Last weekend I participated in one of those events that keeps me jumping out of bed in the morning to go to work. I was in Auckland with 50 of my university student advisers from around New Zealand for our 2nd biennial Connecting Young Leaders Conference, at which we spent a couple of days discussing policy, working on leadership and career skills building, and networking among ourselves and with special guests from government, business, academic, elite sports, and not-for-profit circles.

Click through for photos from the conference.

The conference is a central, organic part of the Embassy’s extensive youth and future leader program. It provides an opportunity for my cadre of youth advisers to get to know each other better and to hit me with their best advice in an intensely concentrated but casual manner. Our experiment with a conference in October 2010 was such a success that we’ve decided to institutionalize the gathering as a regular event, biennial so as not to unduly tax the time of our students.

This year’s conference exceeded my already high expectations and in many ways built very effectively on what we learned during the first one in Wellington two years ago. Rather than summarize the proceedings myself, I thought I’d invite my Auckland-based colleague Jessica Rowland to provide a short report. She was the driving force behind (and the emcee of) the conference, so yielding the floor to her makes great sense.

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JR: We began the conference on Friday night with a welcome reception at the Consul General’s residence in Auckland. More than 40 students filled the reception rooms. Thankfully, the weather was mild so we could spill out into the garden as well. They were so energized that the level of conversation drowned the music playing over the CG’s speakers. The students had to be gently prodded out in order to grab their ride back to Auckland for dinner and networking in the city.

Meeting with the students during the welcome reception. This group of Auckland students quickly grew as other  attendees from around the country arrived.

Meeting with the students during the welcome reception. This group grew as other attendees from around the country arrived.

Saturday’s conference events began bright and early at 8am at the Crowne Plaza. A quick note on the structure of the proceedings – some of the most consistent feedback from 2010 asked that we make more time for questions and discussion. In 2012, we asked every speaker to limit their own time at the lectern and allow a more organic conversation to form. In general, we aimed for 40% set remarks, 60% Q&A.

We started the formal program bright and early Satuday morning. Everyone showed up on time despite having been out late socializing the night before. Ambassador Huebner opened the conference by summarizing the goals for the day, offering insights on values-based career planning, and talking about how advice is best formulated. He urged the students to think, analyze, and question for themselves rather than internalize the opinions and mythologies of other people.

Every student was in attendance, notebook ready, as I started the conference off, despite many having been out late the night before.

Ambassador Huebner formally opens the conference on Saturday morning.

After the Ambassador finished his remarks, I handed the mic over to Beatrice Faumuina, CEO of Best Leadership Academy, three time Olympian and gold medalist in both the World Championship and Commonwealth Games. Beatrice spoke about her life as an athlete and subsequent creation of the academy, focusing on the nuts and bolts of leadership and how she handled many difficult situations when others were looking to her for direction and inspiration.

Following Beatric was a live feed from Washington, DC with Zeenat Rahman, Secretary Clinton’s Special Adviser for Youth. Zeenat talked about the role of youth leaders in recent current events, and described the challenges faced by youth in developing countries and repressive societies. She gave examples of how youth councils have begun to collaborate across borders and build networks, and she then engaged in a Q&A session with our attendees.

Beatrice was also runner-up for Dancing with the Stars New Zealand, and incorporated some dance lessons in her discussion about leadership skills.

A runner-up on Dancing with the Stars New Zealand, Beatrice incorporated some dance lessons in her session about leadership skills.

Three media personalities took the stand next for our first panel of the day, focusing on Modern Media and how it has embraced social communication as a strategic and relevant news outlet.  Panelists Alison Mau, Ali Ikram and Jackson James Wood were joined by moderator Gavin Ellis, as they first briefly explained their background and how social media had changed their experience of the modern media landscape.

The panel then opened the floor to questions which started coming in faster than answers could be given. My view from the back of the room showed a forest of arms, very engaged body language, and robust give and take. An hour was really not enough time, and students had to be dragged away to morning tea. The panel stayed on and continued the conversation over tea and in the hallway outside the meeting room.

Mark Fitz-Gerald steers debate without extinguishing it. A little passion directed in a constructive direction can be as informative as a plain old lecture.

Mark Fitz-Gerald steers debate without extinguishing it. A little passion directed in a constructive direction can be more informative as a plain old lecture.

A period of break-out sessions followed, with 5 options for attendees. Jackson James Wood stayed on to lead a modern media session (with Ali Ikram who decided to stay based on the energy and enthusiasm from students). We also welcomed Mark Fitz-Gerald of Westpac to lead a 21st Century Economy session. I roved the hallways a bit to see each different breakout, but I was taken pleasantly aback by the vehemence of the debate in the Economy session. Our student advisors are certainly full of fire about the moving parts and challenges of building a truly global economy. Current policy-makers might have found the discussion helpful.

Raphael Winick, of Simpson and Grierson, led a discussion on Intellectual Property, while Jesse Ashton from Engineers without Borders held a session on Socially Responsible Enterprise and what skills are necessary to sustain and lead such an enterprise. Chris Mahony, Deputy Director for the NZ Center for Human Rights Law, Policy and Practice, captained the fifth breakout session, on Human Rights. An expansive topic for an hour’s time, I received some of the most positive feedback of the day from the students in his room, who said that he expertly navigated a wealth of topics that were both enlightening and engaging.

Chris Mahony discussing the hardships faced by many people around the world, specifically as the global socio-economic environment swiftly changes around us.

Chris Mahony discussing the challenges of advocating for and protecting human rights at a time of hyper-commercialization and socio-economic change.

