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What's behind the newly invigorated NZAF?

Mon 9 Apr 2012 In: Health and HIV View at Wayback View at NDHA

NZAF Executive Director Shaun Robinson At the start of last year Shaun Robinson stepped in to run an organisation which was becoming increasingly dysfunctional. Staffing and structural problems were rife. The HIV epidemic it was tasked with diminishing was running spectacularly out of control. It was coming under fire from all sides. It was a difficult time, needing a clear head and a calming hand. Just over a year later the outward impression of the NZ AIDS Foundation is that things have calmed down, that the heat has gone out of the issues that were eating away at the organisation. Remarkably, the loss of three different top level managers just before Christmas, all with different histories, personalities and reasons for leaving didn't trigger the fusillades of criticism which would have been inevitable, say, a year or two before. It appears that even the  NZAF's most regular and staunchest critics had sniffed the scent of change in the wind. The man most responsible for that change, for protecting the positive changes made by his predecessor and instituting measures to correct lingering problems disagrees, to some extent, with part of that stark assessment.  "I probably wouldn't go quite as far as to say that the organisation was dysfunctional, "says Executive Director Shaun Robinson, now just over a year into the job. "But when I arrived I said to the staff that we were doing lots of good stuff, but there were lots of cracks, a bit like having cracks in a pavement, that kept tripping us up so that we kept crashing into one another and I think it's fair to say that morale in the organisation wasn't great, there had been a lot of conflict over the preceding couple of years." When he arrived "different parts of the organisation weren't working well together and weren't communicating with each other," he recalls. "There were quite a few new ideas and new initiatives but they hadn't gained much traction. There was quite a lot of external criticism from a whole range of areas, not only from the media but also from stakeholders in various forms, with people contacting the board and senior managers. Certainly when I arrived I would quite often be bailed up when I went out and people would tell me what they thought was right and wrong with the NZAF. And I think that got even worse with the resignation of  Rachael [Le Mesurier, his predecessor] and the months when there was no full-time head, just an acting executive director, so there was a lack of leadership." Robinson feels the organisation is now more cohesive and positive. That the energy levels directed to the jobs of holding HIV infection at bay and supporting those with the debilitating disease, has increased. "I'm really pleased to say that fourteen months later the organisation is really rocking along, it's more than calmed down, its really got on a roll. And we're still working on all of those issues but they are substantially better. We're seeing lots of collaboration going on in the organisation and a real desire for collaboration between, say, the health part of the organisation and the prevention part that just wasn't there a year ago. He says "really good" examples are "that we have done testing at the Big Gay Out for the first time ever and that went really smoothly and now the community engagement boys are saying 'wow, we could do testing at other major events. 'That's always been a no no in the past but now people are looking at doing that. We've got the health service people talking to the social marketing guys about how do we use your skills to get our messages out to gay and bisexual men. We're also talking to the African team and our Maori and Pacific staff about how our health service staff can be more culturally responsive and we're looking at outreach clinics at various places around the country, in communities that we haven't been before. And we're utilising the skills that the organisation has got within it to do this stuff really well. And then you've also got the social marketing boys having conversations with the counsellors saying, 'What are the things that [you sense] are coming up through talking to about 1,200 guys a year.'" FOCUS AND TOGETHERNESS What has Robinson done to achieve this remarkable turnaround in morale, focus and community perception? "I think a variety of things. Number one is that I focussed the organisation on the epidemic. There's always, in a way, a bit of good fortune in bad fortune and we had the worst results ever come through in the epidemic for the 2010 year and I just said 'this is our focus, this is our core business and we have got to stop getting distracted and get focussed on delivering on this stuff.' In doing that I got people to look at why they are here. And really recognise that actually everybody is here for the same reason, that there is far more in common than there was in terms of difference, that people are here because they are passionate about making a difference in terms of HIV." But these are largely the same people who were there before Robinson arrived, and they were surely passionate before? Robinson puts the difference down to leadership