A digital-age approach to leadership: build trust and seek multiple perspectives

This article presents a case study from a team that is working to keep our borders safe and provides some tips for your own leadership practice – specifically in relation to building trust, asking the right questions and gaining multiple perspectives.  
The Government’s strategy for Better Public Services identifies 'digital' and 'data' as key priority areas that are imperative for successful service delivery. As a provider of leadership development, the Leadership Development Centre (LDC) is interested in exploring the relationship between digital, data and leadership – because we notice that digital strategy is just as much about people as it is about technology.  
In terms of global governance, the New Zealand government can be seen to be at the forefront in developing a strong digital service for all New Zealanders. We are part of an international government digital partnership, which includes Estonia, Israel, South Korea and the United Kingdom (known as Digital 5 or D5), and new cross-agency life event projects are being recognised and rewarded as best practice.  
LDC spoke with Murray Young, Chief Information Officer, Information Services at the New Zealand Customs Service (Customs NZ), and Tracy Voice, Director, Business Technology and Information Services for the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI), both of whom were recently awarded an LDC Fellowship. Their Fellowship programme is looking at the use of emerging technologies to improve government interactions with citizens, with a focus on border control.   
Tracy explained that even though our private lives are almost entirely digital and consumer driven, delivering responsive digital services in the public sector is challenging. The layers in which leaders operate are myriad, and they are required to work through legislation, regulations and political prioritisation.   
Murray and Tracy said that agencies need the technical infrastructure to be in place in order to deliver more responsive online services at the right time to the right people. However, they say that an equally important factor is leadership and management mindset.  
Murray has been looking at existing processes at Customs NZ and asking why are we doing this? Instead of having all the answers, leadership in this instance is about looking for opportunities to question the status quo and gain alternative perspectives. Murray described Customs NZ's strategy to move toward a more digital operating model and how this is happening in both planned and unplanned ways.  

For example, following the November 2016 earthquake, Customs NZ's head office in Wellington was relocated to a new building. The new building had fewer printers and, as a result, some teams are now using 70 per cent less paper. This behavior change aligns with the organisation's digital strategy but was not part of a detailed plan. 

Authors of Sense & Respond Jeff Gothelf and Josh Seiden suggest that instead of having to immediately come up with all the answers (traditional mindset) asking the right questions is a better way for leaders to make change and shift mindsets. Gothelf and Seiden go further and suggest that leaders who tend to use industrial-age management approaches on digital-age problems may miss opportunities to achieve their anticipated results (Gothelf and Seiden 2016).  

A closer look: joint border analytics team 

In 2016, MPI, Customs NZ and Immigration New Zealand decided to make a collective investment in data analytics. A foundation team of 10 experts was pulled together from across the three organisations to build an intelligence insight pilot in a prototype environment. The pilot considered what common risk looks like at our borders, focusing on air travel, and how a combined effort might lead to a better passenger experience with improved border security measures.   
Jo Hacking, Manager of the Joint Border Analytics team talked to LDC about the leadership challenges and opportunities involved in setting up and leading a new cross-agency team.   
The first thing Jo described is the variety within the team. The team came together from three different agencies, and the members have a broad range of backgrounds; from building satellites in Singapore to a PhD in theoretical chemistry. As a result, each team member brings a different skill set and perspective to the job at hand. The team needs to operate with mutual respect, focusing on collaboration and consultation and making a dedicated effort to ensure everyone’s voice is heard. This approach helps bridge the gap between agencies – and between the business leaders and technical professionals.  
State Services Commissioner and Head of State Services Peter Hughes says that such cross-agency collaborations are increasingly relevant, and Jo agrees. She refers to an article by Rast et al (2016) pointing out that trust is fundamental when working with people from different backgrounds to pilot something new – people won’t incorporate changes or take on new ideas without trusting those who have developed the changes.  
Jo built trust quickly in her team by raising awareness and understanding about the different areas of expertise and the possibilities for data analytics among business users. This was critical to learning and progress – establishing trust early gave the whole project a greater prospect of success.  
Jo was interested in exploring how to set up effective governance without compromising freedom to experiment and learn in appropriate ways. Jo and her team are doing this by implementing a governance structure based on agreed principles. Guided by these principles, the team can easily identify where they need to seek permission to progress and from whom and where they can operate with freedom and make autonomous decisions.  

 Instead of each agency developing their own business case and supporting documents, this joint approach is creating better alignment across key border strategic priorities. Further opportunities for collaboration across agencies are being explored through the new government analytics network, initiated by Jo.  

This is an excellent example of involving key stakeholders to establish an effective multidisciplinary project team and combining leaders with technical and business stakeholders across different agencies.  

Looking to set up a cross-agency team of your own to pilot something new? Want to join the government analytics network? Talk to LDC or contact Jo Hacking (joanne.hacking@customs.govt.nz) for some tips and lessons learnt.     


As digital technologies progress into every area of work, leaders are looking for appropriate opportunities to deliver digital services in a more customer-centric and responsive way.   
Such opportunities include building digital capability (the focus of our next article), building trust and confidence in people about people, developing leaders who can inspire, and including others and gaining multiple perspectives. What we see again is that these issues are not about digital at all; these are the challenges of leadership itself.   

Key findings

  • Public sector leaders are faced with new levels of complexity, uncertainty and opportunity in their work. 
  • If you understand what your customers are trying to do, you can probably find a way to create a valuable service for them – technology allows new ways to do this.    
  • To deal with uncertainty in a digital-age, adopt an approach that is oriented toward learning and making small steps continuously in the right direction.  
  • This approach, which was pioneered in the software world, is increasingly relevant across government agencies because many operations are now tied in one way or another to online service delivery.  
  • The industrial-age approach to managing uncertainty was to develop detailed plans, but detailed plans can break down in the face of reality because of a series of unknowns. 
  • A clear but flexible direction forward will allow unplanned opportunities to be maximised.  

Have any questions or want to be involved in future articles? Email us at research@ldc.govt.nz 


  • Berger J & Johnston K. 2015. Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful practices for leaders. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press. 
  • Gothelf J & Seiden J. 2016. Sense & Respond: How successful organisations listen to customers and create new products continuously. Boston, Massachusetts: Harvard Business Review Press. 
  • Rast C, Erwin T, Coops A, et al. 2016. Building Trust in Analytics: Breaking the cycle of mistrust in D&A. KPMG International Data and Analytics. Retrieved from https://assets.kpmg.com/content/dam/kpmg/xx/pdf/2016/10/building-trust-in-analytics.pdf (accessed 26 April 2017).  

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