We brought the attendees back together from their breakouts to be part of what I and many others felt was a most interesting session, a panel with young MPs. Jacinda Ardern of Labour and Julie Anne Genter of Green graciuosly gave up part of their Saturday to participate.  Unfortunately, the passing and funeral of Margaret Slater, wife of John Slater, kept National MP Jami Lee Ross from attending as expected.

The panel spoke to the rewards and challenges of a career in government, and gave students a rare opportunity to ask questions about how MPs can accomplish their goals, fit in with their party, and meet electorate demands. It was a dynamic, detailed, and highly productive session that seemed to energize the students. An hour was not enough close to enough time, and there were still a dozen hands in the air when we had to end.  Fortunately, both Jacinda and Julie Anne chose to stay with us for lunch to continue the conversation.

Jacinda Ardern and Julie Anne Genter attempting to keep up with the questions from students. An entire day devoted to this panel wouldn’t have been enough.

MPs Jacinda Ardern and Julie Anne Genter taking questions.

The next item on the agenda was a repeat performance. One session in particular from 2010 was so informative and useful that nearly every attendee from that conference said it should be part of the next one. So, we did as they suggested and invited Wade Jackson, Improv Warrior and leader of career development seminars across the nation, back for a two-hour session on leadership.

He focused on teaching attendees not only how to better understand themselves and their leadership abilities, but how to apply their skills most effectively to a professional environment. He kept the students constantly standing up and sitting down, moving and ‘breaking patterns’, which Wade instructed was the most important habit a person can maintain in their pursuit of workplace creativity.

Wade Jackson had students off their chairs and telling stories, acting out scenes and generally being active as possible, as he taught them how to break the patterns that stifle creativity.

Students engaged in one of Wade’s role-play scenarios, breaking patterns.

My colleage Drew Dumas, our Educational Adviser, took to the lectern next to discuss education, travel, and exchange programs that might be of interest to students. Among other things, Drew talked about the Fulbright program, a scholarship program for graduate students. For more info about Fulbright, check here. If you would like to speak to Drew about studying in America, send him an email at DumasAG@state.gov.

Our last panel of the day was devoted to entrepreneurship. Several of our students own or have in the past created startups and other enterprises, and for many this was one of the most interesting sessions of the day. At the table were Shay Wright, a veteran of our student advisor groups and the Head of Maori Development at ICEHOUSE; Alexis Lam, Marketing Manager for Burgerfuel Worldwide; and Sarah Trotman, Director of Business Relations at the AUT Business School. They spoke about their own ventures into the entrepreneurship space, as well as the risks and rewards inherent with any such enterprise.

The entrepreneurship panel, despite its slot late in the day, received some of the most difficult and complex questions of the entire conference.

The entrepreneurship panel, despite its slot late in the day, received some of the most difficult and complex questions of the entire conference.

The discussion eventually turned toward what skills and circumstances lead to successful startups and businesses, and what marketing and fundraising is necessary. One of the more intriguing dialogues struck up during the Q&A segment of the panel was a discussion on what truly makes an entrepreneur, and whether having skin the game is a necessary prerequisite, or simply the entrepreneur mentality.

The discussion was not just about commercial entrepreneurship but about social entrepreneurship as well. The conversation seemed to galvanize both the students and the presenters. This was the last panel to fall into place when we were planning the conference, and it did not fully fall into place until a couple days before. I’m glad it did. Of course, like with many of the other panels, it could have gone on much longer, and students lingered afterword to speak with the panelists and pick their brains.

Wrapping up was simpler in theory than it was in practice, as every attendee had feedback they wanted to give me. My Embassy colleagues will be busy for a while collating that information.

Ambassador Huebner closed the formal proceedings.

After a brief break, the Ambassador took the podium to lead a wrap-up session. He asked the attendees to summarize lessons learned and to provide advice on how the Embassy’s student adviser program could be improved. He also solicited feedback about the conference and suggestions for how to make the next conference even more useful and successful. The students jumped into the discussion enthusiastically, and I made a point to write down all the ideas raised. Among the common themes were extending the conference by a day and extending the length of individual sessions.

We then adjourned, giving the students a little time to freshen up before the closing dinner. We reconvened at Fort Street Union, a hip restaurant/pub on Fort Lane. We mingled, joked, debated, filled the booths and tables in the dining area, and spent several hours talking and laughing over dinner. The Ambassador and I rotated among the various tables, as did many of the students, creating a fun, fluid conversation. I said goodnight and decamped. When I finally left very late in the evening, the students were still going strong.

Students from around New Zealand sharing their final meal of the conference. I hear they were out networking until the early hours of the morning. It is my personal goal to make it simple for them to stay connected.

One of the tables smiles (mostly) for the camera at dinner.

I’ve only been working in the Auckland Consulate General for a short while, and the conference was a great way to jump into my new job and my host society. What I saw and heard energized me, and I am very much looking forward to working with the Ambassador and the rest of the team on our many youth and education programs. I’m also looking forward to continuing to engage with my new friends from universities around New Zealand.

Of course, we have already started work on the 2014 Connecting Youth Leaders Conference. The Ambassador is a laser-focused, tough task-master, and only two days after the 2012 conference ended he convened a meeting to discuss lessons learned and to outline the agenda for the next one. 2014 is going to be great. I can’t wait.

- JR

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I have nothing to add to Jessica’s report, other than to endorse the “tough task master” appellation and to say that I thoroughly enjoyed the weekend. I’m always energized when in the company of open, curious, active minds, and I was sorry to see the conference end on Sunday. And yes, of course, by Tuesday my team and I had started planning the 2014 version while the students’ feedback was still fresh in mind.

I don’t want to get ahead of myself, though, and risk spoiling our 2014 improvements and surprises. So, for now I’ll leave you with what I said two years ago in my post about the 2010 conference. It applies with equal force in 2012, and hopefully for 2014:

“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.”