Aileen Lawrie is the Chief Executive of Opōtiki District Council. Aileen has taken a pragmatic and highly practical approach to leading Council through the unique challenges faced by District councils, growing as a leader in an evolving career.
When I look back over my time in local government, I’ve come a long way. But it’s been less about a journey and more about taking steps. I’ve never had a career plan or a direction, I’ve just done what I enjoy doing and taken steps in the direction where I could add value.
I’m from a local government family and this has shaped my knowledge and thinking about the sector. My father was on the Marlborough Catchment Board so all the politics of the late 1980s played out in our lounge. At university, my Masters thesis was on ancient sea levels on the Banks Peninsula on the east coast of the South Island. I then took on an entry-level planning role at Canterbury Regional Council (now Environment Canterbury), progressing to the consents team. My next role was with Bay of Plenty Regional Council as consents officer, senior coastal planner, then as the executive officer to the chief executive then regulatory manager.
I learnt a lot there and was well supported and mentored. My chief executive paved the way for women leaders. I was 39 when I became a chief executive and learnt how to be a chief executive on the job.
The standout successes in Aileen’s career have from long-term projects and making the financially impossible possible – and relationships have been at the heart of these successes.
I’m driven to provide employment and improve outcomes for my community.
I’ve been working on a major Opōtiki Harbour project for the past decade, and this has been an important focus of my career. Part of the project has been about building an infrastructure to enable the aquaculture industry to flourish in the Bay of Plenty. The project has been developed in partnership with Whakatōhea, eastern Bay of Plenty iwi. My focus has been on securing funding. In 2013, we secured NZ$20 million from the Bay of Plenty Regional Council, and we’re on track for another NZ$80 million from central government. This is amazing achievement for our district, which is one of the most deprived in the country with poor social statistics.
Another great success for me has been finding a cost effective and fit-for-purpose outcome for Opōtiki’s wastewater system. It may seem uninteresting, but with limited resources, contracting engineers and expensive new systems aren’t financially viable. Again, I was able to draw on external technical expertise to work with councillors to ask the right governance questions and understand the options. This has resulted in a rehabilitated system that has come in under budget.
For me, building partnerships is the key to getting things done. We have a great relationship with iwi, and this is a key theme of my work. This isn’t about MOUs or procedures - it’s about true relationships; chair to mayor, chief executive to chief executive, kaimahi to kaimahi (staff member to staff member). It’s about picking up the phone and getting things done. It’s a person to person relationship.
A recurring theme in rural District councils, maintaining the financial sustainability of the organisation can also put the council on the back-foot when seeking talent. Attracting and managing this pool of expertise has been a challenge, but creative management and co-operation have been key to overcoming these issues.
The Opōtiki district has the shallowest rate payer pockets in the country and this has been a major challenge. I’ve had to be creative. We often share services and draw on expertise from other councils.
With the harbour project, I established a grant funded external project team, recruiting highly skilled people from around the country. This team share my vision for the project and help to keep it moving. This means that my internal team can focus on the day-to-day business of the council. Recruitment is challenging though. I’ve grown a management team and, while I’ve been able to attract competent people, I can’t compete with the salaries of larger councils. The benefit of this is that you get people committed to the job, not the salary!
Being in provincial New Zealand has its challenges. It’s not easy to connect to the capital. We’re a smaller council and I deal with a lot of operational issues, so it’s not easy to spend time away from the office.
Organisational culture is often spoken about, but Aileen delves into how this is practically applied in Council.
Culture is driven through elected members and through the management team. We’re always thinking about what’s in the best interest to the community. Sometimes this puts us in conflict with the regional level government, and sometimes with central government.
I don’t overtly work on culture. For me it’s not about vision statements. I, along with my management team, have just gone about changing the culture and just done it. We’ve talked about how we want the organisation to be and demonstrated the way. I talk about what the future holds and ask them to see how they fit and where they see themselves. They all have ownership and buy-in to improving the circumstances of the district.
We have the most fantastic team and when I sit down and talk to them, they know that the town and the district has challenges and they know that they can add value and help.
Councils, big and small, are complex organisations unlike many in the private sector. This has proven a particularly challenging juggling act where a leader must wear several hats.
We operate in a complex environment. We have 42 activities in our long-term plan, so we’re not a single purpose business. We’re more like 42 separate businesses glued together with different purposes, funding regimes and drivers. There are completing interests from central government, regional government, and local opinions.
So what leadership traits are most important in this environment? Aileen explains, with some advice for the next generation of aspiring local government leaders.
The most important leadership trait to me is balance. You can be visionary and create large pictures of what’s going to happen, but unless you’re going to do the management and delivery you will lose people. For me, it’s about linking, connecting and holding stuff together. There’s a lot of management in making things happen. You can go on leadership courses and learn about leadership theory, but there is a lot of hard work around dotting i’s and crossing t’s.
I would advise aspiring leaders to do what you like doing and do it well. Do the job for the sake of doing the job, not for the title and the status. It’s about getting the work done. Doing the mahi and serving the community.