and, surprisingly, staff turnover. "I think leadership and good sound management are probably the two big things that I have brought. I've had to remind people to look at that commonality and create a space for them to look at that commonality and get past the conflicts and and go 'Oh yeah, we are all on the same side.' That hadn't happened for a really long time. So often really what makes things work is quite simple, it's not rocket sicence it's just a matter of doing it and being clear about it. The motivation was really there and I didn't have to scratch very deep beneath the surface to find the good will within the staff. And also they are a very talented bunch of people and so even when we weren't working so well together we were still delivering a lot of good work because our people are talented and good at what they do. But we do even better when we are working together." To  re-direct the energies from the sometimes toxic internecine warfare which had been breaking out too often for the organisation's good, Robinson says he focussed the staff on the epidemic and on quality of work. "I reminded people that we are in it together and that we are all basically on the same side and motivated by the same things. Then I also insisted on high standards. I think in the confusion that had proceded me there was some poor performance. Good ideas not being delivered on all that well. I said: 'I back the ideas but we're going to have to do them really, really well, they're going to have to be done to a very high standard.' I think they were very pleased about that and kind of rose to the occasion." HIGH STAFF TURNOVER Robinson reveals a remarkably high staff turnover during his tenure so far, not unusual in an organisation with a new head who has a brief for change. "We've had about 30% staff turnover in the last fourteen months and some of that is just natural attrition and some of that has been people who have kind of been a little bit burned by what happened before and didn't have the energy to carry on and for others it was was 'Well, I've done my time.' But it also creates opportunities for new people to come in with new skills and new energy and there's nearly a third of the staff who don't have the baggage of that history and who've come in and have been very much hired for their skills and most of those have been gay men and so the culture of the organisation and its roots in the gay and bisexual community are still very strong. That's helped to reinforce that we are going to deliver to a higher standard and that we are going to do this very well." Robinson says he has instituted simple management procedures to bring his staff together more readily. "For example, I've created a monthly meeting where all the managers come together. You'd think that wasn't rocket science but it wasn't really happening, not often enough anyway. I got them focussed on how do we work together and how do we learn from each other and what do we need from each other... all fairly simple stuff but it needed leadership. It needed someone to actually drive that and model that." But after some months in the job he also realised the actual management structure within the NZAF was an underlying problem. "By the end of last year it became pretty clear to me that the structure wasn't doing us any favours in terms of trying to progress that collaboration, trust and trying to deliver to a really high standard." If Robinson has been handed two trump cards the first must have been the resignation, in quick succession, of those three top people: Director of Prevention and Communication Simon Harger-Forde, the Director of support services Eammon Smythe and the long-serving Wayne Otter, manager of the NZAF's flagship support and counselling operation, Auckland's Burnett Centre. "The opportunity presented itself through three senior people leaving, particularly the two operational directors and so I made the decision to combine the director of health and the director of prevention into one general manager position. The reason for that is to get more 'whole organisational thinking' going on in the NZAF and even though we haven't got a general manager in quite yet, I think just the notion that that's the way it's going to be has accelerated the collaboration and trust and communication that has been going on in the organisation. So I do have that sense of momentum that we are working forward in this new culture increasingly quickly. I'm really excited that we have managed to recruit Nick Laing. I think he's going to be excellent in the GM role. He's got the right attitudes and skills and experience and of course he's a gay man..." THE CRUCIAL NEW GM ROLE What's that new GM job all about? What's it going to do for the NZAF and for the organisation's connection to the community and its ability to achieve its goals? "Its primary focus is on delivery of what we have decided to do so it's really about getting behind all the programme leaders, such as Daemon Coyle the head of social marketing, Sean Kelly who's running our health services in the North Island and Lara in the South Island and Jordon Harris who's doing our community engagement and Kudakwashe Tuwe who's running the African programme to suppport them to deliver their programmes to the best possible quality. That's