Big Interview: Warner Cowin – part one.

For this month’s Big Interview, Mimi O’Callaghan from the Diversity Agenda chats with Height Project Management Chief Executive, Warner Cowin. In part one, we discuss his experience as a young engineer, why Māori outcomes are good for everyone, and the importance of applying Te Tiriti o Waitangi in firms and projects.

First up, what was your experience as a young Māori engineer entering the profession and what challenges did you encounter?

I started at the University of Auckland in the early ’90s. I suppose when you’re young you don’t see colour. It wasn’t until I went to university that I realised how little Māori or Pasifika people there were studying to be engineers. It was quite startling and we kind of clustered as a group. We had people from Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, and the Māori guys and girls. But in fact, there weren’t too many women either.

Among us were some strong leaders who were the catalyst for starting the group South Pacific Indigenous Engineering Students (SPIES), guys like Tyrone Newson and Ray Te Whiu who were the anchors and leaders that seeded us. Back then it was a student-led, University of Auckland association to provide a cluster for mutual support of Māori and Pasifika engineering students and increase awareness of engineering in Māori and Pasifika communities. It was a small group, no more than 20 to 30 – I think that was probably the total amount of Māori and Pasifika studying engineering at the time. 

When I graduated from University and joined the Air Force as an Engineering Officer in the ‘90s this observation was even more startling. Within the officer fraternity, within the military, particularly in the Air Force, there were very few Māori officers. The organisation had around 3000 people, of which roughly 600 were officers of various ranks, I would say at that time less than 20 were Māori. This is when it became obvious to me I was slightly different, because when you’re growing up you only see outwards, you don’t see yourself.

The reason I knew that we were short on numbers is that any Māori officer who was on a base and a junior officer became iwi liaison officer – irrespective of your capability in tikanga or te reo Māori. Ironically, this was where I learned a lot of my tikanga and te reo Māori. I was forced to up-skill to have the confidence to engage with local iwi.

The Air Force has been on an amazing journey. I see some positive changes, particularly around Māori. There’s also a wide acceptance of people from LGBTQ+ communities. So we’ve seen a real evolution of diversity within the Air Force, but also our wider military services.

Were there challenges that came with being one of so few Māori?

Yes and no. The more you learn about who you are, you realise the importance of your culture and where you come from. I’m part Māori and I’ve got a strong European side. I’m blessed to have both and I don’t see one dominating the other. In terms of challenges, if I talk recent history, I’ve become experienced to understand what mana whenua and iwi organisations expect out of what we do in terms of the construction activities we deliver.

I suppose I’ve become more aware of the challenges we face in our community and in the way we deliver these projects. For example, we talk about really partnering with iwi but actually what does that mean? In a lot of cases, we see it with large construction projects – we do a powhiri, we cut the ribbon, and we bless the site and we think “we’ve done it – we’ve ticked it!” But actually, what does it really mean?

We’re having discussions now with some of our clients and some of the larger construction projects around truly partnering with mana whenua and iwi organisations to help generate opportunities for young Māori; to get trades or apprenticeship opportunities through the prime contracts; to be really integrated into the design process; and to even sit on the governance in some of these project boards.

It’s a significant step. People might argue, why would you do that? There’s an obligation of the treaty to do that. If you look at some of the organisations like Kainga Ora, there’s very strong legislative requirement to engage and partner with iwi and mana whenua. There’s a real legal requirement.

However put simply It is also really sensible for business. Some of the larger projects that we’ve worked on have had costly delays due to poor stakeholder engagement or consultation with mana whenua, or through poor design decision that have resulted in rework. If we could get through good consultation or even an improvement to the Programme, there’s a cost saver aspect to it as well. So there’s legislative and there’s the cost saving aspect. But outcomes for Māori are good for everybody – they’re good for women and they’re good for the whole community.

Your comment “If we get Māori outcomes right, its good for everyone” really stuck out for me during the Māori in construction webinar.

I think what’s fascinating is engineering is very simple. The engineering side of things will always work out – because it relies on fact and science. The real challenge with any type of engineering is when you add people, it gets complex. Having a group of the same type of people that have a certain bias or perception on things, creates real difficulty when you start to interface and communicate with the wider diverse community we live in. That’s where the problems really start because your ability to communicate and empathise falls away quite quickly.

Are you able to provide more detail on why Māori outcomes are good for everyone?

I think Māori outcomes are quite unifying. If I give you an example, we’ve just been working with a client – a large Government agency with big infrastructure spend. At the moment they’re going through some particular challenges around the re-organisation of their business in terms of amalgamations etc. And we’ve been working closely with the Māori outcomes teams, so through the physical works they generate, we’ve been looking at how do we create Māori outcomes?

What’s been fascinating is once we defined these outcomes and applied them to the projects the client was working on, we quickly realised within this fragmented organisation these outcomes were unifying across the people that were looking at sustainability. They were also unifying for the people looking at apprenticeships and job generation, the people running community and stakeholder engagement, and people that were looking for innovative design. We were able to use Māori outcomes as a unifier. It highlighted the fact that if we get these Māori outcomes right, everyone benefits. The core premise of manaakitanga – look after your neighbours, be a generous host. Now Māori all have a different view of what that means but the core premises are the same. So, I think it can be a real unifier.

