Louise Miller is the Chief Executive at Kaipara District Council. Despite a career history in and around the public sector, local government in New Zealand is a sphere Louise fell into quite unexpectedly, but she has since gone on to instigate positive change over the last decade.
I became a chief executive accidentally - it was never a career choice. Most of my career has been outside local government in a real variety of largely public sector organisations and consultancies in the UK. I didn’t come to local government until 2009. When I think about my career, I couldn’t tell you how I got here. Opportunities have presented themselves and they just felt exciting to me, and a little bit scary sometimes. I’ve always thought, “What’s the worst that can happen? This might work. Let’s give it a go.”
I ended up in New Zealand after I was approached in the UK by a recruiter for Tauranga City Council and it happened to be at the right stage of my life where I was ready to do something different. I didn’t think about coming to New Zealand before that. I’ve ended up here because opportunities have presented themselves and I’ve grabbed them. My role at Tauranga was General Manager, Community Services.
I came to Tauranga at a time when the well-beings were no longer a compulsory part of the local government remit. My idea about community and community engagement and the role of a local authority was quite different to my experiences from the UK. However, at Tauranga, I was lucky to work with a chief executive and council which supported the establishment of a community development team. My team covered libraries, theatre, customer services, ICT, community development and cultural heritage. I was able to really think about how those services together could improve what we offered to our community.
A theme across all my roles – from those in consultancies to utilities and the police - has been organisational development, culture, business process improvement and a lot of work around the European quality management model. It’s always been in a corporate space, driving improvement and change.
Inheriting a council with a difficult past has been a proving ground for Louise, and a challenge she has relished in her leadership journey.
I’ve been at Kaipara District Council now for around a year and I absolutely love it. I chose Kaipara over other roles because my passion is helping organisations get back on their feet.
Kaipara was in a tough place. The council had previously been under commissioners and I was the fourth chief executive in a short period of time. The staff and the community had been through a constant state of change, and that’s what appealed to me about coming here. The commissioners had come into the organisation with the key focus of driving down debt. The community felt let down by the previous Council and staff didn’t feel proud of where they worked. Their passion for making a difference in people’s lives had stayed the same but the environment they were trying to do this had shifted significantly.
My first year in the job has been to establish some stability, building trust and confidence in the staff and in the community. Internally, we’ve created a set of values, a culture, and given some clear direction about how we’re going to work with our community. And we’ve involved staff in the process. We’ve initiated development and training for leaders and been far more present in our community.
Externally, we’ve had difficult conversations that we had shied away from in the past. I’ve spent a lot of time in the community meeting people and going to community meetings where things weren’t necessarily going to be well-received. But we fronted up, listened, and set some expectations. I often talk to my organisation about changing perceptions of us, one conversation at a time. It’s hard yards, but we do have to listen and be honest, and then we have to deliver. And that’s what it’s all about.
This knack for stakeholder engagement came to Louise on the back of a history of challenging positions where a particular level of sensitivity in communication has been paramount.
Things can happen in a career that set you up for the future. In the UK, I worked for the Audit Commission undertaking financial and performance assessments of local authorities and giving them a rating. It’s a stressful process for an organisation, and no council wants a poor rating. The conversations were challenging. Some knew they were in trouble and they just wanted help, but others didn’t take kindly to the messages. So it was about trying to find a way to give the message in such a way that it would be heard but that it would still feel like a positive experience. I had to establish trust in a short period of time. I just had to listen, understand, and be really honest.
Drawing from past experience along her leadership journey has provided a pool of learnings for Louise to bring to her current work to deliver successes to her council.
I worked in local government in the UK during a period of austerity, and was required to make tough decisions around reducing important services. Rather than slicing, we thought carefully about how we might do things differently: we partnered with the voluntary sector to continue to deliver our meals on wheels aged care meal delivery service. Instead of stopping the service and disadvantaging an already vulnerable community, we were able to partner, make a saving, and continue to provide a service to the community. The key is being able to look at things differently.
At Kaipara, we have been able to secure some significant funding from the Provincial Growth Fund this year to strengthen transport infrastructure and food and horticulture sector. This is something that I’m really proud of, but now we have to deliver. We’re working hard on that, and making sure the community understands what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and what will be different.
Relationship-building has been key to these successes, and something that she sees as integral to the future plans of the council and community she serves.
Relationships and partnerships are important. The UK went through a painful process of diversity and inclusion many years ago and, in my experience, diversity was valued and seen as an important part of enhancing communities.
The future of our economy working with the strengthening Māori economy. That will be New Zealand’s powerhouse in the next 10 to 15 years. It needs to be nurtured. Working together with iwi and hapu to share knowledge and resources and build really strong relationships will be of benefit to everyone. Our relationship with iwi runs deeper than any partnership. It’s about devoting time and being present, listening, being open, and understanding the depth of feeling and where it comes from. A relationship requires maturity to be successful.
Louise has developed as a leader by pursuing opportunities that have pushed her into new and unknown territory; pursuing challenges that some may see as intimidating but that she rather saw as “exciting.” It has been this pursuit alongside a consistent strive for organisational betterment that has made Louise the leader she is today.
I don’t wake up each day and think, I’m a chief executive. It doesn’t matter what your job title is, I’m just doing a job and I’m no more important than anyone in my team. We’re all here to make a difference to our community. It’s a case of being of not having a fixed mindset.
I know I’m most rewarded and successful in roles where I’m being asked to think differently and have challenged people to think differently. It’s about picking up something that’s not going as well as it could and trying to build on that. When you know what you’re passionate about and what you enjoy, you’ll have fun.
It’s important to have a good team around you. It’s really rewarding to see the potential in someone, particularly if they don’t see it in themselves. There’s nothing more rewarding than giving someone a step up because someone once saw that in you - to be a small part of someone else’s journey is just great.
And as for newcomers to local government or those aspiring to be the next generation of council leadership:
You can’t be good at everything and that’s okay. It’s about having the confidence to acknowledge that and not feeling threatened by having people around you that are. There are vast opportunities in the local government sector. You can have a career that constantly changes and you can try different things. It’s a creative place of opportunity. Don’t turn an opportunity down, even if you think you can’t do it. Try everything, then you’ll find you groove.