day to day management stuff, being an ideas sounding board to help develop the next stage of whatever they are going to do, and by working across all those spheres of our activity. I'm really looking to Nick to help me and the managers to see where are the synergies, where are the links." Robinson amplifies on what he saw as an inadequate level of cross-fertilisation and support between the various teams when he arrived at the NZAF. "In the past, ridiculous though it may seem, it's been quite difficult to just get meetings between staff in different parts of the organisation so they can talk about a common issue. But if we've got one senior manager overlooking all of that then they are going to see those opportunites and they are going to make that happen. It eases the way. We don't have to have the social marketing manager talk to their director and the manager of the Burnett Centre talk to their director and get the directors to agree and then the meeting can happen. It's much more streamlined, it will accelerate the process we are already on." Since late last year Robinson himself has been covering three jobs, his own and the two vacated management positions. "At the moment I'm handling both the operational and the strategic leadership and it's not sustainable... I mean, I've got eleven direct reports at the moment and I feel like one of those stage performers spinning all the plates on the poles. But a lot of it is just capacity and I foresee that Nick and I will be working very closely on the whole direction of the organisation but if there is a split then I'm mainly focussed on the strategic leadership and Nick will be mainly focussed on the delivery. Now obviously in thinking about strategic ideas and direction my whole style is to do that in a very collaborative kind of a way. But what I'm also going to be expecting of the general manager is that he will help me to facilitate the staff, and the community too, [to get] that input into our thinking so that we keep shaping our strategy as we go forward. THE 'STRAIGHT' THING Robinson seems quite aware that, as the head of an organisation focussed on the culture and sexual habits of men who have sex with men, his own heterosexuality places a few limitations on his ability to totally empathise with gays. "So it's fantastic that Nick is a gay man, it really had to be a gay man, someone who had that credibility and connection to the community. If I was a gay man that wouldn't have been so necessary, but I think in  the wider team you need that range of personalities and attitudes and connections." And yet the NZAF has been reluctant to introduce him to the wider community at the moment. Laing is already involved in other initiatives in the gay community but the Foundation has stood in the way of two attempts by GayNZ.com to do a profile interview on the man who will be so crucial to the NZAF and the sexual health of thousands of gay and bi men. "It's just a matter of timing," says Robinson. "I mean he's going to be here in about three weeks. I think it's really important that Nick isn't just seen as the senior gay man in the NZAF, it's important that he's seen as the General Manager. Yes, he's gay. And, yes ,that's really important... just as it is that about 85% of our staff are gay. But he's a skilled general manager so I want those two things to go hand in hand. So I think it's better that when he is introduced more in this role that it is in his role rather than just him as Nick Laing, gay man and part of the community. That can come into it but the two things have to be hand in hand. SIZING UP THE GAY COMMUNITY Robinson came to the NZAF and the gay community at the start of last year initially as an outsider, but as an outsider he was able to asess matters with fresh and perhaps objective eyes. What were his impressions over the past year of this community that his organisation has to work with and on which the NZAF draws its expertise and its mandate? "I think the board was really brave to appoint me," says Robinson with a smile. "The organisation was under quite a lot of criticism and scrutiny so to appoint me was quite a courageous move. I've always said that I absolutely understand there are a small number of people who are quite critical of the fact that I am in this role. I think it is a small number. Overwhelmingly I've felt very accepted and people have basically given me a chance to perform rather than saying you're straight and therefore you shouldn't be in this role and therefore we're not going to give you a chance at all. "So I think people have really judged me on my performance. Another feature of where we are at now compared to fourteen months ago is that there is very little criticism of the NZAF and that's not to say that there isn't any but there's not the constant siren of criticism and I think that comes down to the fact that we  are delivering the goods now and that people didn't really understand the new approach through social marketing fourteen months ago. Some of that was because it hadn't been explained well and some was because it hadn't started delivering. I backed it but said it has to be delivered to a high standard, we've got to get some runs on the board and get focussed. It's now done that I think and whereas fourteen months ago, and