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Speech: Kevin Roberts - Future of NZ

No one ever told us we couldn't do it, eh.

Schools and the future of New Zealand

Kevin Roberts keynote address to the New Zealand Secondary Schools Principals' Council annual conference, Christchurch, 11 July, 1999.

In the last twelve months I've spoken to audiences in Stockholm, Hamburg, Edinburgh, New York, Budapest, Shanghai and London. This year I've addressed international bankers, accountants, Fortune 500 CEOs, ad agency executives, global magazine publishers, seventh formers - but no politicians!

You are the most important audience I will address in 1999.

I believe that leading New Zealand schools is the most important of the leadership missions that remain in our society.

Tonight I'm not going to talk about bulk funding, Maori education, pay rates, toilet taxes, school suspensions, advertising on school buildings, qualifications, zoning or schools operating in deficit. These are vital issues. They are critical elements on your agenda. I'm concerned about them, but I don't have the depth of understanding to advise you on them here.

I am going to talk about why I think re-examining how you lead New Zealand's secondary schools into the next millennium is the most exciting challenge possible.

I want to share with you ideas about leadership, and tell you about what motivates me. I want to talk about the importance of inspiration, peak performance and optimism. I want to share with you ideas about the way I see New Zealand, and what I think should motivate us as a country.

But most of all I want to affirm the importance of schools in our society as agents of hope, dreams, inspiration and leadership.

This is the most exciting time in the history of the world to be alive. There has never been a moment in history when so much was possible.

There is no clear rule book anymore. Old certainties have dissolved. It's a time to question our most fundamental assumptions. To affirm our central truths and to set out in new directions.

It's an exhilarating time to be a leader.

It's a time when the distinction between managers and leaders is absolutely clear.

Managers are reactive. They let outside forces define the destiny of their organisations. They see challenges as obstacles and they are apprehensive about change. They favour the orderly over the entrepreneurial. They over-analyse and over-engineer. They are over-rational, and under-intuitive.

Leaders are proactive, optimistic, inspired by possibilities, by dreams and by vision. They are secure in the belief that there is always a better way. Leaders are totally focussed on getting their organisation to the future fist.

Tonight I want to talk to you as fellow leaders, keen and tough, whose mission is to enlarge worlds.

I've had a thirty year business career with some of the great companies of the world - Procter & Gamble, Pepsi, Lion Nathan, Saatchi & Saatchi. I've sold washing powder to Arabs, built Pepsi plants in Katmandhu, out-sold Coke in Canada, and built the biggest brewery in China.

Right now I lead a creative organisation comprising 6,000 people in 91 countries. I also teach MBA students at Waikato University and I received an honorary doctorate from them last year. It took me 31 years to graduate!

I left Lancaster Royal Grammar School when I was just 17.

I was in a hurry. I had a lot of odds to beat, and I thought I didn't have time for University. I was wrong. When people ask me today if I have any regrets, missing the experience, learning and joy of university life is my biggest regret.

However at that time sport was my passion. It still is. More than anything, sport has taught me about the concept of Peak Performance. The idea that an individual and a team can perform to the peak of their abilities every day. That you can always be "in contention". Constantly in preparation and always dreaming about making magic.

I get frustrated, angry and saddened by wasted potential and missed opportunity. I'm convinced by the power of this simple idea of peak performance to make the world a better place. If more people and organisations were galvanised by the singular focus of performing to the peak of their potential every day, then we would live in a far more constructive, positive world.

Peak Performance is at the core of the work I do mentoring seventh formers at Avondale College in Auckland. It's what my work as a Trustee with the TYLA Trust in Auckland is all about.

TYLA stands for 'Turn Your Life Around'. It's a coaching programme for at-risk youth. We help young people who have made some wrong choices to focus on goals and make their lives constructive. A leading graduate was Jonah Lomu.

Potential for peak performance is the criteria for the five scholarships I provide each year to help exceptional young ideas people finance their first year at the University of Waikato Management School.

At Waikato, I've been involved in creating a blueprint for peak performance that organisations can use to excel in whatever field they belong to.

It's a radical theory. It rejects the traditional approaches of management science - which is more of a cross between military strategy and the laws of civil engineering than a realistic model for human organisation.

We looked to sport instead. Sport is inclusive, it's all about teamwork, excitement, fun, skill, achievement, winning and dreams.

More than that, it's the greatest social phenomenon of the 1990s. Bigger than music. Bigger than the movies. Bigger than the Internet. It is empowering and enfranchising more young women and men than any other movement of our time.

We went inside some of the greatest sports organisations in the world to find the secret of what makes them so special. Among others, we got inside the cultures of the All Blacks, Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls, the German Soccer team, Aussie Cricket, San Francisco 49ers in Gridiron, the Atlanta Braves in baseball, and Williams Formula One.

