RSM New Zealand

Matariki, Covid-19 & People first

The rise of Matariki (the Māori name for the star cluster also known as Pleiades) in the winter skies above Aotearoa signifies the start of the Māori New Year. Matariki is becoming more widely celebrated as being a time that friends and family gather to reflect on the year past, celebrate the present, and plan for the coming year.

As we stand on the cusp of Matariki it is particularly poignant in 2020 to examine how its focus on past, present and future intersects with challenges we have all faced with the COVID-19 pandemic.


In reflecting on where we have been this year, we firstly must acknowledge our losses – of fellow Kiwis who have lost their lives, of personal freedoms (temporarily to an extreme level), of physical connection with others and the loss of jobs and livelihoods for some. It has been and will continue to be challenging. Our very way of life has been affected like no other time in recent history.

If we analyse the present, then we must celebrate the fact that we live in a country that has essentially eliminated a health threat that continues to ravage the world, achieved through the hard mahi and sacrifices in lockdown and our collective commitment to “people first”. Who’s proud to be a kiwi?

In looking to the year ahead, we have the chance to rebuild our economy and way of life without the pressures of community transmission of a killer virus. The flipside of the challenge coin is opportunity – the opportunity to build back not just what we had, but to be even better. This will need us to re-imagine what/why/how we do things.

I believe a key to success will be this “people first” approach.

“People First”

Below are some reflections as to how we can adopt a people first approach in our business lives and relationships, albeit they are probably equally valid for life in general.

A Journey not a Race

In the time of crisis, there were many heart-warming examples of people abandoning traditional barriers, competitive pressures or rivalries and working together to provide a range of things from the simple necessities of life (toilet paper anyone?) to donating time and money to charities, to collaborating to establish business supply chains. Imagine if we could bring more of this to our business and professional lives?

So instead of lining up against others in a race, where each competitor has a narrow self-purpose and fiercely guards information and position, imagine if we shared journeys together. In this world, collaboration and a commitment to seeking to work together to achieve great things, will mean that instead of winners and losers, we will all move forward in a positive way. The trouble with a race mentality is that often it turns into a race to the bottom. 

For example, negotiating with external customers and suppliers would include the genuine attempt to “walk in their shoes” to achieve a result that means all parties are satisfied – not one that is ecstatic and one that is devastated. This will require more “give and take” but with a shared understanding of the bigger economic recovery goal.

Be Kind

To steal this plea from our PM, Covid-19 has amplified the need to be kind to one another. The stresses of this time are expected to have an ongoing effect on the physical and mental wellbeing of some people in our communities.

There is an important value in Maori society, Manaakitanga, which is about providing support, compassion and encouragement to each other. So, while sharing the journey together as mentioned above, a commitment to show understanding, empathy and kindness will help ensure we don’t lose anyone along the way.

This must not come at the cost of us losing the edge and a level of pressure that is needed to motivate innovation and performance. Being kind doesn’t mean we let standards fall or we tolerate running away from taking personal responsibility. But it does mean that we are there for each other, encouraging those that are ready and want to fly without clipping their wings, and helping others to walk who may be stumbling.

People and Technology .. in that order.

Technology has been a brilliant servant during this time enabling organisations  to quickly establish remote working disciplines to keep critical operations going through lockdown. This has mitigated some of the economic impact.

It has enabled fast, widespread connectivity through online meeting platforms to a level we would not have thought possible a decade ago. We have all learnt new skills and exchanges (“You’re on mute”…“Can you hear me now?... Yes, but now I can’t see you!...).

Technology is fast, efficient, consistent and convenient (breaking down geographic and time barriers – no-one missed being stuck in traffic trying to get to a meeting!).

However, this embracing of technology has a very real, and disturbing, associated social danger – one where people become more comfortable to retreat to their isolation bubbles to work and live their life through a screen. A world with little face-to-face contact.

This plays into the narrative of those that say that accountants are a dying breed and will be replaced by computers within the next generation. I don’t buy that.

Having praised the virtues of technology above there are some major limitations: while computers can DO many things here’s what they CAN’T DO. They cannot care, cannot love, cannot laugh, cannot cry, cannot feel joy or pain. They also cannot break established rules and go with a “hunch” or “gut instinct” that defies logic but turns out to be right – this is a very human trait.

To remain relevant in the future, the accountant will be less of a number-cruncher and more of a business-enabler. People will need highly developed emotional intelligence coupled with the ability to interpret numbers (produced by computers) so as to effectively communicate impacts and propose solutions that not only work for the business, but also its people.

Maintaining meaningful relationships that are based on mutual understanding and trust will be as important as ever, if not even more so in a world of technology. There is a power and a bond in a handshake that does not exist in a “like” emoji. 

So while the inevitable rise of the machines will open up possibilities we cannot imagine even today, it is imperative that we, the people, stay in control of the “on” button.

Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast

I believe this well-worn quote resonates strongly with organisations that have been successful in the past, are managing the COVID-19 challenge well, and who are likely to succeed in the future.

The value of whanungatanga (sense of belonging/family connection) is often at the core of such organisations, where there is a shared understanding and commitment to a common vision and where everyone’s efforts are driven towards achieving this.

And here’s the key – people are trusted to contribute in the best way that they can. People do great things and give of their best because they want to.. not because they have to, or its written down somewhere.

People understand and commit to their roles, but also freely give their time to help others because they understand this is for the good for the “whanau”. In these organisations, deeds matter… not words. People own successes and disappointments of the organisation. They are honest and upfront – prepared to challenge the status quo, and hold each other accountable, while encouraging trying new things and accepting that mistakes feed growth.

Culture can be a challenging concept to traditional accounting practice. By nature, accountants have liked measuring things by numbers, as a measure of compliance with established goals (eg the dreaded “timesheet”). It is generally easier to measure strategy implementation than effectiveness of culture.

But I believe our profession is going to have to change in this regard – many traditional measures no longer motivate people or serve us well. What we actually need to embrace is that fact that great work culture (seen by some as being the “soft” stuff) actually drives superior economic performance – the two aren’t mutually exclusive.

We need to foster environments where all our people can bring their whole selves to work. The increased flexibility of working locations and times means that there is a blurring of work and home in any case – so why try and have to switch personalities between the two?. We should celebrate diversity – not just of gender, race, sexuality, age but diversity of thought, ideas, and contribution to the cause.

The above is not intended to destroy the importance of strategy. A highly committed, motivated team that enjoys what they do and being with each other (eg the All Blacks who are famed for their culture), still needs leadership, tactics and direction.

So maybe it shouldn’t be that Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast – maybe the two should be dining partners….. jointly feasting on a world of opportunities.

Closing thought

The fact that the following may be the most used (and sometimes misused) of many wonderful whakatauki (proverbs) does not mean it isn’t true or has any less power today.

He aha te mea nui o te ao
(What is the most important thing in this world?)

He tāngata, he tāngata, he tāngata
(It is people, it is people, it is people!).

This might be commonly interpreted as stressing the need to look after your people. However, in the spirit of Matariki, it embodies a broader concept of the obligation we all have to know and honour our ancestors and where we have come from, look after the people we currently are connected with, and then to preserve and nurture our planet, way of life and each other so that our children and their children can live safe and fulfilling lives.

Indeed, there is no more important investment we make than in our people.

Tena koutou, tena koutou, tena koutou katoa.

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Wayne Tukiri
Audit & People Partner