"The biggest thing for me was learning that how we operate as Pasifika people is slightly different from non-Pasifika people - but that what we have is appropriate and cool and we can use it as a resource rather than set it aside."

The speaker is young Samoan Venasio Leilua, one of the latest Sky City Pasifika employees to benefit from the 18-month Best Leadership Academy course, connected to the University of Auckland. The former CEO was world champion and Commonwealth Games gold medallist Beatrice Faumuina who oversaw the enhancement of leadership skills amongst Pasifika people.

Leilua is still finishing his course but, like Sky City's current Operations Manager of the Sky Tower, Tavalea Feagaiga, he has learned a lot already.

Feagaiga has put it into practice. She joined Sky City as a casual waitress in 2002 and was selected for the Best Leadership Academy in 2011. She had already worked her way up through a variety of positions when she was accepted to Best. In 2012, Sky City offered her the Operations Manager post where she now oversees 30 direct reports.


"That course definitely changed my perception of leadership," she says. "It was so interesting. Before, I would get frustrated at what I thought were decisions taken in isolation and without consulting people on the front line.

"I learned a lot about management and how it has to take into account the various different aspects of the business when decisions are made. I learned they nearly always have a good reason for the decisions made and that it is important to support those decisions and make sure the front line people understand what is happening and why."

She says the single biggest effect of the Best Leadership programme was to adjust her perspective of traditional Pasifika values.

"Pasifika people are always taught to respect elders and those in power; to not question anything and to do as we are told. That is a great thing but it can also hinder you.

"I found that you always need to be humble about things; you maintain your management role and you have respect for your elders and those in power and you maintain your respect for those below you too. Just because you are in management doesn't mean you are any better than anyone else.

"I think we have all seen managers who forget where they have come from when they get into a senior role. I need to perform in my role, of course, but I can never forget that everyone's role is important and I always try and put myself in other people's shoes."

Tavalea should know. In working her way up from a casual waitress, she managed the day-to-day operations of the Sky City convention centre and catering and events, with a total casual staff of up to 250, before being promoted to her current position.

Sky City's Learning and Development Manager, Ruth Smillie, says: "It's a great course. I don't think many realise how many Pasifika employees we have here and how we try and develop people. Anyone on a meaningful leadership journey needs direction and support and this involves discovering or re-discovering their Pasifika roots.

"They use it to look at themselves, to say 'what am I doing in this job and where am I going?'. They look at their values and how to apply them in their job. It's so effective that even if someone leaves after taking the course, we'd take them back with open arms."

Best Leadership Academy director Rachel Skudder says: "It's a breakthrough programme. There's a lot of talk about gender diversity but in cities like Auckland, unless you have a cultural diversity element in your business, your strategy isn't worth the paper it's written on.

"It's all about a workforce which reflects the community around it and we have been very impressed with Sky City and how they have made the investment of time and money to identify the talent and to put people through such a powerful leadership programme."

Like Leilua - one of a staff of three in Sky City's Connect team, the award-winning employee support department which provides care, support and advice to help colleagues experiencing difficult professional or personal times - itself a kind of echo of the extended family which is such a feature of many Pasifika peoples. Sky City's 3500 workforce is 23 per cent Maori and Pasifika - a far bigger percentage than most other employers.

"I think it has been great," he says of the Best Leadership programme. "I think the major thing it's done for me so far is that you might think you are bound by the traditional structures - like respecting your elders - but you can take that familiar territory and apply it in different parts of your leadership experience.

"As Pasifika people, we are often shy and taught to be respectful and it can be difficult to manage family and elders. A lot of my generation are starting families too and the extended family is very much alive. The nuclear family is not how we operate but, as I was staying before, what we do is cool and can be used as a resource.

"You think, 'Oh, wow, that's just what comes naturally' and you can use in your job the things that you do in church or with family.

"I often work alongside people who have financial problems; they can't pay the rent or such like. They might have had a death in the family or have some professional difficulties."

The Best Leadership programme is in four parts over the 18 months and combines the strengths of an internationally recognised University Business School with a powerful Pasifika developmental process. It covers people management, Pasifika Mat and mentoring - partnering with business executives, academics and other leaders to learn how other businesses operate.