wide doorways and wide aisles help them just as much as it does somebody with a disability in a wheelchair.

JA: That’s absolutely true and I think that's one of the great lessons that the Be. experience has taught me - the benefits to society of having everyone able to achieve, to be a potential; the benefits to society of having everyone able to be employed in ways that they can add value, to live with dignity, and to actually aspire to achieve their goals is enormous. So I've got a real passion about enabling that to occur. Minnie’s got that passion, and the team in Be., which is a small team, are infected by that passion and as I say, we're in the process of changing things.

AG: I’ve written a bit in the past about how difficult it is for people with accessibility problems to get work. They have a really high proportion of unemployment in that sector.

JA: Yeah it’s shocking. The statistics are shocking – the level of unemployment, and the level under-employment, of people with access needs is extraordinary. And the truth is – that is potential that we have available to us as a country that we're just not using, and the waste of talent and the waste of capability that's associated with that I think is amazing. The truth is if you're not working – for people who want to work and are able to work – not to be engaged in meaningful work has all kinds of other consequences. It has consequences for their economic position, it has consequences for their self-esteem and it has consequences for their social engagement. So, it's one of those things that if we can get it right – if we can help people to be employed, if we can encourage employers to understand the talent that they're not currently looking at and seeing– we can really make a big difference across this country.

AG: Which sort of segues nicely into the other topics we wanted to canvas with you. With your vast experience as a business leader and across government institutions, with this predicament we're all in at the moment – this global crisis – is this going to see a paradigm shift in the way New Zealanders live and work? Because it’s the whole world turning upside down. I know it's changed now, but looking forward is there going to be this massive change in the future, do you think?

JA: Well I think there are two narratives. One is the narrative you've just given – that it's going to upend everything and nothing will ever be the same again. The other narrative is that what it's doing is accelerating or amplifying pre-existing trends and no one really knows ultimately which of those two narratives is going to be right.

I think in terms of the amplification or acceleration narrative, you can see that with the technology that we're using right now to have this conversation. That technology has been around for ages of course; it's just that not all of us have been using it in the way that we now are required to use it. So we're seeing a much greater understanding of the opportunity that technology presents to make our lives easier – to connect us more easily, to save costs if you're sitting in a business. And so I expect that that transition to continue. I expect that you'll get more people continuing to work from home so some of those pre-existing trends will continue.

Having said that, the shock to the international community is going to be huge. We know it's going to be tough here – New Zealand tourism has stopped, international students have stopped, there are major tracts of our economy that just aren't working and aren't going to be working in the near future. And then on the international stage, you can expect consumer demand to be down for quite a period. We’ve got 59 million people likely to be unemployed in Europe, we've got 30 million people currently unemployed in the US as a result of coronavirus, and so on around the world. So we're going to face very significant shocks and that is going to challenge us all over the next few months and years.

AG: Cathy, as a small business owner – you’ve got eight magazines I think – how do you see what John is saying as far as your smaller business goes.

CP: I think it’s no different, I think to some extent SMEs are going to be even more hugely affected because they don't have the same resources to call on that larger companies do. We can't go to the share market for money, the banks want to hook up your house if they haven't already, so that’s hugely challenging. We employ 14 people over five magazines and the next six months are going to be difficult to say the least, and then beyond that. So I think everyone's going to have to look at how they structure their business.

AG: Looking at the current employment situation and what's going to happen going forward –is New Zealand going to have to find a new way of doing things? As you said, there are 30 million in the US, but it's going be high here too isn’t it, proportionately?

JA: Look,I think there are some significant challenges. I mean, we’ve got some things going for us. We’re going to have a very good brand – we’ve got a good brand, but we’re going to have an excellent brand on the international stage as a consequence of what's seen as some very sound leadership through this pandemic, strong institutions and our public service performance in relation to the pandemic has been extremely strong, and very high trust in the government whichI think has been a strength and cohesion across the New Zealand economy.

So I think there are real positives. But the world into which we are wanting to sell our agricultural products, we are wanting to sell our technologies and services that we provide, is going to be a very different world. And it's going to be a big struggle for a small country to be able to sell effectively into that new market over the next period. So big challenges, significant changes and obviously with international tourism stopping here for a period we’ve got a big hole to fill.

Again, the fortunate thing is we've got a really strong entrepreneurial spirit here and so the opportunity for some of our smaller businesses to step up to think about new markets, to think about how they might present into those markets and to grow is perhaps real in this environment as well.

CP: One of the things we had down here, and I might even expand a little bit, is there are obviously a lot of large commercial organisations that are government- or primarily-government-owned – and I’d expand that out to local government, so the likes of NZ post where you were, the councils, etc. – most businesses are seeing significant drops, and at the moment some of those particular councils are staying very staunch saying “no we're still going ahead with our rates increases because we need the money”. But other businesses don't have that choice – they don't have a captive audience – do you think they need to have more of a social conscience in this time?