We discovered that peak performance is controlled by intangibles. Things like positive motivation, self-belief, a sense of community and sacrificial play, the psychology of belonging, and the capacity in every individual to be inspired to out-perform their previous personal best.

We have developed a series of principals of peak performance. Our story will be published world-wide by Harper Collins in February 2000. You can read about them on my website,

Our theory emphasises elements like inspirational players, the sharing of dreams, and the ability of teams to make magic.

These are big, world-changing ideas. Simple to apply and uplifting to be exposed to. They are all about creating cultures of constructive co-operation and shared achievement.

Forces outside our control are too often presented as an excuse for mediocrity and failure. The goal of Peak Performance is a tool for empowerment that allows individuals to create their own future.

Great teachers and great schools are all about achieving peak performance. No other institutions exist to inspire and empower people. No other group of people are in a position to more powerfully effect the world view and self belief of every young New Zealander.

The power of schools to make magic is enormous. Everybody has at least one abiding memory of a great teacher. A person who inspired them to learn and believe in themselves. Most of us carry the legacy of those teachers all of our lives.

Teaching is possibly the most important and undervalued vocation in our society. Schools and teachers are critical to building economic prosperity and social cohesiveness.

But I seldom hear an appreciation of the role of teachers and schools from people outside your profession. More than any other thing, I wanted to come here today to affirm your mission.

You might even celebrate it. Often Kiwi understatement and modesty prevents you from expressing, publicly at least, your own self-belief in the importance of what you are doing.

Schools have never been a more important.
We live in a chaotic age of change at blinding speed and massive disconnects with the past. Fundamental changes to economies and social order that used to take thirty years now happen in the space of a single year, or even a single moment. Like that cataclysmic moment when Tim Berners-Lee hit on his invention we now call the World Wide Web. That was only six years ago.

Schools struggle to keep themselves ahead of the lava flow, but the white-hot heat of change has vaporised the sense of guidance and certainty that we used to get from other institutions. They've either lost relevance or abdicated their social responsibility.

I'm a Christian. I believe in God's teachings. But the institution, The Church, is struggling to find a language that speaks with meaning or relevance, and unfortunately is no longer a presence in most people's lives.

Companies are focussed totally on the effects of new technology and phenomenally fast-changing, competitive markets. They have little alternative but to concentrate their full energy on simple survival. Caring about their people, their community has become secondary.

The popular media headlines pump out a vortex of minutiae and trivia. Big issues and ideas are in there, but finding them can be heavy work with your mental machete through a jungle of irrelevance. It's difficult to imagine the media world in which Franklin Roosevelt could run a New Deal and a World War without America knowing he did it from a wheelchair.
Parliamentary government has lost popular respect. The debating chamber has become a focal point of negativity where inspiring and constructive ideas are an aberration, as I found out a few months ago.

We get the Parliament we deserve. The tone of politics reflects the language of a nation. If New Zealanders want a positive and constructive Parliament, then we have to start talking that way among ourselves.

The family is not the singular source of guidance and values it once was. The responsibilities of parenthood no longer go without saying. There are a lot contributing causes, but it's clear to me that some Kiwi men need a deeper recognition of the fact that fatherhood is not merely a physical act performed with the lights off.

Schools have retained their relevance in the lives of young people. That's a tribute to the professionalism, sense of purpose and commitment of the teaching profession.
The lack of leadership from the other institutions leaves a massive void that schools are being asked, by default, to fill.

That means schools must emphasise more than ever their role as the source of optimism and inspiration for the young people of New Zealand.

In times of change, optimism takes on heightened importance. It's the faith that keeps you paddling until you catch the wave.

Optimism is an attitude New Zealand needs to institutionalise. We might be the Land of the Long White Cloud, but it's a cloud with a low, grey murky lining.

There's a dark, brooding, gothic streak that runs through our national psyche.

It's in our tall poppy knocking Itolerance. It's in our politics. More disturbingly, it's in our tragic youth suicide rates, violent crime and child abuse statistics. We like to think New Zealand is an easy-going nation, but think again. There are elements of our psyche that are vicious, insular and vengeful. We need to overcome them.

Optimism, therefore, has never been more powerful, or more needed. I want to see it made the official New Zealand virtue of the millennium.

The very idea of New Zealand is a source of optimism. We have less people than Sydney, the same landmass as Japan, and the tastes and expectations of New Yorkers! An idea as improbable as it is compelling.

We bring to this improbability a set of astounding individual achievements. Mavericks who have broken the mould of ordinariness.

Our dark side seems to assume that our achievements just happen by accident. That world-beating achievement is a freak of nature. We love it when someone pops up with another Kiwi world-beater, but our collective culture still rejects excellence, profit, difference.
We've got to create a self-conscious and collective optimism and sense of purpose among our young people.

