Working with iwi – with John Blyth

John Blyth is the Māori  Business Advisory Lead for Beca, helping them to take the next steps in building iwi relationships and collaboration. We spoke to John about his role and how Beca aims to enhance their partnerships with iwi. 

John Blyth

John, what's your background? 

I'm actually a graduate geologist, but I haven't ever worked in the industry. However, through geology and mapping, I was able to move into spatial technology and GIS, which is where I spent the first half of my working life. I worked for local government in Auckland (Manukau City Council) and the Christchurch City Council up until about a decade ago when I joined Beca as a project manager. That led to our Southern Environmental Business Managers role for about five years, through to the new Māori Business Leader position earlier this year.   

What led Beca to create your current role? 

I think it was a combination of lots of things. There's a lot of organisational support and the general desire for all of us to create this focus. Perhaps my passion and persistence helped a bit too! Beca is a 100 per cent New Zealand born and bred company, and we have just entered our second century as an entity. I believe moving into our second century is the ideal time to look seriously at the next steps we should be taking to enhance all of our partnerships and relationships. Beca has recognised that a crucial part of building relationships that will endure throughout our second century is how we engage with iwi in partnership decision-making shaping Aotearoa. So I believe the timing was right for the creation of this role. 

Earlier in your life, you embarked on a whakapapa journey. What did that teach you?  

I am Te Āti Haunui a Pāpārangi from Whanganui through my dad's side of the family. My grandmother on my dad's side is our whakapapa link while my grandad is pākehā. We grew up in a farming environment, which was inherently pākehā, but with a strong connection to Whenua. I regularly say I am from the Whenua, from the land and have a deep-seated passion and connection to where I grew up and to mountains, rivers, and lakes. I came to learn that these are our Tipuna and they bind us through whakapapa and for me that's important.  

Learning about this aspect of me as a person is a life-long thing, and I am always learning through whakapapa the things that are important to being Māori. I am equally as proud of being Māori as I am of being Pākehā too and I am one of an emerging bunch of folk that are starting to consider that the land and our history here in Aotearoa shapes who we are as individuals and as people. I think the learnings I have had so far suggest to me that its important to drive outcomes for Māori as a means to balance past histories but to push forward embracing Te Ao Māori as it's at the heart of our uniqueness. 

What are the critical elements of your new role? 

While our collective relationships with iwi, hapū and other Māori business entities are strong, and we have a good history of experience, we are really at ground zero with this role. The role is split into two with 50 per cent looking internally at our competence and driving an uplift in cultural competence and resulting confidence. It involves the development of training frameworks which will result in knowledge improvement for our staff and the way we engage with iwi. The second part is consulting with clients that are on similar journeys to us. It includes our iwi partners and non-iwi clients who are driving their own projects. My role in this process is to help lead, develop and deliver iwi engagement projects for these businesses. 

You are currently developing a three-year strategy for the role. What are the critical steps?' 

There are two things.  

Our strategy is underpinned by competence and confidence. Engagement with iwi can be overwhelming for those who are not involved in this type of communication on a day-to-day basis. Within Beca, not everyone is engaged in the interaction with iwi, but there are centres of excellence that are well versed in the process. 

My role is to demonstrate that engagement with iwi isn't that much different to dealing with any other community group in terms of a real partnership in decision making. It's a matter of growing confidence through increasing your knowledge of how to work with iwi effectively and respectfully.  

Beca is proud of the relationships that we have built and maintained over many years. As a company, I believe we are a step ahead of some other businesses in the way we engage with various community groups. It's where the second part of the strategy comes in. We must acknowledge there are some things we don't know, and by growing our knowledge in these areas, particularly with iwi groups, we can bring a greater understanding and confidence in our partnerships. 

Are there any fundamental differences between dealing with iwi and other community groups?  

It's a question that I get asked regularly. I think the main thing that we must understand is that an iwi business operates under a collective outcome and collective decision-making processes, as opposed to an individual point solution process for most other organisations 

To work effectively with iwi, you have to develop an understanding of the nuances of the collective, including the acknowledgement of joint decision-making process. Once you come to grips with the elements of a process, you realise the value of partnership engagement. If we challenge ourselves to think about and consider what partnership means under the Treaty, then some of the perceptions of timeframes and decision-making begin to evaporate. I'm aware that I've jumped over several other aspects both from Te Ao Māori and Te Ao Pākehā perspectives in this statement, but a partnership is an excellent place to start.  

Connect with John Blyth on LinkedIn