The job advertisement for new CEO of Auckland Transport was posted on Monday, with a closing date of 31 March 2022. Just ten days to get your CV together or shoulder-tap your ideal candidates!

Here’s the role in a nutshell:

AT is seeking an exceptional Chief Executive to lead the organisation.

The new Chief Executive will bring with them extensive leadership experience, a high degree of strategic acumen, and a proven ability to build strong and lasting stakeholder relationships.

And to refresh your understanding, this is what the job ad says the organisation does (lightly punctuated for ease of reading):

Auckland Transport (AT) is a Council-controlled organisation that is responsible for the Auckland region’s transport services (excluding state highways). AT’s day-to-day work keeps Auckland’s transport system moving.

AT operates across a broad range of activities, including (among other things):

  • planning, delivering and operating the region’s public transport system;
  • delivering and maintaining the local road network;
  • managing on- and off-street parking;
  • promoting sustainable travel choices;
  • the delivery and maintenance of Auckland’s transport network; and
  • the planning of transport infrastructure and services for the future.

AT works in deep partnership with a range of stakeholders and other organisations, including Auckland Council and other CCOs, Waka Kotahi, the Ministry of Transport, KiwiRail and City Rail Link Limited.

AT is committed to being an organisation that is forward-thinking, socially and environmentally responsible, and customer centric. This involves working towards a range of key objectives, including:

  1. continuous safety improvements to Auckland’s transport network,
  2. addressing climate change through a reduction in transport-related greenhouse gas emissions,
  3. providing an excellent customer experience and equitable access to public transport, and
  4. providing sustainable transport choices to support Auckland’s population growth.

And, rounding out the job advertisement, these are the key qualities a candidate is expected to bring to the job:

  • Extensive Chief Executive or senior executive-level experience in complex organisations;
  • A commitment to the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi and partnering with Mana Whenua;
  • A demonstrated ability to lead complex, strategic and operational change management;
  • Ideally a broad knowledge of the transport and mobility services sectors (and the digital technology involved in them) and/or related sectors;
  • Significant experience in developing and maintaining effective relationships with Boards;
  • Ideally some exposure or insight into the requirements of leading in a public sector setting;
  • Proven people leadership qualities and the ability to harness complex, multi-functional teams;
  • A champion of strong organisational cultures that embrace diversity and inclusion, and the highest levels of customer service;
  • An aptitude for working effectively under media and public scrutiny.

I’ve bolded ‘change management‘, because that’s what’s needed to achieve the four objectives highlighted earlier.

And I’ve bolded ‘aptitude for working effectively under media and public scrutiny‘, because in the last few weeks, Auckland Transport has been firmly in the news and under scrutiny on pretty much every one of the objectives highlighted in the job ad.

Some of that has been about issues we’ve been watching brew for a while, like road safety for vulnerable people and why the ten-year plan didn’t reduce transport emissions despite clear direction from Council. Some of that is more specific to right now, like whether AT is ready to deliver the government’s plan for half-price public transport, and why it seems so slow to deliver fixes to the network, and whether Covid is the only reason it is missing key targets.

So the right person for the top job is going to need to be ready to dive right in. And public interest in how change is managed is at an all-time high.

In a timely article in the new issue of Metro magazine, Hayden Donnell delves into whether (and how) AT’s culture is what’s getting in the way of delivering on its strategy. The article isn’t online yet – we’ll add a link once it is –  but it’s worth getting your hands on a hard copy. Not least to enjoy Cat Chapman’s full-page Richard Scarry-esque illustrations of street mayhem, Tāmaki-Makaurau style:

Come for the pics, stay for Donnell’s sharp excavation of AT’s ongoing struggles to capitalise on timely transformation.

The article opens with Auckland Council’s adoption of the climate change plan Te Tāruke-ā-Tāwhiri, which calls for a 64% drop in vehicle carbon emissions by 2030… to be accomplished by a mass shift to active and public transport. Set that alongside the Vision Zero call for a 60% reduction in road deaths by 2027; and other plans for pedestrian-friendly central city, and a citywide network of bikeable connections.

So how’s that all working out? Not as well as you’d hope, is Donnell’s conclusion, with “organisational paralysis” underpinned by “AT’s reluctance to take road space away from cars and use it for dedicated cycling and public transport lanes.” Donnell quotes Councillor Shane Henderson on the frustratingly slow progress:

“Auckland Transport is basically big boast, small roast. They’re good at press releases and strategies and action plans. But actually, on the ground, so many things don’t happen. We’re fiddling while Rome burns.”

