Building a Better Understanding

By Reg Birchfield, Management Magazine, January 2016

Business New Zealand’s chief executive Phil O’Reilly is stepping down and launching a public policy advisory firm to help leaders to connect with, and understand, the process of developing public policy. He also wants bureaucrats involved in shaping public policy to have a better understanding of what organisational leaders want, and need.

The 11 year reign of Business New Zealand’s chief executive Phil O’Reilly ends in December. He will re-emerge in January when he launches Iron Duke Partners, a Wellington-based public policy advisory firm.

O’Reilly’s path to the top of BusinessNZ included a three year stint as industrial advocate for the Auckland Employers’ Association; 10 years as the executive director of the Newspaper Publishers’ Association and heading up Westpac Bank’s employment policy and communication team in Sydney. He returned to New Zealand in 2004 to take up his current job.

O’Reilly will, all things being equal, retain his current international posts as chairman of the board of the Business and Industry Advisory Committee to the OECD and his membership of the governing body of the International Labour Organisation until the middle of 2017.

He hopes to gather more global work and leadership roles. “Nothing’s been formalised yet but I’m sure something will emerge,” he says. He also expects to pick up some New Zealand-based consulting assignments and directorships.

“My primary aim is to better connect people and business with how Wellington works. Surprisingly few organisations really understand how law and policy gets made,” he adds. And because too few really senior leaders understand the process they pass the work off to lobbyists or to someone else in the organisation. “I want to close that gap.”

That doesn’t mean becoming a lobbyist, says O’Reilly. “I want to help leaders in general to connect with, and understand, the process of developing public policy.” He also wants bureaucrats involved in shaping public policy to have a better understanding of what organisational leaders want and need from public policy.

“Both sides of the process, public and private sectors, need a better understanding of each other and how they work.”

So what’s happened that makes the Iron Duke opportunity seem workable and relevant?

“Policy making in New Zealand has become more complex because our problems are increasingly more complex,” he says.

“It’s no longer possible, if indeed it ever was, to resolve issues by sitting down with a government agency in Wellington. Resolving complex issues, such as dealing with child poverty as one example, requires dealing with multiple agencies over extended periods and having richer conversations about the issues.”

Leaders can’t engage effectively, according to O’Reilly, if they’re unfamiliar with how the other parties work. “And governments can’t solve complex issues on their own. They need the private sector and other non-government organisations to be more fully and effectively engaged to tackle today’s big issues,” he adds.

This confluence of need presents O’Reilly with, he says, an opportunity to provide a more “sophisticated translation” and bringing together of essential and complex conversations.

“That’s not lobbying, though there may be a bit of that in it. It’s certainly not what I have in mind. It’s not about persuading politicians or officials to do something. It’s about engaging with them, building capacity to engage and then having the right conversations through the right structures to enable people to come to the right conclusions and get things done over and over again. The process needs to become just a part of what we do around here.”

Notwithstanding his reservations of the way in which public policy is formulated and enacted in New Zealand O’Reilly is, he says, stepping down from his BusinessNZ leadership role in surprisingly good heart.

“New Zealand businesses and leadership have improved remarkably in the past 10 years. When I started this job the big debates were around the value of the New Zealand dollar and compliance costs. Now we’re debating our relationship with China, how to tackle high value manufacturing and the economic and social role of the internet community.”

BusinessNZ has taught O’Reilly the value of listening and of being positive and constructive when dealing with groups.

“The more open and positive I’ve been with people, the more they come back for more conversations. The approach seems to speak to the New Zealand psyche,” he adds.

“In the New Zealand context engaging constructively is better than adopting a destructive and more confrontational style. The conversations can still be forthright and energetic but, using words that take people along with you works for me.

It’s an approach O’Reilly thinks will work when he lets the Iron Duke loose.