Michael Ahie: Unlocking Trapped Talent Michael Ahie Is Waging a Commercial and Cultural Crusade to Unleash Maori Economic Potential. Get This One Sorted, He Believes, and the Benefits Will Cascade throughout the Land

By Le Pla, Ruth | New Zealand Management, May 2007 | Go to article overview

Michael Ahie: Unlocking Trapped Talent Michael Ahie Is Waging a Commercial and Cultural Crusade to Unleash Maori Economic Potential. Get This One Sorted, He Believes, and the Benefits Will Cascade throughout the Land


Le Pla, Ruth, New Zealand Management


You could say that meshing stuff together is an Ahie trademark. Born into a blended Maori/European family, he rocked off to business school, scaled the traditional corporate ladder and then sat down for a bit of a think.

Among other things, he now heads business coaching company Shirlaws New Zealand, whose work centres around the core belief that, sooner or later, business growth will falter unless it is nourished with a balanced diet of attention to commercial issues (the hard-edged stuff such as revenues, efficiencies and profits) and softer issues such as communication skills, teambuilding and leadership.

In Ahie's own case, his blended Maori/ European roots opened options to walk both cultural paths. It was his Maori grandfather, Taranaki region kaumatua James Ahie, who counselled the young Michael from an early age to hold Maori in his heart and plunge into a European world.

"At some point in my life, he said, I would know when the two paths would merge and cross over."

When we talk, Ahie listens thoughtfully to questions and holds his silences with ease. He is comfortable enough in his own skin to cite in his CV his five 'ground rules' for working and uses them, he says, to filter decisions around which companies he now spends time on, invests in or coaches.

Now in his 40s, he had already in his 20s distilled his personal code of conduct down to five simple values--trust, open communication, teamwork, integrity, and a balance between work and home life. That they now take pride of place in this public manifestation of his private self speaks volumes about a personal journey that has seen him mesh together some very divergent commercial and cultural strands of his own.

Ahie joined Toyota New Zealand straight from business school, in over eight years climbing through the ranks before joining the New Zealand Dairy Board as global manager, strategic planning and then New Zealand Milk where he was based in Melbourne. A stint at Mainland Foodservice in Melbourne followed. Then a shift back to New Zealand as general manager solutions for Wrightson. Consciously or not, he was slowly working his way home.

"Michael Ahie has come home to work for his people as well as the company," read a lyrical line in a report by South Taranaki District Council mayor Mary Bourke.

His grandfather had died but his prophesied point of convergence of Ahie's Maori and European pathways was kicking into life.

"Two years ago, something just went 'crunch'," says Ahie. "Now I know what he was talking about."

At a spiritual level Ahie's grandfather started to re-enter his consciousness. "I'd be doing some research and I'd see a piece that he had been involved in or written. I was doing some research for Te Puni Kokiri and all of a sudden there was my grandfather, his face, sitting there in a photo at a marae many years ago. He kept popping up all the time."

There was, says Ahie, a whole bunch of other stuff going on in his career. "After 18 years of corporate life, I reached a point and thought, 'hang on, is this what it's all about?' A very goal-directed me--which I was since university--had been saying, 'I'm going to be a world-class CEO'. That was my whole goal in life. But the closer I got, the less I liked it. What does it actually mean to be a world-class CEO?"

Ahie realised he wasn't prepared to sacrifice family life to take the next step up. Nor, he realised, was he going to score the CEO's role at Wrightson.

"That was the real kicker. Everything I'd gone for. Here I am in a Wrightson merger. There is a succession plan and someone says; 'it's not going to be you'."

He readily admits that it took him some time to come to grips with that idea. "My whole life for 20 years had been directed towards being a top CEO. What do you call it? Mid-life crisis? Awakening? I don't know.

"But whatever it was, a whole lot of junctures happened around me which made me think 'I'm at a checkpoint. …

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