Indigenising the Corporation

Jul 7, 2016

Nā Dr Eruera Tarena-Prendergast

Dr Eruera Tarena-Prendergast (Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Porou, Te Whānau-a-Apanui) is the Kaihautū of Te Tapuae o Rehua. In 2015, he completed his PhD through the Department of Marketing, Management and Entrepreneurship at the University of Canterbury. The topic for his thesis was: Indigenous Organisational Design: An analysis of their design, features and the influence of indigenous cultural values. It involved a research project with three indigenous organisations: Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu, Kamehameha Schools Hawai’i and The Sealaska Regional Corporation of Alaska.


Sometimes the greatest learnings come from the places you least expect. In 2013, I spent a couple of weeks with The First Alaskans Institute and was introduced to a group of young indigenous leaders on a freezing cold night in Anchorage. They had come together to form the Native Emerging Leaders Forum to change the world. They spoke in awe of their elders who had achieved the seemingly impossible and settled their land claims in the historic Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act 1971, when they were only in their 20s. They looked at each other across the table and asked of themselves, “What legacy will our generation leave for the future – what mark will we make?” Their settlement separated tribal councils from their commercial and development arms, and imposed corporate structures on the tribes, which were seen as a poor fit with the tribes’ indigenous values. As the night drew to a close, the young leaders concluded that it was their burden to take what they saw as fragmented and imperfect tribal divisions and bring them together, infusing them with cultural values. “The cause of our generation,” they said, “will be to indigenise the tribal corporation and make it our own.”

The journey to our settlement is well-known and widely told, but what of our future? Ko te pae tata kua mau ekari kei hea te pae tawhiti? As we approach the 20th anniversary of the Ngāi Tahu Settlement we will need to ask ourselves, like those young Alaskan Natives, what will be our cause to unite us in the future?

Ngāi Tahu are seen as the ultimate post-settlement success story, but how much of that success is tied to our “corporate structure” and being the “good Māori?” In the eyes of most New Zealanders, our success comes from things we have borrowed from others, rather than from what makes us unique.

For 150 years settling the claim was seen as the tonic for all our ills, but once it was achieved our problems changed rather than disappeared. Our own communities talk of “the corporate” and fear what its “success” could entail. When talking with other iwi and indigenous peoples it becomes clear that many are on the same waka. We feel our own indigenous organisations don’t capture our values or reflect who we are. We worry about the trade-offs we have made, and question whether the institutions we built to lead us out of colonisation are fit for our purposes, or someone else’s.

If the corporate structure is such a problem for many indigenous peoples, then why don’t we change it? What would better suit the needs and cultural values of indigenous communities? Is there a better alternative for the future? With the help of the Ngāi Tahu Research Centre and Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga I worked with three indigenous organisations: Kamehameha Schools Hawai’i, The Sealaska Regional Corporation of Alaska, and Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu to understand what makes an indigenous organisation indigenous. Not surprisingly, and perhaps reassuringly, despite large geographic distances separating us from our Hawaiian and Alaskan cousins, we are not alone in many of the issues we face, and can learn much from what we share, our struggles, and our hopes for the future.

Struggling to balance two worlds

I went overseas to see if I could find a silver bullet – an indigenous model of organisation that could solve all of our problems – but quickly discovered there wasn’t one. Like us, other indigenous communities have discovered that despite their land claims ending, their struggles remain.

The three indigenous organisations represented indigenous minorities who had inherited structures from the dominant Western culture. They shared two key features: 1) a commercial arm to maintain collective wealth for future generations, and 2) a development arm to create social good and maintain collective culture for future generations.

Despite the bad reputation of the corporate model, these structures have been successful in that they have done what they were initially designed to do – to re-establish the economic and political footprint of the indigenous community. In their early phases survival came from fitting into the dominant Western culture, which accepts a corporate structure and gives it mana. These economic successes increased their power and status, but unwittingly resulted in internalising Western cultural values. This collision of cultural values lies at the heart of our current identity crisis – how can indigenous organisations be more indigenous in a dominant Western world?

Even though we are separated by thousands of miles, we share the same problem: how to balance the economic benefits of fitting in with the cultural benefits of being more distinct.

“Conflict is the new normal”

This balancing of two opposing worlds, Western and indigenous, is what makes these indigenous institutions unique … and tense. For most organisations conflict comes from inefficiency. It’s a sign that its structure is out of sync with its environment, thus prompting a restructure – but this isn’t the same for indigenous organisations. Here, tension comes from complexity, trying to balance competing demands and to do everything under the sun all at once. We need to make more money for our mokopuna, we need to save our language, we need to look after our elders, we need to diversify our assets, we need to empower our people, we need to grow the village, we need to save the planet … kaboom! We hit strategic overload!

