CEOs see Ardern as a great global cheerleader but ineffectual in NZ, writes Fran O'Sullivan.
Jacinda Ardern's New York dance card is fully booked, with a formal meeting with United States President Donald Trump overnight and a keynote speech at the United Nations Secretary-General's Climate Action Summit to follow.
It is for her performance in this theatre — the world stage — that Ardern gets the most praise from the nation's top executives.
But a common theme through this year's Herald CEOs survey was that the Prime Minister was at great risk of being seen as an excellent cheerleader for New Zealand on the global stage, but increasingly seen as ineffectual at getting things done at home.
The Prime Minister's empathetic response to the Christchurch massacre, where 51 Muslims were murdered at the Al Noor and Linwood mosques, propelled her to international superstardom.
The world's tallest building — Dubai's Burj Khalifa — was lit up with a giant image of Ardern embracing a woman at a Kilbirnie mosque.
The New Yorker headlined an article "Jacinda Ardern has rewritten the script for how a nation grieves after a terrorist attack", noting her empathy and action to ban military-style semi-automatics and insistence on not naming the killer.
There were two glowing editorials in the New York Times headlined "America deserves a leader as good as Jacinda Ardern", and "Jacinda Ardern leads by following no one".
Ardern went on to leverage the event by launching the "Christchurch call" to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online at a special meeting in Paris hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron.
It is hardly any wonder that political leaders like Trump, Macron and even Chinese President Xi Jinping have responded to Ardern's growing celebrity and met with the 39-year-old political leader.
Chief executives responding to the 2019 Mood of the Boardroom survey rated her response to the Christchurch massacre at 4.5/5 — the highest rating they awarded Ardern in this year's prime ministerial scorecard.
They were asked to rate her on a scale of 1-5, where 1 equals not impressive and 5 equals very impressive.
Unsurprisingly, they also rated highly her ability to portray New Zealand appropriately offshore (4.14/5).
But Ardern has a weak spot. Though she got the tick from many chief executives for courageously calling out other international leaders where necessary, there was growing concern that she has a tendency to indulge in unnecessary "virtue-signalling" at the expense of prime relationships, particularly with Australia.
Those international strengths also contain her weaknesses.
Despite launching a Business Advisory Council and holding multiple meetings with leaders, she has failed to build confidence within the New Zealand business community.
CEOs rated her at just 1.75/5 on this performance indicator. Her capacity to lead change on major issues was also marked down to 2.15/5 along with her ability to take the country with her during transformative change (2.38/5).
Given that her communication skills are her strong point, this cements the perception that she needs to focus much more at home.
"The Prime Minister is a genuine individual whose key strengths are around her ability to connect, project empathy and communicate to the masses," said Deloitte CEO Thomas Pippos. "She is reliant on others to drive the development and implementation of complicated policy and is severely limited in her ability to implement certain areas of change in part because of New Zealand First."
An infrastructure consultancy head agreed: "The Prime Minister cares greatly about our people and displays empathy and humility. She wants a society that has more social heart and no one disagrees with that.
"Not all current policy initiatives are clear on how better outcomes will actually be created. We need to get on with the 'doing phase' and see if these polices are really going to work."
One observant chief executive pointed out it was important for the Prime Minister not to over-hype either her or New Zealand's international importance.
"New Zealand needs to be very careful as a non-diversified, small and remote trading economy," said an energy CEO. "Overseas countries don't actually care about New Zealand.
"Our cringy insecurity plays out constantly as us wanting to 'punch above our weight' and 'lead' on particular issues.
"In a volatile world, we need to maintain friends with a lot of different countries.
"Macron entertained the 'Christchurch Call' because he needs to hold the Muslim vote in Paris."
But others said Ardern had been very impressive in raising New Zealand's profile globally, which is heart-warming for Kiwis.
Wine exporter Erica Crawford advised the Prime Minister she needs to find her "Bill English" and be supported by a stronger team. "The present team bumbles too much and seem to be scared of taking decisions. She is [maybe WAS as at 12/8] a good face for New Zealand but definitely needs a stronger, sharper team."
Crawford was referring to the sexual assault allegations which cost Labour Party president Nigel Haworth his job, and which are now the subject of two investigations.
Ardern admitted before she left for Japan and New York that Labour's woeful handling of the allegations by a young party volunteer against a staffer in her Leader's Office could damage New Zealand's international reputation. It may also have cost her some support with the business community with several survey respondents saying, unprompted, that the sexual claims within Labour had cast a pall over Ardern.
A finance chief praised her aspirational style but said she was challenged by execution. "What specific actionable plans are there to achieve the lofty goals espoused? The performance relative to the sexual claims within her party are very unimpressive and deeply cynical."
It was the "Ardern effect" — her election as party leader just weeks ahead of the 2017 election — which propelled Labour to the position where it could become a contender for post-election coalition talks.
But Michael Barnett from the Auckland Business Chamber said the Government was now probably at the point of needing to look like a group of leaders and not a group of one.
This view was reflected by others.
Foodstuffs CEO Chris Quin rated Ardern's "fantastic personal leadership".
"She needs to focus on the talent of team and making tough calls and focus on the enablers that really help. Doing a very good job of a complex coalition. No closer to business."
"Jacinda is widely recognised on the international stage in a way very few other PMs have been," said a director. "This gives her 'voice'. Her capacity to deliver as a PM at home is limited by the coalition and thin bench strength."
Others noted she seems to be beholden to NZ First and thus can't get anything done.
"It is clear that the Coalition Agreement has bound parties to agreed policies," said Craig Stobo, chair of the Local Government Funding Agency. "It is very difficult to get political agreement to enact new policies or react to economic and social change. The oil and gas policy decision is an example of how not to consult with the business community."
In contrast to last year's survey, there was a great deal of derogatory comment.
A telling example: "The Prime Minister is a wonderful shop window — not much in store.
But Panuku chair Adrienne Young Cooper said, "Ardern is a wonderful role model to our best hope — young women."