Arihia Bennett

CEO, Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu
Arts and Social work, 1988

Arihia Bennett

Working With People. Leading With Heart.

Arihia Bennett has been CEO of Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu since 2012. In her role she leads a large team of staff who are committed to improving the lives of 58,000 iwi members. Arihia reports to a board of 18.  Highly respected as a leader, it was Arihia’s background in social work that paved the way for success in such a relationship-based role. “Whether you’re working with children, families, staff or other companies, the essence of what you’re doing is growing people’s sense of self-determination.”

Tell us about your role as CEO of Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu.

Ngāi Tahu has over 58,000 tribal members, so it's very much a case of interpreting and implementing the aspirations of a mini nation. As CEO, my role is to head the corporate side of the organisation and report on progress to our Board of 18 tribal representatives. The key requirements of my job are to take the Board’s vision, create a strategic plan and work with the rest of the team to develop and implement programs that will deliver on the strategy.

What would you like to achieve as CEO?

It’s important to set achievable goals as well as stretch goals and it’s important to acknowledge that I am not working alone. My goals are very much recognition of a collective effort to assist our families and communities to achieve wellbeing and a sense of self-determination. Every family wants to take care of their own health, have a home, have a great job and contribute to the community. It’s my mission to work with the team to enable families to reach those goals through the creation of the right partnership opportunities and provision of the right levels of support.

It sounds like a very people-focused organisation.

People are very much at the forefront of everything we do. The most unique thing about Ngāi Tahu is our sense of identity. It’s about knowing your language, your heritage, stories of your tupuna, your connections and your stewardship responsibilities. Our proverb is “Mō tātou, ā, mō kā uri ā muri ake nei”, meaning “For us and our children after us”.

Obviously ongoing success from a commercial perspective is important, because it enables us to invest in the future of people and in the development of opportunities that contribute towards meeting our strategic goals and to build on that sense of being uniquely Ngāi Tahu.

What was your pathway to CEO from UC?

I’ve always been passionate about working with people. After high school I was working at a residential school for girls. At age 25 I got a scholarship to UC where I studied social work. After graduating I worked as a practitioner, educator, trainer and manager before eventually taking on my first CEO role. I'm still a social worker at heart.

A lot of people say to me, ‘how did you get into your job’? I took small incremental steps that enabled me to commit to my passion of working with people. My current role as CEO, is an extension of that commitment – just on a larger scale!

How do social work and organisational leadership overlap?

Social work isn’t about doing stuff for people, it's about building relationships and being in a privileged position where you can offer ideas and support that can enable others to see the things they can do for themselves. Being a Chief Executive is no different really. You can't do everything. You've got to have great people around you that you can coach and guide. You also need to be gritty when required, it’s important to be able to step back and work with a clear head if you’re going to bring about change.

What do you think are the characteristics of a good CEO?

There are lots of studies around the characteristics of a good CEO and I've done a number of courses and ‘boot camps’ where information on great CEOs has been shared. You do tend to find people who have a highly competitive edge end up in CEO roles but, essentially what you need is a passion for people and relationships, a hunger to succeed and a sense of self-determination.

Do you think your time at UC made a difference to where you are today?

I purposefully chose to go to university because I needed to build an academic foundation to support my existing practical knowledge and expertise. Starting university at age 25 was right for me. I could look at the academic models and make sense of them in the context of the work experience I already had. There was a good mix of the practical and the academic at UC. I don’t think I could have got that mix anywhere else. And, as you can see, that mix has been important in my career.

Any favourite memories from your uni days?

I have lots of great memories of the Student Union building, and there were many group sessions in the Café and the library. I made lifelong friends at UC who I keep in touch with today.

As a student, did you ever think you’d be where you are now?

No, I didn't! It's been a natural journey for me, but I still kick myself sometimes! I have a friend who’s a Chief Executive of another organisation. We were chatting the other day and she said, ‘Did you ever think we'd be doing this sort of thing?’ Looking back, I should have come to this role a lot earlier. I already knew all the fundamentals. Whether you’re working with children, families, staff or other companies, the essence of what you’re doing is growing people’s sense of self-determination.

What's the most important piece of advice you you’d give to young people today?

Don't hold yourself back with doubt. If you have doubt, challenge yourself and seek coaches and mentors who can help you through it. You are your own pathway to your own destiny. Believe in yourself, follow your intuition, and don't waste time!