Rebuilding opportunity through change
"In February 2011, a 6.3 magnitude earthquake rocked the city of Christchurch, New Zealand. It changed the lives of everybody who lived here. So one of my motivations for enrolling on London Business School’s (LBS) Leading Change programme was to tackle what was, for me, a major and hugely important period of change post-earthquake.
Fortunately, I was working in the North Island at the time of the earthquake. I came down to Christchurch a couple of days later to attend a funeral and stayed on for a couple of weeks to assist in the initial response phase. I kept returning to Christchurch to help out over the next few months.
I have a strong military background – I worked with the New Zealand Army for 17 years – and I really wanted to get involved in the rebuilding efforts. That desire to make a difference to the city’s recovery led me to take up a position with the Canterbury Earthquake recovery Authority (CERA).
What I initially thought would be a month-long role turned out to be a full-time job that lasted five years. I started out as Manager of the Significant Buildings and Security Unit; I later moved into a role as Deputy Director of Project Delivery within the Christchurch Central Development Unit, overseeing a major capital works redevelopment programme for the city. So from helping out with the emergency operations centre planning, my role morphed into demolition projects, which involved taking down severely damaged buildings in the high-security area.
The primary focus during this period was the safety and structural integrity of buildings that remained. Some of the more damaged buildings included those with a heritage classification - there was plenty of pressure to retain these buildings, however, public safety considerations were paramount. There was great potential for these buildings to be left without any plan or funding to repair them, so a key part of my team’s coping mechanism was to maintain an objective view, whilst clearly remembering that buildings and infrastructure are about people.”
CERA was established in 2011 right after the earthquake. The department was extended yearly by the government, but as things started to get up and running again, functions were gradually handed over to local agencies. Then, in 2016, and as forecast, CERA finally shut down, leaving me and my colleagues to find new work.
Motivating people to continue to do their best work when faced with impending unemployment was a huge task. And that wasn’t the only challenge I faced, of course – there was also the issue of social dynamics. I was managing agile professionals who worked within the constraints of tightly regulated central government. 70% of CERA staff were from the private sector; we tried to be innovative, but I guess like many other countries, the NZ public sector takes a more traditional risk-management approach to things. While the New Zealand government wanted to predict the future, my team and I wanted to build it.
And then, finally, there was the enormous question of personal resilience. By design, crisis management is urgent and all-consuming, and nowhere is this more evident than in a post-earthquake situation. The hours are long and there’s always more work to be done. Within that very stressful environment, I was tasked with protecting my team – and myself – from burnout.
One of the most important things I learned on the Leading Change programme was the Change Curve - complete with the realisation that change can be a very slow and torturous process! Recognising this, though, gave me a much better understanding of my team’s emotions and expectations, and in turn, that enabled me to provide them with a deeper and more effective level of reassurance. By validating the stresses people were feeling, I let them know that their reactions and emotions were entirely typical.
My life motto is to ‘do the right thing’. Even when there’s an easier road to take, it’s not always the right one. When you’re under constant pressure from all quarters, it’s hard getting people to carry on doing their work, and still making sure they’re doing the right thing. But what the programme taught me, and what I was then able to pass on to my team, is that when things are tough and you’re at the bottom of the change curve, there is also opportunity. It’s important to remember that."