Monday, October 28, 2013

Herald Interview

The NZ Herald is profiling one Sir Peter Blake Leader each week and this week it was my turn.
I send people difficult questions by email all the time (mostly for interviews for The Big Idea) but it's not so easy when the tables are turned! I had 31 questions... had a go at most of them, but there were quite a few I didn't answer (including the good old "so if you were stuck on a desert island what four people would you pick to be stuck with you?" - that question reminds me far too much of a certain, very brief, date which felt more like a job interview....)  But it was a pretty interesting exercise. Suspect my answers now would be very different to even 5 years ago!

Note: file photos at the Herald are held forever, apparently. The glam, slightly smug photo of yours truly was taken in pre baby days....
Describe your childhood (where you were raised, family life, education etc)

My parents came to NZ from Hong Kong for a job opportunity in the 1970s and have lived in Auckland ever since.  I have wonderful memories of walking a bush track to Meadowbank Primary School, and later trudging up our steep street to bus to St Cuthbert’s College. My parents instilled some key values in me: always work hard; never give up the first time; think very hard before you complain; and always eat good food.

What was your first job/paid employment?

I had a few tutoring jobs at university, but my first full time job was as a junior doctor at Rotorua Hospital.  It was a great place to work – small enough to know everyone, but large enough to offer some very interesting cases and challenges.  The down time was great too – in that year I played canoe polo, touch rugby (against some very large and fast hospital orderlies who took pity and didn’t tag me as often as they could have!) and started a BA by correspondence at Massey University.

What is your first memory of being a leader?

I was 17 and had just finished the Science Summer School, which brings senior school students from around the country together in the summer holidays for two weeks of intensive study at Auckland University.  Of course, being teenagers, we also held pizza parties, stayed up late, played as many practical jokes as we could and made lifelong friendships.  Norm Winterbottom, the convenor, who’s still very active in Rotary, called me up afterwards and said he thought I had potential and would I come back the following year as a Science School leader.  I nearly burst from joy. It was the first time anyone had called me a leader. I ended up being with the Science School for two more years and meeting some amazing students. Many of them are now leaders in science and many other fields.

Tell us about someone who has been a mentor to you

There are so many! In every field I go into, whether it’s science, medicine or arts, kind people seem ready to offer their help and mentorship. It’s the way NZ is I think, and how we tend to grow our leaders – through informal assistance and talent spotting.  One person who has really helped guide me in my arts career is writer and poet. Siobhan Harvey.  She’s both formally and informally mentored me, and as often happens, we are now good friends. She encouraged me to keep writing when I was just a beginner poet, helped me put my work forward for anthologies and also mentored me with my (yet to be completed) first novel and poetry collection.

What does a typical day at work look like?

It depends on the day and the time!  I don’t think I’m unique in having many careers.  I’m a writer – I write a lot of my own stuff, and also freelance and volunteer as an arts journalist; I produce plays and community arts events; I work around the country as a paediatrician; I work at the University of Auckland part time as a researcher; and I’m mum to a very feisty toddler.  Needless to say I owe a lot to the support of my wonderful and patient husband, and have a clever phone that reminds me what I’m supposed to be doing!

How would your colleagues describe you?

That’s a bit like asking me to look in the mirror, isn’t it? I’d like to think that people find me friendly, approachable, energetic and maybe a little mad.  I tend to be passionate about lots of things, but I also try to take other people’s ideas and feelings into account before I bowl ahead with a plan.

As a leader, what’s the secret to getting people to support and share your vision?

Passion.  People won’t believe unless you believe it.  Also sharing information and involving people as early as possible, so that they ‘own’ the project as much as you do.

What has been a highlight of your career or leadership journey?

I don’t think I could just pick one – and I feel that I’m only just beginning, at any rate. Each time I’m asked to do something – whether it be joining a committee, giving a speech, teaching, or organising events – I feel that I’m the one learning and benefitting the most.   It’s also a great opportunity to watch other leaders in action.

What was a low moment or failure and how did you deal with it?

I was bullied when I was a junior doctor.  It was by a professor that I regarded highly and had hoped to learn from, so it was a particularly challenging time for me.  I decided to walk away from the specialist career path I’d set my heart on – and it was then that I discovered that when one door closes, many others open, often in unexpected places.  I’ll thank that professor for the rest of my life, because her actions pushed me to discover other things that I could succeed at – general paediatrician, writer, researcher and community advocate.

