COVID-19 – An opportunity to lead differently


Those of you who know me, know I’m passionate about creating a successful New Zealand through caring for our people. COVID-19 has brought this to the forefront, highlighting that the health and wellbeing of our people is intrinsic to our economic success as a nation.

While the health and economic costs imposed by COVID-19 have been terrible, our response to the crisis also presents an opportunity for New Zealand and the world to re-think our approach to addressing highly complex problems like this.  How do we achieve health and wellbeing outcomes for all, now and into the future whilst also creating more equity and wealth?

I don’t know the answer to that question; complex problems cannot be solved by any individual or organisation acting alone.

What I do know is that COVID-19 is driving us to accelerate a range of behaviours and interventions that can only be good for the future of New Zealand.  Speaking from my own experience as Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency Chief Executive, this is what I see:

  • Rapid and extensive collaboration across public and private sectors to solve shared problems: This is exciting. An example is the rapid acceleration of the membership and work of the Construction Accord. This was conceived just over two years ago by the health and safety business leader’s forum, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) and WorkSafe to try to help solve complex problems within the construction sector. This forum has come to the fore as a method to rapidly engage all parts of the construction sector to discuss and solve problems.  Examples include the work this group has done to produce industry agreed health and safety standards within two weeks to enable the construction sector to safely work at Alert Level 3, and work done on principles for procurement across the construction sector to support a sustainable response.
  • Increased collaboration and leadership across the public sector: As a private sector person who has only recently moved to work in the public sector, I have vast and increasing admiration for the New Zealand public sector. The public sector is solving complex problems daily during COVID-19 – whether it is determining what is an essential service, to how we support 500,000 SMEs during shutdown, to how  we make public transport available, accessible and safe during Alert Levels 4 and 3. These are all tremendously complex problems that have been solved in an agile and progressive way by our  public service.  We may not like all these decisions, or think they are 100 percent effective, but they are examples of an extremely agile and responsive public service in place in New Zealand when we needed it most.
  • Massive adaption of business practises overnight with people looking outwards to innovate internally: Whilst the scale and impact of COVID-19 is unique in our lifetime, the experience of managing huge and ongoing crises is not. There has been a tremendous amount of sharing occurring on how to manage and support new ways of working and practises. Smart leaders are leveraging the work of others to create connections, build trust and solve problems in unique ways.  A real-life example of this in my own world was Waka Kotahi moving to an all of organisation weekly Chief Executive call overnight during lockdown – anyone of our 1,800-odd staff and contractors can call in and ask questions – and they do.  This idea came from a combination of a linkedin article from a US military general who activated a similar call to build trust with his troops across the world during the Afghanistan war and several other New Zealand CE’s initiating a similar call and sharing their experiences around positive results.
  • A commitment to the long term whilst we solve the immediate problems: Now is our opportunity to solve complex problems such as how we improve environmental outcomes as well as improve transport networks. What we know for sure is we won’t get these outcomes by doing the same thing we have always done.  At Waka Kotahi we are challenging ourselves to think this way and asking what would need to change to produce sustainable transport options for New Zealand. An example of this is our list of shovel-ready projects which will include a range of projects across transport modes - walking, cycling, safer streets and transport innovation. 

Ultimately this is not about trade-offs, it is about choices.  Right now, we have an opportunity to lead and change New Zealand towards a better, more equitable, safer and sustainable future.  I am extremely excited to see these changes in New Zealand.  They can only be positive for our country and the health and wellbeing of our people and nation.

Nicole Rosie
Chief Executive
Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency