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:
- continuous safety improvements to Auckland’s transport network,
- addressing climate change through a reduction in transport-related greenhouse gas emissions,
- providing an excellent customer experience and equitable access to public transport, and
- 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.”
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.