What was the best piece of career advice you ever received?

Professor Tania Gunn, a leading neonatal researcher at National Women’s who mentored me when I was a student, told me that ‘the most successful people have at least five careers.’  That was 20 years ago and I’d say that has gone up to 10 or even 20 careers now. It taught me never to be satisfied and to keep chasing my passions.  If a need exists, maybe you can be the one to make it happen.  It’s amazing how many times I’ve ended up doing something rewarding (and being rewarded for it) out of just following my instincts.

What is the biggest risk you’ve ever taken?

It’s pretty crazy to give up a full time job in medicine and enrol in an arts degree.  But as a result, I now have three jobs that I love. My passion for medicine has been reignited, I love the challenge of groundbreaking research, and my writing allows me to explore the questions about identity, family and culture that fascinate me.

What annoys you?

Lots of things, all the time!  But I’ve learnt from my parents – to think before I comment or blame.  Annoyance is also a wonderful driver for creativity. If something annoys me enough I’ll write a poem or play and boom! Suddenly it’s a shared annoyance and you can start exploring it constructively, hopefully with a lot of laughter.

What do you think will be a significant business or societal issue in the next decade?

I’m worried that people, and especially business and politicians, don’t understand the role of science and how scientists explore the big questions.  For example, the so-called debate around the climate crisis.  Science is objective but not necessarily black and white – evidence is always accumulating and scientists have to shift their thinking to accommodate all the new data and all the complexities.  Challenge and debate is part of good science – if we didn’t question accepted wisdoms we’d never learn anything new -  but that doesn’t mean there isn’t consensus once the evidence is there. Scientists can’t always give answers in neat one-liners that are easy to digest - but then, our world isn’t black and white. People need to learn to think in shades of grey, examining all the angles, and on a global scale, and demand that their leaders do the same, otherwise we won’t have much chance of keeping the world as we know it.

Where do you see yourself in ten years time?

I have no idea. If you’d asked me that ten years ago, when I was still making ten year plans, I would have been incredibly, woefully wrong.  So now I’m happy to just try to recognise my passions and to try to follow them – wherever they lead.

What is your favourite way to relax and unwind?

Spending time with my husband and baby. They know how to push my buttons, but I guess that’s part of the fun!

Who is a leader (NZ or global) that you admire and why?

Helen Clark.  She’s stayed true to herself and her beliefs, but she’s also not afraid to follow her passions to do something different, and she does her research and considers the opinions of others before deciding on a course of action. She then sticks to her guns even if under pressure.

 What is a big dream/goal/aspiration that you have currently?

I’ve been writing plays for a few years, getting more ambitious with each one, and it’s my dream to write something – whether it be a play, film, or novel - that will make the world pause and think.  Even if it’s just for a few seconds.  But isn’t it everyone’s ambition to stop the world?

And for New Zealand’s future?

I’d like to see us leading the world more in terms of the environment. It’s easy to write a slogan ‘100% Pure’ – much more difficult to make that a reality by putting in place the relevant policies and protections, despite the fact that there will always be some groups that will be unhappy.

If you could give your 15-year old self some wise advice, what would it be?

Actually, when I was about 14 I started a little notebook of ‘advice to myself as an adult’.  I soon forgot about writing in it, but one of the pieces of advice my earnest 14 year old self recorded was to ‘always keep your friendships.’ I’d stand by that today.

What is your biggest regret?

Right now, that my busy life, and the time and distance that seems inevitable in my generation, means that I can’t see my friends or even talk as often as I’d like.  But I know that they are there whenever I need them, and I’d do the same for them.

What is one item of technology that you can’t live without and why?

My Macbook Air!  I admit it – I’m addicted to macs. I’m one of those terrible people checking email and social media all the time.

When you look back on your life, for what are you grateful?

I’m grateful to have family and friends who are not only supportive, but demanding. They demand that I be the best that I can be and that I continue to push myself, but that I also recognise and fix my weaknesses.

What is the best part about being a Blake Leader/Blake Medallist/being involved with the Sir Peter Blake Trust?

It’s been an amazing journey so far.  They call you an ‘emerging’ leader for a reason – they expect you to emerge! Since I was named a Blake Leader all sorts of challenges and opportunities have been thrown my way. Right now I’m learning about governance by being thrown in the deep end, by serving on various boards. It’s a wonderful opportunity, especially as I’m meeting so many people who come from a different background, and we can all learn from each other!!

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