The article draws on interviews with ten current and former AT staff, plus politicians and advocates who work closely with AT (full disclosure: I wasn’t among the latter). Several are quoted on the record, including Greater Auckland’s Matt Lowrie, outgoing AT CEO Shane Ellison, Councillor Shane Henderson, Green MP Julie-Anne Genter, Sir Bob Harvey, former Bike AKL chair Barb Cuthbert, and Paul Winton of the 1Point5 Project – but others asked not to be named:

Most sources asked to remain anonymous out of fear for their career prospects in Aotearoa’s small transport industry, but together they paint a picture of an organisation plagued by moribund leadership, a male-dominated, sometimes toxic culture, and a perverse incentive system that rewards inactivity and punishes ambition. In their eyes, car-centrism and conservatism are ingrained at AT, both in its personnel and the systems that govern its actions.

The story covers a range of subjects that will be familiar to readers of this blog, from the abrupt disestablishment (in 2018) of the cycling team at the height of its productivity, to the current court case in which All Aboard Aotearoa is wrangling with AT and Council about the inadequacy of their ten-year transport plan when it comes to reducing carbon emissions.

Donnell digs into the “clay layer” of upper management, and whether this part of the organisation is diverse enough to deliver the transport solutions required by Aucklanders of all kinds.

Several staff say that lack of diversity means most managers are dislocated from how less-privileged Aucklanders experience the city’s transport system… “Car brain dominates in that part of the organisation. Largely the leadership team at AT looks at the world through the windscreen of a car, with the perception of a car driver.”

We also hear about (lack of) accountability and leadership, the use of modelling methods (“seemingly objective systems” that tend to extrapolate from the status quo), and endless business cases, as well as compromises like the “weighting” of public feedback. The lasting impression the article gives is of a yawning – and frustrating – gap between stated strategy and demonstrable outcomes.

The current CEO points out that it is easier to criticise the operation than be a part of it:

“I know there are those what say there’s a nice sweet spot where we can achieve safety outcomes, climate change outcomes, and more; where you can, ideally, put together a transport system that meets all those objectives,” [Ellison] says. “But that’s not always possible, particularly when you’re also in a budget-constrained environment where you’ve got to deliver value for money. There are times when you can, I don’t dispute that, but there are times when we have to make trade-offs.”

One might well respond that safety outcomes and climate change outcomes are exactly where trade-offs shouldn’t be made; Donnell’s article highlights some unhappy examples of where this seems to have happened.

And then there’s the push and pull between Council and AT, in the ongoing challenge of “taking Aucklanders on the journey”. As Donnell notes, the “Aucklanders” most often heard from are those with time on their hands, “generally older, whiter, and more conservative than the general population” – and Council and Local Boards play an uneven role when it comes paving the political way for vital changes. (You only have to look at the astonishing pace of transformation in, say, Paris, to see what’s possible when a Mayor is truly and unwaveringly on song).

Are there glimmers of optimism for whomever takes the reins of AT? Certainly – after all, the organisation has some dedicated and skilled staff. Barb Cuthbert notes “There’s good people there,” but adds “but the systems are never there to support them. The systems are there to create burnout.” And supporting, keeping, and seeking out champions is vital. A council planner, speaking of AT’s loss of a dedicated cycling team, says: “You need passionate, dedicated teams to smash their way through overly difficult processes”; without them, it becomes “almost insurmountable to do the right thing.”

Paul Winton points to the role of the board, which should make “climate targets very clear to the chief executive,” and consider “consequences for not meeting the targets in strategies on time.” Those consequences could include ultimatums. Says Matt Lowrie: “I would get rid of a lot of people. There needs to be some change in positions, and some of that will be in senior leadership.” But Ellison remains “adamant” that his senior leadership team are “passionate about change, and that he doesn’t need ultimatums to boost that passion.”

A snippet of one of Cat Chapman’s illustrations for Hayden Donnell’s article in the Autumn 2022 issue of Metro magazine.

The anonymity of Donnell’s sources means we don’t know who to credit with one particularly pithy observation about the task of a transport agency and its people, from “a transport planner” who wishes AT would “focus on following evidence, rather than trying to divine community will from small consultations”:

“I just want them to be good bureaucrats. I don’t want them to have to be edgelords of the energy transition. Or stormtroopers of the new world. They just need to be good, solid technocrats.”

