Doors of Opportunity

Contractor magazine talks to Auckland Transport chairman Dr Lester Levy about business ethics, management, his career, and society in general as the city deconstructs and reconstructs its public transport service.

AUCKLAND TRANSPORT HAS big plans for its future public transport infrastructure and services, offering enormous opportunities for contractors. “I see us having much more public transport – heavy rail, possibly light rail, buses and more active transport.

“We have lots of challenges, not the least of course is money for capital development,” says Auckland Transport chair, Dr Lester Levy.

“It’s work in progress and we’ve got a long way to go, but we’re a long way from where we were.

“We will still have a multi-modal solution, but it needs to involve public transport with active transport playing a much larger part than most people will even consider at this time. That is a big strategic intent.”

Levy expresses a desire for greater “alignment” between transport and local government objectives.

“People in politics pick on issues often because of self-interest. I think we should all be focused on the same objective, but that is the nature of politics.

“In Auckland we have a highly-underdeveloped public transport system, yet public transport has the capacity to move the most people, most easily and most quickly.

“We need to have transformational transport solutions in Auckland, we can’t just have incremental solutions any longer because the city is so far behind in its transport solutions and is growing so quickly. It is a pretty unhealthy cocktail – we’re unable to handle the population we have and the population is growing quickly.

“If Auckland is going to prosper economically, there needs to be a significant, ongoing investment in public transport.

“Less ideology, more logic and more rational thinking would be a huge help. To do this takes resources, people and money and will cause disruption.”

Close to his heart

Ethics, leadership and governance are subjects close to the heart for Dr Levy, who is also the foundation chief executive of the New Zealand Leadership Institute at the University of Auckland, a Professor (Adjunct) of Leadership at the University of Auckland Business School and Fellow of the New Zealand Institute of Management.

A frequently-invited speaker and advisor on the subjects, he emphasises the importance of personal authenticity.

“To be authentic, you need to clarify what it is you believe in and what your values are. Most critically, you’ve got to have a transparent and consistent link between how you behave and what you say your beliefs and values are. I think that is where people often come adrift – they say certain things, but do others.

“The thing that people you directly and indirectly influence do best is observe you. It is also important for trust, because part of trust is reliability or dependability – so if you make a promise, you keep it.”

C_Feb_2015_Pg18_1While acknowledging that striving for such ideals requires considerable discipline, Levy believes the behaviour of leaders in their private lives therefore also “counts”.

“I have a saying, ‘management is a jacket you put on when you go to work and take off when you come home, but leadership is a skin that you live in’.

“No-one can be perfect and that doesn’t mean you can’t have fun and do slightly crazy things. But you can’t be one person in your leadership role and another person in other areas of your life. You have to be consistent; your ‘true north’ has to be in all of your domains of life.

“Some people would say that’s a little idealistic and it’s very hard, but that’s what I believe our aspirations should be. I believe integrity is an all or nothing – you can’t have quite a lot of integrity – you either have integrity or not.

“That can be very difficult and I’ve had lots of uncomfortable situations in my career where I have got isolated in some shape or form because I’ve adhered to principles that I’ve thought were important. Group think, going with the crowd or fitting in can make you actually cross the line.

I will go with my principles regardless of whether I’m liked or fit in – that’s not important to me. What is important to me are the principles.”

Not a fan of ideology

That said, Levy, who was born in South Africa in the mid-1950s before immigrating to New Zealand in the late 1970s, does not consider himself an ideologist and hence has no aspirations to turn his hand to politics.

“Just because you’re on one side and I’m on the other, if you’ve got a really good idea, why wouldn’t I want to work with you? But in politics, I couldn’t.

“I’m not a big fan of ideology. That comes very much out of my childhood where I saw the sinister side of ideology in apartheid. I prefer freedom of expression and that’s why I like research and ideas.

“I also don’t see everyone as an adversary. I’m really interested in wise outcomes; what are the wisest outcomes we can get that are going to do the best for whomever we are serving in terms of product or service? I also believe a leader’s job is to absorb pain and not inflict it.”

Career reflections

Levy is also the chairman of the Auckland and Waitemata District Health Boards and Tonkin & Taylor, as well as a director of Orion Health. His career has previously included roles as a clinical researcher with 3M, general manager of the Bay of Plenty Area Health Board, advisor to the department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, chief executive of South Auckland Health, a founder of Ascot Hospital and chief executive of the New Zealand Blood Service.

“I started as a clinician, drifted into management, ended up being a chief executive, went through an entrepreneurial phase and then into an academic and governance phase, then I’ve ended up being chairman of some very large and significant organisations with an opportunity to make a difference.”

Married for 23 years and with a 20-year-old university student son currently on his OE, and an 18-year-old daughter who recently completed secondary school, Levy says he has maintained a strong focus on his family as well as his work.

“I work really hard … there wouldn’t be a weekend that doesn’t go by where I don’t work many hours in each day.”

Acknowledging that over the years he has had increasingly-less time to commit to his own recreational and social environment, Levy nonetheless says he and family continue to enjoy domestic and international travel, and he also walks a lot as a personal leisure activity.

Having enjoyed considerable reach with his book Leadership and the Whirlpool Effect among many other research literary works, he is currently authoring another book on the subject of leadership.

Reflecting on his career, Levy says he recalls from an early age having an aspiration to “do something that was useful and made a difference”.

“It is a huge motivator for me and that’s why I like being involved in very large organisations because you can make a difference for more people.

“I also like academia because the other interest I have is helping people to think. If people think then they are likely to make different choices and see things differently.

“But to be perfectly honest, I’ve had a totally unplanned career. Opportunities have literally arisen and I’ve taken them – the doors of opportunity are marked ‘push’. It has been more of an adventure than a career from my point of view.

“On the one hand I have quite a commercial, progressive viewpoint, but on the other hand I have a deep sense of social conscience.

“We need a society that is gentler and fairer. It is a worrying trend that people think more about themselves as individuals than society in general.”

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