I said this in my six months interview, it switched around from people saying I don't like it and I'm going to tell you all the reasons I don't like it to people saying I really get it, it's great and we get a constant stream of that. And I guess ultimately we've had a really good result in the number of good diagnoses in 2011. Fine. But how has he sized up the gay community, which is really, in this interviewer's eyes, the whole of New Zealand in micrososm with perhaps more passion and certainly a lot more glamour? "There are a lot of differences in lifestyles and mores and opinions, I've found it a real privilege to be part of it. It's been lots of fun, there's a lot of joy and fun in the gay community in all its guises and I have enjoyed that. If there's no fun in my work then I'm not interested so that's all good. But I've also got to do things where I've felt like 'wow, this is an incrdedible privelege that I've been let in on some very intense and meaningful stuff and I'm an outsider but I'm being allowed to sit in on this.' One of the most intense experiences of that would have been the transgender memorial service where the community remembers the hundreds if not thousands of transgender people who are murdered annually around the world including in New Zealand. And I really felt I was allowed to be in there and accepted to be there... I wasn't part of that community but I was allowed to share in that celebration and in that grief." He realises the gay community is rich with people whose eyes and ears are focussed on the NZAF. "I think this organisation is one that has a lot of scrutiny from its community... more than most. That's good because it shows that people are engaged and interested. It does keep us honest. It's a challenge sometimes because sometimes we have to do things that are new or that we think are right because we've put a lot of in-depth thinking and analysis into that. There might be a time lag and people might not like change and we might cop a bit of criticism but we have to be brave enough to say 'No, this is what we think is the right thing to do and we're going to do it.' LEARNING TO LISTEN "But we also have to listen", acknowledges Robinson. "One of the other things I have tried to do is get out there and be open and listen to the feedback. I'm human and sometimes I get annoyed if I get criticised or if the organisation gets criticisedl. But I try to always step back from that and hear any truth or anything we need to hear in that feedback." He also acklnowledges that the NZAF had in recent years adopted a default defensive posture. "In the last year I have tried to get the wagons out of the circle... rather than just defend the NZAF I've acknowledged that yes, we've made some mistakes, we don't always get everything right..." That's the advantage of the new encumbent isn't it? Robinson laughs again. Throughout the interview he seems relaxed and open and smiles and even laughs readily. "That's right and maybe if I am still here in six years' time I might have some of my own wagons circled but hopefully not. If I want the organisation to work by trust and collaboration then I have to model that and the organisation has to model it into the community as well and that means sometimes making ourselves and me vulnerable. I trust that if I say that we have got this or that wrong, or that I have made a mistake, that you are not going to rip my heard off completely, that you might say 'Yeah, you have,' but that actually we will get to a mature place where we can move forward and I think that's been appreciated really." LEADERSHIP In pride of place on the front page of the Foundation's corporate website is the image of a street sign pointing towards leadership. Leadership is a recurring theme from Robinson during this interview. He clearly wants to see the NZAF back in its leadership role, not reduced to merely fighting off all boarders. "Leadership and management," he summarises. "I've had enough experience working in organisations to understand that while the nature of this community is very distinctive and the nature of the work of the NZAF is very distinctive, there are a lot of things I have seen before in organisations. When it comes to organisations getting into conflict with themselves the NZAF is not the only one with that problem. Getting off-side with your communities is not only something that happens in the gay community. So I've had a bit of experience of this before and that helps me to keep a bit of a level head." In part two of this interview, appearing next weekend, Shaun Robinson discusses some more specific aspects of the NZAF's work including its work in the Pacific Islands, his difference of viewpoint with the head of UNAIDS, balancing personal health and public health objectives, the NZAF's relationship with other organisations. In part three the following weekend he reflects on the strength or otherwise of its membership and volunteer bases. He discusses the second trump card fate delivered him and offers a tiny glimpse into his private life and how he copes with commuting between his Auckland office and his Hawkes Bay home. Jay Bennie - 9th April 2012

Credit: Jay Bennie

First published: Monday, 9th April 2012 - 1:53pm

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