In other words, AT needs to do what it says on the tin, and transport Auckland. If it is, as its CEO says, a delivery agency, then it must deliver. For everyone. For every mode. From little kids on scooters, to someone trying the bus for the first time, to someone who’s just joined the crowd and bought a bike. And for the generations to come, who will look back aghast at how much space and thought and sheer budget we devoted to the least sustainable ways to get around.

Good, solid technocrats work to strategies and in pursuit of targets. But –  and this is the challenge for the next CEO – those strategies and targets are not only ambitious, but becoming more so by the day. The longer climate action is delayed, the more of it is needed. Meeting the targets in time won’t look much like business-as-usual. Which means accelerating the necessary transformation will involve embracing the rebels and welcoming the questioners.

Good people – those inside the organisation who aren’t burned out yet, those who’ve stepped out for fresh air, those who observe and advocate – are standing by to help realise this work, intelligently and creatively and productively.

Who will lead these good solid technocrats and visionary rebels in transforming words into action? We’ll find out soon enough. As Donnell concludes,

… the next chief executive will take over what Ellison calls a ‘city in transition’. They’ll find an organisation in transition as well, behind on just about all its major targets and facing increasing pressure to reorient Auckland’s entire transport away from roads and cars in response to the threat of climate change.

A huge role, a huge opportunity. An organisation and leadership team that’s ahead of the change – and constantly on top of the important conversations – should be able to accomplish this work, and perform effectively under media and public scrutiny whenever the spotlight swings their way. As Snoop Dogg says, if you stay ready you ain’t got to get ready.

An illustration by Cat Chapman for Hayden Donnell’s article in the Autumn 2022 issue of Metro magazine.
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  1. I’ll do it, for half the salary of the previous bloke, and I’ll catch the train to work each day. I’ll stuff the upper level managers with European planners and urbanists and create a transit-friendly glass ceiling above the current roading one. And I’d close Wynyard Quarter for a weekend each summer for an all-star invitation-only Kart race to show I don’t hate cars, just that there’s a time and a place for them in the central city and festival-style events are probably it – and then use it as a platform to announce I’m selling the downtown car parks to developers. Finally, I’d take my personal use cases for PT and pivot the entire system so that they become viable, because it seems like a constructive outlet for the corruption I’d almost certainly try to bake in to the system.

    All joking aside, New Zealand lacks focus on accountability when it comes to technocrat driven projects. The technocrats get paid no matter what, the leaders of the organisation get to speak to lofty strategic documents, but little gets done on the ground. The difference is that with more traffic and more congestion, people end up getting hurt and we fall further behind in living standards, and that’s before you get to the question of climate issues.

  2. Watch them get some corporate Australian with pretty much zero transport understanding/experience and even less personal investment in our city or country. AT will boast about how they are saving money by paying him only 90% as much as the last guy. He will be off, in under three years, bank account and CV nicely padded.

  3. The forgot to mention ATs main role. “Screwing up Auckland’s development one resource consent at a time”

      1. Isn’t he an infrastructure construction guy? Those engineering guys are particularly ill suited to the challenge we face. Their solution is generally bigger and more expensive infrastructure, throw more money at the problem and hope to build their way out of it (see LR tunnel to avoid taking away traffic capacity). The strategic vision has been set, we need someone who can tactically deliver the outcomes. Some of that may be infrastructure but a hell of a lot of it is going to be reallocating existing resources (staff and road space) to new areas and communicating the why. I don’t think engineer types who have made their careers delivering massive infrastructure are particularly good at these things.

  4. “Largely the leadership team at AT looks at the world through the windscreen of a car”. This is quote of the year,decade,century. The job ad is wrong in all respects,it will just lead to more of the same. I would be looking for someone,preferably female, who has studied arts or history at university, if you must have a degree in something. A person with a degree in” life”,with a vested interest in the future,who understands the daily frustrations Aucklander’s face, and knows “one more lane won’t fix it”

  5. I think comparisons with decent cities like Paris are a bit unfair- it’s much harder to take road space away when 90% of people drive.
    Basically the CEOs role is to be hated on, no matter which way he / she goes. Hopefully they get someone who just doesn’t care about the hate and abuse and the Hoskings etc.

      1. Part of my role is hiring staff. There is a massive talent shortage in NZ at the moment and it’s really hard to fill roles. There isn’t a person in NZ or AU who has CEO experience, or could step up to it, that would turn around their application in 10 days.
        What this means is that they already know who they’re going to offer the job to, but they have to advertise externally to meet policies around fairness and transparency.