JA: Well I think for all businesses to operate successfully you have to be close to your stakeholders, you have to be close to your customers. There's no point offering a service or providing a good for sale and it not being affordable by the customer segments that you want to provide. So I don’t see this as being a disjunction – in my view, all of us are going to have to make adjustments to the way in which we offer our services, all of us are going to have to make adjustments to the way in which we price our services, all of us are going to have to make adjustments to the way we deliver our services – and government and councils and others are no different in that regard.

AG: And with this recalibration that we'll see, I know there's been talk in the past about New Zealand being the world's organic food producer and that sort of thing but is there going to be more of a bent do you think towards artisan-type industries in New Zealand? That we can produce beautiful food, we do create beautiful wood and all that sort of thing?

JA: I think that's a huge opportunity. There's no doubt that there will be, in this post-Covid environment, a heightened sense of food safety and food quality and obviously New Zealand has the capacity to play into that space. Equally as you say we have a large number of artisan food producers who potentially have the capacity to scale their production who may well just currently be focusing on the domestic market but can turn their attention to the international market.

In the Wellington context I think of organisations like Fix & Fogg, like Whittaker's – organisations that are producing high-quality products that we see on our shelves around the country here in New Zealand. I'm not sure how much at the moment they're selling offshore but I'd be encouraging them very definitely to get into that and to be looking hard at that if they're not – they may well be – as soon as possible.

AG: Cathy, have you got any thoughts along those lines?

CP: Yeah, I think that’s always been I guess New Zealand’s niche – that there are somethings we can do well. Small-scale production, specialised luxury, works really well for us and it overcomes some of those tyrannies of distance of freight costs and things. Obviously other things like software where there's no transport involved is where New Zealand has some great opportunities.

AG: I noticed too John that you're involved with the New Zealand Arts Festival and with Te Papa. Will this paradigm shift see an opportunity in the arts sector do you think?

JA: Well obviously at the moment it's hit the art sector pretty hard, but the reality is that we're also seeing adaptation and innovation in response to the challenges.In the weekend I watched an NZSO [New Zealand Symphony Orchestra] concert which was 11 members of the orchestra all in their individual pods producing Beethoven, streamed over technology for an audience wherever they might be in the world.And you're seeing that sort of an innovation across the sector.

AG: How amazing – and I did see the other day that the New Zealand Film Festival is going to do everything virtually as well, aren’t they?

JA: Yeah they are, and so what you're seeing everywhere is people adapting, people recognising that the way we've done things is not necessarily going to be sufficient, certainly in the medium-term and there are new and different models.And that’s terrific, it's exciting, it will be beneficial for New Zealand because we are a small country, we can move arguably more quickly than many other communities. I think we're actually pretty adept at picking up new technology, trying new things and making a go of it – and in the world we're in right at the moment, we’re going to need all that adaptation, all that flexibility, and all that resilience to ensure our future prosperity.

AG: I agree whole heartedly.

CP: We may be getting towards the end of it - obviously this is going to be challenging for everyone’s employment – with your Be. Institute hat back on, what can businesses do to help the access needs community in these very trying times? Because as you say, their unemployment is quite high and often in a challenging time, they're the people that may be even more challenged in that area. What would be one thing that businesses could do to really help in that area at the moment?

JA: Don't shut them out. Don't just say “we're just not going to do anything with that part of the New Zealand community”. Recognise that this is a community of people who are adaptable by the very nature of the lives that they are living, that they are resilient, that they are able to adopt new technologies and in fact have been using these technologies for years to assist them in achieving their goals.

Recognise talent and don't be prejudiced against talent. From my point of view I would simply say – look, there's a huge wealth of capability, of talent, of energy and of passion that's available to you. Make sure that you are seeing that talent, make sure that you're thinking about that talent, and make sure that you are employing that talent where that's appropriate in your organisation.

CP: Sounds like great advice.

AG: Is there any message you’d like to get out to our listeners and readers as we finish up?

JA: I’d say there’s huge capability in this country, and there's particular capability in the access community. At the moment that simply isn't being recognised and simply isn't being harnessed and we've got to change that. The work that we’re doing at Be. to rethink the future of our country – to ensure that when we design the future of our country we design it so that people with access needs can participate fully in that future – is a key part of what is necessary. But we can't do that on our own. It requires – as it has to manage Covid – it requires all of us to actually embrace this, to get over our prejudices, to get over the stuff that we think we know about how hard or otherwise it is to work with people from the access community – it’s just not true. New Zealanders are open-minded. I think we're a pragmatic practical people and I hope that people will embrace those in our community with access needs and allow them to live the lives that they should.

AG: Okay great thank you, any last thoughts from you Cathy?

CP: I’ve had some involvement in that community myself and I think it’s really great to hear people standing up and advocating in a forum like this around those areas because there's some really wonderful people out there with great talent and skills and it's always sad when you see they're not being fully utilised.

AG: Thank you both very much, it's been a pleasure to meet you.

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