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Manaia: more than a song and dance routine

• Manaia: more than a song and dance routine Living

We’ve all been to those boring work conferences. You know, the ones where you sit there for a day or two, listening to the company directors talk financial figures, objectives for the next year, and what we’re expected to do to achieve them. Usually there’s some sort of “team-building” or trust-related exercise, followed by group brainstorming of ideas around company strategy. Been there, done that, a million times over and have the t-shirt to prove it.

But what if there was a different approach? What if the secret to staff unity, communication, trust and achievement of business goals could be found in Maori culture? What if this could be made accessible to everyone – regardless of their own nationality or cultural identity? What if your company conference was a haka workshop?!

With the support and drive of his late wife Kateia – who had been a central and cherished figure of the Maori community in London for many years – Karl Burrows and a few others of the London Maori community, looked into a business venture that sought to share and communicate Maori culture with the UK and Europe. I had the privilege of meeting with Karl, who has not only continued Manaia’s legacy, but has become the driving force behind its mission and is taking the business into the next chapter of its remarkable and inspirational evolution.

HakaWorks which came out of Manaia, is a revolutionary and new concept and it made sense for Karl to describe it in an evolutionary sense. “We started off Manaia because we just wanted to share our culture, so we started off with kapa haka performances around the UK and Europe, and we still do that. Then we moved on to schools, and then once, when we were performing at a corporate event, someone said to us: ‘We love watching you do haka; we love watching you perform... But we’d rather feel what you feel’. And we thought OK, we knew what they were meaning – how we stand together as a group, how we have this unity happening, and how we have this energy or this spirit that comes from being together or working together really close. So we just thought, how can we translate that, or make it an experience that people can be part of, rather than just observe? And how can they feel what we feel as we perform?...

“So what is the best way to do that? It’s through haka. We thought about haka as a methodology, to achieve a certain state. It’s about a person being in a really ‘connected’ state. Then we had to think about how to break this down, to provide it to audiences that aren’t familiar with the culture that we’ve been brought up with. We looked at it step by step, and thought about how we could get it across in a really simple way, in a limited time frame. We then came up with a method for teaching people. The purpose was not to get them to be really good haka performers, because they just can’t in the short time that they have. But we could get them to a state quite quickly – if we do our job right – where they feel comfortable enough to let go of the restrictions that they feel in their body, or within their mind – and to start to give, and to share, and to express themselves. To share the energy with others, and to be generous. To trust each other, and to let go. And then that energy starts to get shared amongst the group. There’s a point where you can just feel it turn.”

So how does HakaWorks, well... work? There’s a spectrum: at one end you have a straight performance; next you have a 10-minute “energiser”, where you may have 1,000 people at a conference who have been listening for hours about financial figures, and the client needs you to give them a quick refresher. It’s not long at all, but it’s an opportunity to get people up out of their seats, stamping and moving, and to get them to make some noise. It’s an opportunity to share something with them, albeit briefly.

Then you have team-building workshops, ranging from only an hour long, to a half day, to a full day. “I’ll talk about haka and why we do it”, Karl explains. “And how it’s about people coming together; showing their commitment as a team, and showing their commitment to whatever purpose it is that they need to achieve. That’s what haka’s about... whether you’re going to farewell somebody at a funeral, or whether you’re going to welcome them, or whether you’re going protest, or whether you’re going to celebrate a birthday, wedding or graduation. It’s about your community saying, ‘We’re standing here behind you, or with you – and we’re committed to whatever we’re here for.’”

At its heart, it’s very clear to me what HakaWorks is about – and what Karl is about. It’s about values creation, and values implementation. He talks to the companies that hire Manaia about what their particular purpose is, and why they want them there. Regardless of the length of the workshop, it seems the questions from clients are always the same: “How can you help us connect our people so that they trust each other? So that they can work together better? So that they can communicate better? So they can help elevate the company and our objectives a lot better?”

To find the answers, Karl reflects on his own culture. “I ask myself what is it within my culture that can help people get there? What are the rituals that we go through to help us have this community that we have?” Drawing on his own heritage, and the values inherent in Maori culture, Karl has selected a few tools to share with others to enable them to connect better and identify their own core values.

“To give just one example,” Karl explains, “When we introduce ourselves, and we talk about where we come from. For me, I’d say, ‘My mountain is Taranaki; my river is Waitara; my ancestors are these people; my people came here on this waka’. Or my father’s English, so I’ll talk about his side. And I’ll share something about my ancestors that defines me. When I get up and say these things, people can start to connect with me. I’m sharing something that is meaningful to me and that is a fundamental truth about who I am – but also, people can connect with me on the same level, they can say, ‘Hey, I know this mountain; I know this river; I might know these ancestors’ – and they start to form connections with me in that sense. Then I get people to do the same – I explain the process and get them to talk about where they’re from, who their ancestors are, their family, maybe their church, and so on.”

I commented to Karl how incredible this is. It struck me that this is a very different thing for British people in particular to do – to talk openly about their personal lives; their community; their family. “Yes, especially in a work context,” Karl remarked. “Usually it’s just about: ‘These are my skills, these are my qualifications, and this what I do. I come to work and I do that, and then I leave.’ To talk about something meaningful... I was quite nervous about doing it at first, but now... People become quite emotional, sometimes they cry – and I just create the space to allow them to do that, so that they feel comfortable to share these things.”

Back to values, companies usually tell Manaia what things they want to achieve together and ask how they can get their employees to understand their values in a different way and embrace them. In such cases, Karl will often suggest that they compose a haka just for their company, and that he can facilitate a haka workshop where the employees can compose their own haka. He will ask a company what their values or goals are, and will then come up with a Whakatauki (proverb or story) which reflects those. “Maori language is quite metaphorical. There are strong images which can help you think about and hold these things in your mind.” He’ll then explain what the Whakatauki means, come up with a chant, and break them into small groups to go away and compose their own actions to reflect whatever line they’ve been given. The groups will then come back together, each with their own leaders to lead their part of the haka. “They all come together, they share it and they teach each other. At the end of the workshop they have something that’s about who they are, their company, and where they’re from – and they can perform it. Coming up with something that captures an idea through metaphor or a story, physicalising that with actions, and then expressing it through voice, and body, as a collective, sharing that energy – it’s really powerful, and it helps anchor these ideas in people’s minds, it makes them a part of who they are.”

HakaWorks is quickly gaining an excellent reputation and building an impressive corporate portfolio. Clients include IBM, Vodafone, BP, Shell, Phillips, BT, Deloitte, GSK and American Express. In fact, the first haka Karl composed for a company was a 1,400 person-strong Vodafone managers conference, centred around their company values. But before meeting Karl, what do these global giants know about haka? In the UK at least, the answer is simple: the All Blacks.

“In a way, that was great to begin with, because it started us off and got us some business. But at the same time, now I find it’s limited our business, in the sense that people do see the haka as belonging to the All Blacks, so it limits their imagination in that they think that’s specifically what we’re going to be teaching them to do. It’s quite a hard sell for us to convince them that we’re so much more than that. It’s different for our clients in Russia though for instance, as no one’s really heard of the All Blacks, so there’s more scope for us to do broader business there.”

In any event, the HakaWorks movement continues to grow and expand in new directions. Karl has the passion, generosity, vision and commitment to make Manaia a true Kiwi success story.


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