Saving a language, revitalising a culture, restoring cultural ecosystems … these are not simple technical problems with known fixes; these are large messy adaptive problems that require time, learning, and experimentation. Conflict for indigenous organisations is inevitable, as it comes from the complexity of their conflicting missions. The question then becomes: how can an indigenous organisation respond? Tackled in the right way, conflict can become a source of learning, helping the organisation to better fit its changing environment and thrive. Ignored, conflict becomes a toxin that can destabilise and paralyse growth.

Regardless, conflict and change aren’t going away, and for indigenous organisations to thrive, they must learn how to master both.

Generations of cultural loss and a lack of cultural confidence can make it harder for communities to articulate how cultural values could be incorporated into the organisation. This confusion and tension often results in staff defaulting to business-as-usual, or Western ways of doing things. In my findings, both indigenous and non-indigenous staff feared Western structures and practices could contribute to cultural assimilation, and the only way to counter these cultural forces is to develop “tribal best practice”.

Tribal best practice

Dr Ann Milne (Pākehā), principal of Kia Aroha College, likened New Zealand schools to a child’s colouring book in her thesis titled Colouring in the White Spaces. We think of the page as blank, but it’s not blank: it’s white – we just don’t see it as it’s “the norm”. In a similar way, organisations are seen as culturally neutral because they are “normal”. When indigenous peoples inherit a corporate structure, it’s presumed they, too, are culture-free but they’re not blank, they’re white. Like the child’s colouring book, there are already lines that dictate the pre-determined boundaries where the colour can go. To move beyond those pre-determined boundaries requires one to first challenge the powerful and taken for granted Western assumptions about what is “normal”.

Indigenous peoples continue to struggle to colour in the white spaces, even in their own organisations. These institutions become a space where cultural values collide, creating tension and stress for both indigenous and non-indigenous staff. Generations of cultural loss and a lack of cultural confidence can make it harder for communities to articulate how cultural values could be incorporated into the organisation. This confusion and tension often results in staff defaulting to business-as-usual, or Western ways of doing things. In my findings, both indigenous and non-indigenous staff feared Western structures and practices could contribute to cultural assimilation, and the only way to counter these cultural forces is to develop “tribal best practice”. It is clear that the next evolution for all of these indigenous organisations is a cultural one.

Structure is a scapegoat

Although it’s easy to point the finger at the “evil” corporate structure, in reality the structure is the scapegoat for much deeper problems. Structure is a source of tension, but it is also a symptom of the wider struggles its indigenous community faces.

Take for instance the prickly subject of “employing our own”. Despite these indigenous organisations having clear aspirations to develop their own people, many indigenous staff feel disadvantaged by being indigenous. Despite recruitment policies ranging from “best person for the job” to “tribal preference strategies”, the results were largely the same as barriers ran deep. Indigenous communities have experienced generations of loss, and were not at the same starting point as others. Communities are frustrated at policies treating people equally, as they feel they aren’t equal and are thereby disadvantaged. Although blame is laid with hiring policies and corporate structures, these are historical issues. Colonisation didn’t go away post-settlement, and the reality is that these deep and complex issues won’t be resolved by structure alone.

When asked whether they believed the indigenous organisation is still impacted by colonisation and assimilation, every participant, indigenous and non-indigenous, answered with a resounding ‘yes’. Part of what makes indigenous organisations so conflicted is that we are still so conflicted. Issues of race, power, and colonisation still exist in our society and impact indigenous organisations on a daily basis. To thrive we need to be bold and create a space for dialogue where issues of decolonisation can be diagnosed and resolved, rather than ignored.

“Seeing the island”

The phrase “seeing the island” was used often by the Hawaiians to describe a destination they had yet to reach. Our navigator ancestors had to picture their island destination in their mind before setting sail. In a similar vein, we too need to “see the island”, in the sense that we have to embark on a journey without fully knowing what it will entail. All three communities are clear that their next destination is the indigenisation of their organisation to make it their own, but lesser known is the how.

A waka cannot change the winds, but it can change its sails to match. Part of the challenge for inter-generational organisations is that you cannot predict the future. None of the early leaders could have predicted their economic successes would create an identity crisis, decades later. Similarly, although we can’t fully predict the crises of the future, regardless, we know we will have to adapt.

