I am pleased to report that our Connecting Young Leaders conference seems to have gone very well. Robust discussions were had. New friendships were formed. Different perspectives were aired. Common ground was established. And folks had fun. There isn’t much more one could hope for.
As I mentioned in my last post, we kicked things off with a reception for our 50 student attendees Friday evening at Parliament, graciously hosted by Deputy Speaker Lindsay Tisch and his lovely wife Leonie. The Deputy Speaker said a few words about the history and function of Parliament, and then led the students on tours of the historic chambers. We ran well past our planned adjournment time, and the Deputy Speaker and the students were still enjoying drinks and nibbles when Dr. McWaine and I decamped at 9:00 pm.
We started our Saturday program with a welcome by Jennifer Park Stout, Deputy Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs at the U.S. State Department, followed by a dynamic presentation by Dr. Anne-Marie Slaughter, Director of the Department’s Office of Policy Planning. Anne-Marie is a brilliant, creative thinker and a tremendous asset to Secretary Clinton. She engaged the students’ interest and nicely framed a few key issues that resonated throughout the proceedings.
On a personal note, it was a great pleasure seeing Anne-Marie, even if via video from Washington. I very much appreciated that she took time from her unbelievably hectic schedule to participate. She, Dr. McWaine, and I were at Princeton at the same time, and we’ve enjoyed each other’s hospitality several times in recent years. Anne-Marie joined Secretary Clinton’s team directly from serving as dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, which was where I majored as an undergrad.
The first of our five working sessions was entitled Trends and Opportunities: the State of the World, and was designed to generate discussion about large, cross-cutting issues before we started to drill down in particular areas. We were very fortunate to be able to assemble a provocative, engaged panel. Phil O’Reilly, the chief executive of BusinessNZ, began by outlining business conditions, opportunities, and risks in today’s global economy. Dr. Jon Johansson, a lecturer in Comparative Politics at Victoria University, spoke on political and governance issues. Dr. Russel Norman, co-leader of the Green Party, spoke about the environment and climate change.
I of course did not agree with some of what our presenters said, but the point of the conference was not to create an echo chamber of official views or to sing from a 100% pure and agreeable song sheet. There is really no value in that, and I’m pretty sure that we don’t have such a song sheet anyway. Instead, the intention was to stimulate thought and discussion, and that certainly occurred. The conversation spilled over into the tea period, and our presenters finally were able to make their escape when the next session began.
That next session, focused on the state of the modern media, was also a barn-burner. Joanne Black, the features editor of the New Zealand Listener and author of its Black Page column, kicked off the session by talking about her work experiences and sharing her thoughts on the strengths, challenges, and future of the traditional media. She was followed by Michael Player, the general manager of public affairs for the New Zealand Police, who talked about how outside entities attempt to engage with the media to convey information and spread their messages. He was followed by Greer McDonald, social media editor at stuff.co.nz, who described the strengths and power of new media and shared her views of the way reporting the news is changing.
To mix things up, after lunch we divided into four small break-out groups focused on areas of particular interest to our attendees. Geoff Simmons, an economist working for the Morgan Foundation (and, incidentally, one of my favorite Kiwis), led a discussion on the Global Economy and Trade. Geoff started off with a few team-building exercises that really stimulated his group. My new friend Tina McNicholas, an independent consultant in Wellington, led a discussion on Development and Pacific Issues. Dr. Helen Anderson (another of my favorite folks and until recently the CEO of MoRST) led the group discussing Science, Technology, and Environmental Policy-making. The fourth break-out group, on International Law, was led by our good friend Gabrielle Rush, principal of Rush Consulting and former associate director of the NZ/US Council.
From what the students reported later, the break-out sessions were a big success. Putting people with similar interests together facilitated vigorous, detailed discussion and helped cement relationships among students who had not known each other prior to the weekend. The only complaint I heard was that people wished there had been significantly more time allotted for this part of the agenda. Message taken onboard. As with our other presenters, a few of our break-out session leaders were so energized by the students that they stayed to listen to other panels during the day.
After the break-outs, the group reconvened in plenary session to hear a panel of dynamic young Parliamentarians discuss New Zealand governance issues, domestic policy, foreign policy, and the experience of serving in Parliament. We were fortunate to snare three of the best – Simon Bridges of the National Party from Tauranga, Gareth Hughes of the Green Party, and Grant Robertson of the Labour Party from Wellington Central. (Unfortunately, a late conflict prevented our invitee from the Maori Party from attending.) The MPs spoke briefly (in alphabetical order by last name) and then threw the floor open for what was a vigorous discussion with the students. The MPs impressed the students greatly with their ability to disagree with each other with respect and to find a bit of common ground on even the most contentious of issues.
Our last session of the day was run by Wade Jackson, a well-known motivational speaker and author. Wade is the co-creator of JOLT Challenge: the Self Intelligence Experience, a leadership and management development program. Wade wowed the group by asking the students to say their names quickly and then repeating them back after just hearing them once. He proceeded to put the group through a series of team-building, self-awareness, and leadership exercises. It would violate our Vegas rules to say too much, but I will always remember seeing 50 folks group-forming the Sydney Opera House with their bodies without signalling each other verbally or non-verbally.
From what I saw, there were quite a few lightbulb-over-the-head moments as Wade’s various messages sank in. His points about emotional intelligence, adaptive leadership, and context awareness certainly resonated, particularly when physically demonstrated rather than just orally stated. He certainly over-stimulated the group, which is why we put him last on the agenda. When he finished, I briefly summed up what I considered key lessons derived from the day’s discussions and activities, and then we adjourned for a brief rest before dinner.
I was particularly looking forward to dinner because Dr. McWaine and I had just a few days earlier assembled a new dining table at the Chief of Mission Residence. On Thursday we had had 44 members of the Parliamentary Press Gallery to the house to christen the new table, and things went very well that night. Saturday, though, presented a bigger challenge … with the students and my colleagues, we would be stretching the thing to its full length and full capacity, seating 56 people. I am pleased to report that the table held up, the room did not burst at the seams, mountains of food were comfortably consumed, and our wine cellar was emptied.
As I stated at the start, the goal of the conference was to bring a few dozen special people together, apply a little stimulation, let them talk among themselves, and then see what happens. What happened during the weekend was, not surprisingly, great. Now let’s see what happens in the future as these newly interconnected young leaders move forward in their studies and their careers. I’m betting on the same result.