What sometimes stops it, is that there’s a little bit of ignorance around the understanding. I think there’s a natural fear, particularly if you’ve never been part of the Māori world, to understand what it means. It can be a little bit scary. As Māori, we also have a responsibility. We can’t expect people to just get us. We have to bring our colleagues on the journey and to educate them.

Did you find it a challenge to become a chief executive, given the low number of Māori that hold this position currently?

I suppose it goes back to self-confidence. I never felt that I was was at a disadvantage. What I’ve realised as I got older is that being Māori is a significant advantage to me in terms of my perspective on things – as a CE and the leader of our team, diversity is really important to me.

From decisions around selections of our advisory board – our chair is a very smart woman by the name of Vesta Gribben who is accomplished business woman, respected in the contracting market and happens to be part-Tongan, an accountant and not an engineer. If I wanted affirmation bias in our decision making, not true challenge in our thinking and governance, I would have looked for another middle aged engineer like me.  Yes, competency plays a part but you need to ensure they’re the right team fit. For example, we’ve got an amazing project manager who comes from a creative dance background and she’s writing engineering reviews.

Do I have particular challenges? Every day, but I think I’ve had this self-confidence and belief in who I was to think I’d make a successful CE and a great team and supportive network to help me make the right decisions.

My wife Liz and I are the founders of this business and we’ve grown and scaled for over seven and a half years with the support and leadership of our amazing team, in particular my right hand leads Kel McBeath and Melanie Llewelyn.

I believe that being Māori (and also European), having a very diverse team and having a different perspective has been key. The last thing we need is affirmation bias on decisions. You have an affirmation of bias if everyone’s the same. So the trick with that as a leader is creating an environment where diversity is valued. That’s the trick. That’s good leadership I think.

If we talk about the Māori in construction webinar you participated in as a panellist, there were some interesting points made by all the amazing panellists. One, in particular, was around having Māori role models for young Māori to look up to. Was there anything you wanted to add to that?

If I look at the younger guys on the panel – Lincoln and Troy – I see the way they articulate themselves and the confidence they bring. Particularly Troy and Chantelle, the way they promote Māori in engineering and showing visible leadership through their wider mahi in societies and social media is very powerful. That’s being a great role model. Lincoln as well. I feel incredibly proud of them all. They all do such great things around being self-confident and visible Māori leaders and engineers. As Māori we aren’t great at self-promoting and celebrating success, in fact, Kiwis are pretty poor full stop!

I see them all creating real positivity and Mana around what they’re doing. My observations from that panel discussion were how powerfully the younger guys spoke and how immensely proud I was of them. Not just for Māori but for anyone that’s a minority – so hats off to them.

What difference do you think it would make to Aotearoa if we had more Māori engineers and architects?

I don’t just think we need more Māori – we need to see an increase in all facets of diversity. I think what Māori, in particular, have done, and those people that are very close to their respective hapu or iwi is bringing an emotional connection to the land and the water that has real context. I think that’s important particularly in the built environment with the civil engineering work we do. The story of the land, the story of the people is key – that provides a huge advantage.

So there’s Māori because we’re the tangata whenua – the people of the land, but its getting diversity of other parts of our culture as well. We’re becoming heavily influenced by other people that are coming to live in our communities as well – so they’re part of that discussion. We have to engage with a broader sector.

What’s interesting, we’ve been working with an iwi group, mana whenua group (mana whenua group is the local group that live within that community) and we were looking at Māori outcomes particularly around a project regarding employment fundamentally. Within that community, there’s a significant amount of Polynesians, our Pasifika brothers and sisters that had the same social problems as us as our whanau there.

The interesting thing when you start to look at it broadly, is once we had discussions with iwi in this particular case, we realised we needed to take more of a community approach. We actually as mana whenua have responsibility for everyone that lives in that community. Not just Māori. Māori may be priority number one, but the manaakitanga needs to extend. We should try to the best of our ability to extend job opportunities that may come our way to wider parts of our community – if we truly believe, that as mana whenua, we take some of that manaakitanga responsibility for the community as a whole.

Why is it so important for firms to improve the integration of Te Tiriti o Waitangi into projects?

Without understanding our broader obligations of what was agreed in 1840 when it was all signed up, then it leads to resentment or misunderstanding around why we need to engage with mana whenua. There’s an obligation here to understanding it.

I think it’s also about taking a broader perspective. For example, understanding some basic protocols around Tikanga Māori. How to engage with Māori, correct te reo Māori pronunciation and so on. These things are all part of the journey we have to go through.

In some regards, a true understanding helps us shift our perspective from viewing it as an obligation to an opportunity. If we build on our education and understand why it’s important, you start to view those relationships with mana whenua as an opportunity. So I think – change your perspective and it goes back to the discussion around some of the jobs we’ve reviewed where poor stakeholder consultation results in delays in a project and an inferior design outcome. You realise we could have got a better product, and we could have got it cheaper if we had gone through and understood and treated the engagement with mana whenua as an opportunity opposed to some form of obligation.

If you’re a Diversity Agenda member with a great story to tell, please get in touch.

Scroll to Top