The challenges facing indigenous peoples are complicated and evolving. To survive, they need to learn and adapt fast enough to keep pace with change, rather than become victims of it. A key solution is the concept of growing teams of problem solvers, and creating a culture of innovation and learning, to help the organisation ride the waves of change. This way, no matter what change is encountered, the indigenous community can always adapt and thrive.

These waves of change aren’t just external changes. Younger generations were generally more frustrated at the slow pace of change and had much higher cultural expectations of the organisation. Many elders presumed younger generations were aiming for the same “island”, but then realised their definitions of culture and success were quite different. Such generational differences can only be resolved through conversation, listening, and learning, not structure.

Silver buckshot

Although the study did not discover any magical silver bullet to solve the problems of these indigenous communities, it did help identify some silver buckshot to help. The mission and circumstances of indigenous organisations are unique and complex. Importing solutions from elsewhere will always create problems, as these solutions will not reflect the cultural context, challenges, and unique values of the community. These indigenous organisations have their origins in social justice movements, and adopting corporate structures has caused some chaos. However, the deeper issues of colonisation cannot be addressed by structural changes alone. The struggle for indigenous empowerment does not end at the settlement of land claims, the playing field just changes. As easy as it is to blame the corporate structure, we ourselves run the risk of not diagnosing the deeper issues that remain unsolved. Issues of race, power, and colonisation remain in our communities, and as such are dragged into our institutions. To decolonise our own institutions, indigenous communities must first free themselves to be brave enough – to shed ourselves of the “known” ways of doing things and courageously back ourselves, our people, and our values so we can forge our own path to a future of our making.

He Whakaaro
Neil Hannahs, Kamehameha Schools

TK70-neil-hannahsNeil Hannahs spent 41 years of service working with the Kamehameha Schools. He left recently to launch Ho’okele Strategies LLC, a consulting enterprise serving as an intermediary in developing and connecting inspiring social entrepreneurs with exceptional mentors and aligned impact investment capital.

From 2000 to 2015, he directed the Land Assets Division of Kamehameha Schools and was responsible for a portfolio of 358,000 acres of agriculture and conservation lands in Hawai’i and also founded the First Nations Futures Program and Hawai’i Investment Ready Program.

Neil is a graduate of Kamehameha Schools and has a BA and MA from Stanford University. He is active in community affairs, having just begun a four-year term on the State of Hawai’i Commission on Water Resources Management.

The fiduciary duty to preserve trust or corporate assets dominates the white space of corporate governance and creates a bias towards management over leadership … towards resource protection over mission fulfillment.

The native corporations of this study relied on experienced management to grow their balance sheets and success in generating material wealth reinforced their position. It seems fitting to reward good performance and demand even stronger managers as the corporations now have more to lose.

The best of these leaders excel at execution. They are accountable decision-makers, skilled at gathering evidence, analysing options, defining outcomes, building teams and charging down the field until the goal line is crossed.

Such managers prosper in a context where there is a clear line of sight to the target and they can draw upon proven strategies that offer the certainty of incremental progress. But these conditions seldom exist in an environment which has historically abused our culture and undermined our wellbeing.

Indigenous people around the globe exist in a milieu in which the wake of colonisation continues to engulf corporate cultures and governance practices. Our settlements and royal legacies restore some of the vessels and resources needed to perpetuate our identity and continue our journey. But if we are content to drift in the current of dominant business, have we truly altered the course of our destiny?

Ancestral wisdom anticipated the need for self-direction. E tū i ta hoe uli! Seize the steering paddle! Press it to the side and steer clear of the forces that threaten our existence. It is a clarion call to question paradigms, resurrect traditional wisdom and adapt.

Even in situations where corporations shackle themselves to unsustainable practices or fail to heed the signs of a cresting economic cycle, like lemmings marching to a perilous fate they look suspiciously upon those who break ranks. Outliers bear a burden of proof that their contrarian behaviour, innovation and risk taking come with an ironclad guarantee.

If a short-sighted view of fiduciary duty inhibits us from investing precious assets in strategies which have never been tried, how will we ever achieve game-changing advancement? Are we bold enough to venture outside the lines or even off the edge of the corporations’ “colouring book?”

Revival of our voyaging traditions has demonstrated a need for captains and wayfinders. We are blessed with good captains who can follow a sail plan. But, if we are to venture beyond the horizon, we must cultivate and engage more wayfinding leaders who are capable of envisioning that which are eyes cannot discern, who inspire us to journey to the islands of opportunity that we must raise from the moana, who possess the courage to commit to what our ancestors and intuition tell us to be true.