  6. It’s telling that even in the summary of what they do they mention planning, delivering, operating, maintaining public transport system, local road network and parking but no mention of planning delivering and maintaining the walking and cycling networks. They have given up even mentioning it now.

    1. It’s covered by:“providing sustainable transport choices to support Auckland’s population growth. providing sustainable transport choices to support Auckland’s population growth.”

      Also transport network surely includes walking and cycling.

      1. Is it? Why call our parking, public transport and local roads but not mention walking and cycling specifically? Within AT there are those that believe that walking is not a mode and cycling is not sustainable (because they decide their own sustainability criteria)

        1. And we have known for how long that Shane E was resigning?
          Good CEO’s should be well ahead of the curve – and Shane has been flagging his resignation for some time.

  7. Nuke option. Deep six AT

    Import (at whatever expense) the dutch, or french teams who can PIVOT to sustainable transport systems. If they dont speak english – i

    At the end of the day… they’ll still achieve better outcomes.

    2nd para of AT CEO job add, seems to list AT’s priorities in order

    AT operates across a broad range of activities, including (among other things): planning, delivering and operating the region’s public transport system; delivering and maintaining the local road network; managing on- and off-street parking; promoting sustainable travel choices; the delivery and maintenance of Auckland’s transport network; and, the planning of transport infrastructure and services for the future.

    Good to know – parking before sustainable travel choices.
    Viva la revolucion.

  8. Why are they looking for Strategic Acumen for someone to lead a service delivery organisation. The strategy for AT has been set 15 times over by others. This role requires exceptional capability in just two areas; results and retention. They must deliver the results demanded by AC’s climate change strategy and vision zero. They must retain the best people possible to help achieve these results. Those two objectives are designed to be in conflict and it will be the new person’s ability to resolve that conflict that will define their legacy.
    Note also, that inherent in retaining the best people is the implication that others will be moved on.

  9. AT could do worse than appoint Mark Lambert.

    He’s the brains behind the outfit, and driven Auckland’s PT revolution over a decade.

    Cool under pressure and little desire for limelight.

      1. Yes I do.

        Anyone can forget how far Auckland’s public transport has come in 2 decades, but I never will.

        Plenty think the “brains” consist of media viewing Auckland through the sepia-coloured lens of nostalgia and complain about what things could have been like if Robbie’s vision had succeeded. It didn’t, Robbie didn’t know how to deal with central government.

        The brains in AT consist of people who know how to work NZTA and government policy to get the most money spent here. That’s where a good bureaucrat like Mark Lambert come in. They form high speed mechanisms to maximise investment. His PT delivery speaks for itself.

        Check out the counterfactual to the HOP card Lambert brought in: NZTA still isn’t close to one for themselves after a decade.

    1. When I did a search to see who he was, my reaction was similar to Sacha’s, but clearly you know much more than a quick google search will show.

      Can you point us to anything to show how this fellow has been attempting to change the processes and values within AT? That’d be interesting to read.


      1. The most important and useful thing he’s done is unify road and non-road expenditure into direct tradeoffs which are constantly measurable. They used to be separate.

        Now AT can project in an investment: which projects or route subsidies give the greatest yields for safety, carbon, reliability, and efficiency?

        It wasn’t until AT merged the “project” and “pt” realms under Mark that you could make any such judgements and report them.

        But he’s most famous for the pt Greatest Hits: the P Card, New Network, and some of the bigger delivery routes like busways and key cycleways.

        If they lose him we will regret it.

  10. “Change agent” and “Customer Centric” – not while it is a state monopoly. We should treat roads and rail like we do every other service and let the private sector provide it and the market will determine whether we spend our money.
    We don’t need state water, power, phone, gas, post and a host of other things. When the customer is a true customer we will get better results. Right now the true customer of AT and NZTA is the minister for transport – who pays the piper calls the tune.

    1. We’ve tried this for 40 years now and it only works to make a small number of people rich (like Alan Gibb). You can look at any example in NZ where we’ve privatised and I don’t see improved service or pricing for consumers that couldn’t have been achieved within govt with a decent strategic focus. (power companies are a great example of how this has failed the country)
      And there’s even less accountability than with bureaucracies.
      Even when it’s a partnership, it stinks. See Transmission Gully for example.

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