Diversity initiatives are changing the corporate landscape reports Natalia Rimell.

Tahuna te Ahi is the diversity and inclusion strategy put in place by this year's Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment Diversity and Inclusion Leadership award winner SKYCITY Entertainment which focuses on women in leadership and Māori, Pacific & Asian leaders.

With a group-wide policy stating that "Each year SKYCITY's Board of Directors will set measurable objectives to promote diversity, including gender diversity and inclusion", there is a clear aim of using diversity within the workplace to better meet their "changing customer experience needs".

Claire Walker, Head of HR said of Tahuna te Ahi: "We wanted to combine both elements of the traditional leadership programmes but deliver it in an authentic Māori way".

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While 9 per cent of the casino gaming company's workforce identify as Māori, none are represented within the senior leadership team.

Their aim is to change this by accelerating leadership development for Māori employees, in addition to "implementing initiatives which elevate the standing of Māori at SKYCITY more broadly". The company recognises that many of their Māori employees might have a leadership role within their own communities and whānau and wanted the programme to enable those employees to also have the "opportunity for leadership development in a less traditional way (at work) in a more holistic sense", says Walker.

Claire Walker, Head of HR for SKYCITY.
Claire Walker, Head of HR for SKYCITY.

SKYCITY partnered with Indigenous Growth Limited which "helps organisations develop the leadership capability of their existing staff using Indigenous values" to devise and implement a strategy.

The programme was promoted to all Māori employees, with 25 nominations received for the 16 available spaces.

Running over six months, the programme occurs over six wānanga of two days each, with two of these being overnight stays at Te Puea Memorial Marae and includes traditional practices such as mihi whakatau, karakia and waiata as well as a haka composed specifically for SKYCITY. On completion every participant receives individual coaching with fully accredited business coaches from the facilitation team.

Once completed, the participants then apply their learnings practically, across four projects:

The first aims for recognition and inclusion of Māori values as part of the company's value statements; the second aims to unlock the hidden potential of Māori through mentoring; the third advocates in-house advice on effective engagement of Māori and use of Māori culture, and the fourth proposes a series of authentic Māori experiences for customers.

Examples of the projects include opportunities to guide the opening protocols for the New Zealand International Convention Centre and Horizon Hotel and the implementation of an augmented reality app showcasing the cultural and historical significance of different places in Auckland for use in the Sky Tower.

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Since the initiative began, managers report that engagement, productivity and positive energy among this group are at an all-time high.

Reflecting on the impact the programme has had on those individuals, Walker says "one of the most powerful bits of evidence of its success was at the graduation day where the graduates each gave a speech and it was clear that the programme had made a significant difference on a personal level, as well as business" and says that the "graduates say that the programme has encouraged them to connect indigenous values with business in a practical way."

SKYCITY report a finding of three key insights through the initiative;

1. Indigenous values, perspectives and models can be applied successfully as practical leadership behaviours in a commercial context;

2. That hierarchy and status need not be the only organising basis for developmental activity;

3. That the importance of visible support from senior leaders can't be overstated.
As the first targeted initiative at SKYCITY, initial scepticism gave way to positivity, optimism, and success.

The initiative has seen strong support from the board and the chief executive, Graeme Stephens, with many direct management attending the Te Puea Memorial Marae and graduation day alongside the candidate's whānau and friends.

Off the back of the programme, the senior leadership team are in the middle of a Cultural Capital for Executives programme themselves and have found the graduates inspiring.

One of the graduates, Lenny Andrews, performed a karakia at the start of the company's annual meeting which Walker described as "really powerful".

Andrews has since been promoted to Community Investment and Development Co-ordinator following his graduation from the programme.

The judges collectively felt that the Tahuna Ta Ahi programme "demonstrates the long-game approach, and shows scalability, sustainability, innovation and most importantly that the people they serve are at the heart of their decision making process" and were unanimous in their decision to crown SKYCITY the winner of this year's award.

On hearing that they had been named finalist in the awards, Walker said it's "wonderful recognition for a programme that has achieved powerful results".

Diversity and Inclusion Leadership judges
Bev Cassidy-Mackenzie is Change Champion for Diversity and Inclusion in Aotearoa and the Director of Diversity Consulting Ltd and previously worked as the CEO for Diversity Works NZ.

Agnes Naera is Director of Business, Student & Community Partnerships at AUT University and is heavily present in her belief of inclusion for Māori and Pacific people as well emerging female leaders and young people.

Stephen Town is responsible for leading Auckland Council, ensuring that they build partnerships with a positive culture and began his career in education at the Wanganui Education Board.