I know I'm talking to an audience of optimists here, because teaching is built on a foundation of optimism. Faith in the idea that you can take a developing mind and give it tools for life in a complex and changing world. That's powerful.

So now I'd like to offer some food for the optimists among you who want to eat it. I want to talk about New Zealand, our place in the world and the role of schools in achieving our potential.

I see fabulous opportunities for New Zealand over the next twenty years. To people who say that New Zealand is chronically disadvantaged, doomed to be an economic also-ran, a branch-office-nation with a permanently disadvantaged, benefit-dependant underclass, I say you're wrong. Look at the opportunities.

We have the potential to become a peak performing country. A prosperous country made up of innovative and inclusive institutions that inspires others to try and replicate its model.

We've done it before. New Zealand the social laboratory has lead the world at various times throughout the past 100 years.

But this time it's different. There's no paternalistic government to lead the way. No companies. No Church. If we are going to lead again, secondary schools must play a more critical role.

Schools have a broad mandate to effect the way people think about themselves and their country. You are the people who can give our young people the attitudes they need to build a prosperous nation.

If I've got one criticism of schools, it's that they don't emphasise enough the immense social value of making money. Again, it's a dark side Kiwi attitude. Reflected in the dumbest political idea of the moment - putting up taxes. Anti-aspirational. Punitive. Unimaginative. Definitely not entrepreneurial. A non-idea.

We've got to earn our way to prosperity, not punish the group with the most likely abilities to lead us there. I've seen research that said over 90% of New Zealanders begrudged companies making a decent profit. There is simply no place for that view in a country of improbable physics with expectations of a world-class standard of living.

Let's start with tha t attitude. For New Zealand, opportunity and prosperity starts and finishes with our place in the world. Period. Our young people must be encouraged to look outwards for the opportunity. Look north, look east, look west. Stop looking inward, look outwards to the world and imagine how you can take it on.

Wouldn't it be great if every student graduated from school with the clear goal of helping New Zealand take on the world? Because that's the mindset we must have.

New Zealanders have massive expectations for the material quality of our lives. Our ability to meet those expectations is now totally dependant on our ability to compete in the most lucrative, high value industries that are the wealth creators of the global economy. We'll never dominate entire industries, but we must look for lucrative niches and dominate them.

The obvious exception to that is the dairy industry, where New Zealand is a major player. But even there our position is more dependent than ever on finding new niche markets and filling them with smart new, high value branded products.

From now on a nation's ability to competitive will be defined by the quality of the ideas it can produce. Creating and managing intellectual property.

This is the Age of the Idea. Ideas are the great premium product of our era. That makes the qualities of its people the most vital natural resource any nation has.

Look at the Christchurch companies with the smartest workers for fantastic examples of this model in action. Gil Simpson's Aoraki Corporation has built prosperity on the back of two great software ideas, first Linc and now Jade. Sir Angus Tait's company, Tait Electronics, used a string of clever engineering ideas to make itself a major player in a lucrative sliver of the global radio communications market.

Technology isn't the only way to make money from creativity and ideas. In Wellington there's a creative ghetto they are calling Wellywood. Peter Jackson's Weta Films is the star among a cluster of film companies where artistic creativity combines with technological innovation to make fantastic business. In Auckland it's Xenaville. If there's one ideas industry where the margins can rival the technology area, it's the global entertainment industry.

Peak performance demands inspirational players to show the way. These are people like your speaker for tomorrow, Dennis Chapman, a hero of the new age of New Zealand.

He is another Christchurch ideas millionaire who made his money through smart products that carved a rich niche in the global power supply market. Along the way, he helped create a company, Switchtec, that has improved the standard of living for thousands of Canterbury people.

Now he's turned his vision to education. His hi-tech classrooms will produce technology-fluent New Zealanders equipped to make it in the world's hottest industries like electronics, software, biotech and entertainment. It's the kind of inspiration that we need to achieve peak performance as a country.

The possibilities for New Zealand in the next millennium to make our money from our minds is enormous. Royalty payments will be the new wool cheque and Dairy Board pay-out. But we have to get more urgent about patent and copyright registrations. Intellectual property advisers will make it big - great news for a young Kiwi friend of mine in Waikato - Kate Wilson, an entrepreneurial partner in her own firm specialising in intellectual property protection.

It's an age for entrepreneurs and imagineers in flexible organisations that are able to transform themselves fast at the first signs of change, before their competition.

What we need from our schools are people who understand that the key to breakthrough ideas isn't a well-learnt answer, it's a brilliant question. Nimble, adaptive minds. Problem solvers, life-long learners.

People with entrepreneurial vision and drive. People who have learnt in school how to recognise business opportunities and are prepared to take risks. People who are competitive, passionate, restless.

