What do you think of when you think of a CEO of a large or prominent New Zealand entity? Mostly, I think of a highly-paid confident political operator and virtue-signaller.
I’m sure there are exceptions (many of them will be the ones who consciously choose to kept a modest profile). There will even be some hugely-impressive people who’ve created and built businesses that have made them and society as a whole better off. Sadly – marker of our long-term economic failure – there aren’t many of them, at least among that “large or prominent” grouping.
But apparently I don’t really know what I’m thinking at all. At least according to a bunch of highly-paid corporate bureaucrats (private and public).
I opened the Dominion-Post newspaper this morning to find a full page advert, half of it in Labour Party red, screaming “What does a CEO look like?”. Well-dressed, highly paid, and scared of upsetting anyone was my first thought?
But I was wrong (at least according to this advert)
“Admit it. You pictured a white middle-aged male didn’t you.”
Well, no, I didn’t actually. Of course, the majority of (big private business) CEOs in New Zealand probably are white, middle-aged, and male, but (conservative as I am) I try to view people on their merits, not their sex, skin colour, age, religion or whatever. In passing one might note that most people in New Zealand are “white”, and mostly I’d expect heads of big and powerful agencies to be middle-aged (that loose label than can encompass anything from about 37 to 67 – although at least one 12 year old reader of the paper tells me 35 is really the starting point).
Ah, but really age has nothing to do with. It is all about sex.
Could it be because every time we see a female CEO we still refer to her as a “female CEO”?
Speak for yourself, because I know I don’t. Incompetence (and no doubt competence) knows no bounds of sex.
But apparently it is “indefensible”, this crime that the advertisers have convicted us – the (overwhelmingly) liberal readers of the Dom-Post – of, the more so
in a country where a mother in her late thirties is up there on the world stage being a pretty excellent Prime Minister
I guess advertisers are welcome to their opinion. Personally, I view our current Prime Minister as proof that we have now reached the generally welcome stage in public life where a woman leader can be as useless and ineffectual as any man (Elizabeth I, Catherine the Great, Margaret Thatcher, and Golda Meir may well have been in days when a woman had to be markedly better to excel).
They go on, strangely, to describe the Prime Minister as “the CEO of New Zealand”, which is wrong both in law and in substance. The government is not the country. The “CEO of New Zealand” is invoked in support of their cause – “ask her and she’ll tell you”.
And who is behind this advert? Given the Labour Party colour and the slathering praise of the Prime Minister you might have assumed it was paid for by the Labour Party, or some front body.
But it wasn’t the Labour Party. It was a group called Champions for Change. When you look them up you find that they are a bunch of CEOs and board chairs (one was a chair until very recently when a High Court judgment against her saw her ousted), who also seem to have forgotten the name of the country (it isn’t called Aotearoa New Zealand). There are 52 of them, about 30 per cent female and the rest male. They represent (note the word – these people aren’t here as individuals) 45 organisations (their logos bedeck the front page of the website).
If people in the private sector want to spend their money, or that of their shareholders, on praise of the Prime Minister – a party political figure – that is, of course, their choice.
But who is on this list of leaders? Among them is
Gabs Makhlouf, Secretary to the Treasury
Mike Bush, Commissioner of Police
Peter Chrisp, Chief Executive of New Zealand Trade and Enterprise
and the Ministry for Women (CEO not pictured) is also a sponsor.
These people have clear responsibilities to be neutral public servants, not putting public money under their control into full-page adverts championing the Prime Minister personally. There are State Services Commission guidelines around the political involvement of public servants, and if involvement in an advert like this doesn’t breach those standards, there is something very wrong with how the guidelines are written. Among the key points of those guidelines
Very senior State servants, and those who have regular, direct contact with Ministers, or represent a public face of their agency should exercise careful judgement when considering involvement in political activities.
Judgement that seems to have been sorely lacking in this case.
These aren’t the only public sector people involved (although they are the clearest breaches of acceptable conduct).
We also have the CEO of Auckland Council (note the Labour mayor) and the chairs and chief executives of various SOEs (wholly state-owned) and majority Crown (or council)-owned companies. That list includes New Zealand Post, Air New Zealand, Genesis Energy, Ports of Auckland, and Transpower. You could add in a couple of a university senior managers as well, one of whom (Massey) must be very grateful to the Prime Minister for giving her cover in her little spot of bother last year.
I get that these individuals, and even their organisations, might want to bash the public around the ears and do their virtue-signalling, but they simply shouldn’t be using their office (and public resources) to champion the Prime Minister. It is the sort of thing one expects in degraded semi-authoritarian states, not in New Zealand. It should be totally unacceptable.
One other thing that was striking about the advert was that looking through the organisations these people represent there were (see above) lots of public sector agencies, government bodies, and Crown-owned businesses. There were plenty of local bosses for big overseas businesses. There were people from really highly-regulated entities (looking at you banks), really quite dependent on government favour, and professional services firms – dead keen on government contracts – likewise. There wasn’t, as far as I could see, a single representative of a successful outward-oriented New Zealand business that had developed in the last 30 years (and, actually, only a couple of inward focused ones).
It was not a confidence-inducing sign that these people really had any idea how to build and lead a top-performing business in a genuinely competitive environment. But I guess they know how to keep on the right side of the Prime Minister.
As I say, private sector people can do or say (“get with the project peasants”) whatever their board and shareholders are happy with. Public sector figures – particularly the heads of such important agencies as the Police and The Treasury – need to get out, and stay out, of partisan political projects. They need to called to order, but in the degraded state of modern New Zealand (isn’t Shane Jones still a senior minister?) you’d have to wonder who would actually do that.
(UPDATE: And I almost forgot to mention that the CEO of Stuff – publishers of the Dominion-Post – is also part of the slathering praise of the Prime Minister.)