Our young people must be able to compete globally with workers in India, Italy, Illinois and Iwasaki. They will have to be people who can change jobs, work as contractors, freelancers or own their own companies. They will move from industry to industry, relearning complex technologies and skills several times during their working lives.

I'm excited at the prospect. The demands of the new economy are the opportunity for New Zealand.

We live on the edge of the earth, distant from the orthodox centre of our global system. The edge, with all of its unorthodox, creative, eccentric and uneasy connotations, is what defines this nation more than anything else.

It explains our history of improbable achievements. It explains Dennis Chapman, Peter Jackson, Sir Angus Tait and Gil Simpson. The edge explains the compelling need New Zealanders have to beat the rest of the world.

Being on the edge has given us the freedom to think differently. We haven't felt the constraints of the right way of doing something and so we have found better ways. Often they've gone on to profoundly effect the rest of the world.

New Zealand occupies a central place in the history of physics through Rutherford, the father of the nuclear age. Biotech has Kiwi parentage too, through Maurice Wilkins, our forgotten Nobel laureate, who made the discovery of DNA possible.

In the world of business, our innovations have been the result of having to be better. Our distance from the export markets that have been our economic lifeline has meant that we have had to be smarter. It has produced advances from the edge that have changed the world like refrigerated shipping. Our greatest natural resource was never sheep. It has always been brains.

All of that, and more, is what I call the New Zealand Edge. It's a force that too few New Zealanders have recognised. We must learn how to harness it, to celebrate it and to communicate it to our young people.

Releasing the potential of young people, and achieving global competitiveness and national prosperity along the way, is all about being relentless in our pursuit of the New Zealand Edge. It's a challenge that demands leadership. Schools are the natural leaders.

New Zealand schools are equal to the challenge. Some of our greatest world-changing ideas from down here on the edge have been in education.

Ideas like reading recovery. Whole word learning. Sunshine Books. Thinkers and leaders like Beeby and Ashton-Warner.

Gordon Dryden's book "The Learning Revolution", the biggest best-seller in China, is a brilliant addition to that tradition. It's crammed full of ideas about releasing the awesome potential of the human mind. It's changing millions of lives in China. Every parent in New Zealand should be reading it.

The potential for New Zealand to prosper in the new millennium is enormous. But this golden future won't just arrive. It won't be provided by a parent-like entity. Don't wait for "The System" to deliver. Look at the faces of your colleagues in this room. Face it, you are "The System" insofar as it exists anymore.

The responsibility is on individual companies and schools to get stuck in right now and create New Zealand's future.

We won't get their with half hearted muddling incrementalism. Peak performance must be the goal we set for ourselves, the organisations we lead and the young people in your schools.

We must give our young people the skills to create their own futures. And more than that, we must develop within them a sense of collective, national mission.

We need dreams. Dreams are the belief systems essential to peak performance.

The great schools, great sports teams and great nations are defined by inspiring belief systems. The All Blacks are constantly fixated by winning. They never relax. The USA has always had the American Dream. Japan had Catch Up and Exceed the West. Britain had the Empire - For King and Country - that worked for a few hundred years and now they are trying to redefine their role in the world. Cool Britannia? Doesn't do it for me.

These aren't just propaganda slogans. They are powerful and motivating dreams that are shared by groups of people that otherwise have little in common. They inspire collective action and empower every individual with self-belief and purpose. Dreams are the foundation of constructive action.

When an organisation or a country loses it's sense of mission it flounders. Without the Empire, Britain has declined. Japan has caught up with the West, but now what?

New Zealand needs a sense of purpose, a vision, a dream. I tried to get there through tourism - and got a bloody nose! I'm back now to ask you to help.

Schools are the only institution equipped to do it. No other organisation has the broad respect or the same central role in the lives of young people. No other institution has the same genuinely altruistic sense of purpose.

I'm calling on you, the leaders of schools, to be the leaders of our society who play a central role in re-establishing our sense of national mission. A dream that empowers all New Zealanders with the promise of a peak performing future that we can all share.

I put it to you that our national mission must be the New Zealand Edge. That creative, competitive expectation that we have to be the best in the world.

We must instil in our young people a knowledge that this New Zealand Edge is a thing we all share. It's the thing that lifts us to peak performance. It could be a collective psychological engine that propels New Zealand to greatness.

The American Dream did it for America. It says that anyone can get rich. The New Zealand Edge says that any Kiwi can beat the world at anything they choose.

There is no limit to what we could do as a nation with real self-belief and concerted, directed action that extends beyond the rugby field. We could become a nation of people that lives the Topp Twins song "Untouchables". No, we shouldn't all become Country and Western singers, but I can't wait to hear more New Zealanders singing the chorus - "We're stroppy, we're aggressive, and we'll take over the world!"

Kia Kaha!

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