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Q+A: Ray Avery and John Hood interview

Published: 1:40PM Sunday June 27, 2010 Source: Q+A


PAUL On Friday night Ray Avery received this year's Peter Blake Medal for Leadership, New Zealand's premier leadership honour. He's in excellent company because last year's winner was Dr John Hood, former Vice Chancellor of Auckland and more laterally Oxford Universities. Previous winners have been Sir Murray Halberg, Professor Paul Callaghan, Sir Steven Tindall, and Sir John Anderson. In February this year Ray was also named New Zealander of the Year, he's a scientist, he's an inventor, he's what you call a social entrepreneur, and by 2020 roughly 30 million people will have benefited from his development of intraocular lenses implanted into the eyes of those suffering cataract blindness. It is my pleasure therefore to welcome both Ray Avery and Dr John Hood to Q A this morning. Welcome.

Want to ask you first of all what is leadership?

RAY AVERY - CEO Medicine Mondiale

To me leadership is I guess being a good global citizen. Often we think about leadership as being those icons that forge societies forward, but often they end up being flawed as well, just by the nature of the beast, but for me being a good Mum and Dad and bringing up a good child is leadership, and that's particularly important to me because of my background.

PAUL But it's also about getting things done isn't it John?

DR JOHN HOOD - CEO Robertson Foundation

Yes I think Ray's right, I think it's about having a sense of purpose or about what it is you're concerned, and about an ability to execute often through other people, and to do so in a way with consistent values, such that people respect what you're trying to achieve.

PAUL Yes John, when you won last year the panel said you had demonstrated outstanding leadership through an ability to articulate a vision, build a successful team to implement it and keep the focus on people. So therefore a leader not only has to have the vision, the leader sees it through with people?

JOHN Absolutely. I mean not only do you have to have vision, you have to have I think a great sense of strength and independence. Often in advancing things you will have a whole number of critiques against what you're trying to do, because what you're doing is something new, what forges societies forwards is people with vision and the strength and acumen to see those things through.

PAUL Basically the leader has a vision and just goes for it, just goes for it and people join?

JOHN Absolutely. Realistic.

PAUL What is it you actually did, where did you get a start. You met Fred Hollows, you said look I've got these lenses I've invented. You went up to Eritrea and found nothing but chaos, you phoned Fred, Fred was so ill with a cancer that he couldn't take the call, Gabby was his wife and you couldn't bear to tell her that you couldn't build these factories there, so you went ahead yourself and had them built?

RAY Well I think that was the most challenging time being in Eritrea at the end of a 30 year war where there was nothing functioning, and you're on your own. But I was sort of transported back to when I was living on the streets of London. My thesis was I survived that, so I could actually survive this. If there was anybody built to build that factory in a desperate country it was this man.

PAUL Tell me a bit about that background. I mean your background is stunning actually, you're background's incredible. You were born after the war, Dad had been a POW in Poland, no doubt deeply stressed, came home, deserted your Mum, you were in orphanages for about ten years. Describe that experience.

RAY Oh well it was a three dimensional sort of Dickensian horror story, it's like between the Lord of the Flies and you know Oliver Twist. So you know to survive I had to look for the mentor in myself because I didn't have one, and I think my leadership skills come out of the fact that I've - I don't think you make a leader down in the factory down in Ponsonby, I think what happens is that they're a sum of their life's experiences, and my annealing was much more ferocious than most people's.

PAUL I mean on one occasion in one of the orphanages you were in, a child in the cot next to you was being sodomised by a caregiver.

RAY Yes that's right.

PAUL After that you ran away and you set up residence under a bridge in London?

RAY A ...... Park and I lived there for about nine months and fortunately I was picked up in a Police raid and taken off to Wye College in Kent which was actually a satellite society of the University of London, and there I got a beginning of an education.

PAUL That's right, and then you also started your entrepreneurship though because you bought a machine I think to peel potatoes for the local fish and chip shop, and so it started from there.

RAY Well I thought that if I made money that I would be successful, and again that's another issue in terms of I think forging leaders. We have different goals at different times in our lives. When I was 14 I wanted to own my own bicycle shop, and now I want to change the world, and the only thing that's changed is not my viscera and my drive, but the knowledge that I have, and I think knowledge allows you to dream bigger.

PAUL Very importantly though, that you felt empty as a child, growing up in the orphanages of course, deprived of love, and then you became incredibly successful, you had cars, you had women, you had everything going on, and you still felt terrible emptiness.

RAY Well I was lucky I got all my Tiger Woods shares out early on, you know - so I'm worried about John.

PAUL So we know that leadership can sometimes encounter opposition, and does it also involved resilience, John?

JOHN I think so, definitely Paul. I mean I think if you have a vision you need resilience in most cases to realise that vision.

PAUL You've been through a period of your life where you had to have incredible resilience. You came to Oxford, an outsider, the first outsider, the first person from off the campus in 900 years, and a New Zealander to boot from the other side of the world. What was the state of Oxford when you found it, six years ago?

JOHN Well Oxford is an outstanding academy by all counts, but it did have some challenges when I went there, most particularly on the financial and administrative side.

PAUL Well it was broke.

JOHN Well it had run its cash down quite seriously, and mainly as a result of mismanagement, yes.

PAUL And so what did you do?

JOHN We did a number of things. I should also add that the academic staff and also to a degree the students, were not able to realise their aspirations owing to poor support processes and so forth as well. So it was to me a simple challenge of trying to work out how to recover the institution, and establish it such that he academic staff and the students could realise their aspirations in the most unfettered supportive way.

PAUL Yes, but they hardly got down on their knees and thanked you. In fact you encountered some terrible opposition to what you were proposing, in terms of changes to the governance, of the college's governance of the university and the administration of the university. How tough did that get? How badly did that hurt you?

JOHN Well it was tough. We did propose changes to the governance. We thought the governance was flawed and that if the governance had been working well, the university wouldn't have had the administrative and financial problems that it did have. I was in one sense fortunate, in another sense unfortunate that there was a governance review established by the governing body at the time I arrived, in fact on the day I arrived, and I was asked to chair it. It would not have been proper to have chaired it in a way that would have glossed over those issues, so we did propose a significant change to the structure of the governance of Oxford, in fact a change not radical that would have taken that governance structure very similar to that of most other universities in the world.

PAUL But then you lost the vote at the Congregation, the meeting of the academic staff?

JOHN Yes on the third time round of consultation on the proposals over a period of just over two years, we did lose the vote, that's correct.

PAUL But they were vicious weren't they? I mean there was viciousness. You were called the most hated man in England.

JOHN Well maybe by some, but I think that was unfortunate if that were the case. It was vicious politics, Oxford is an intensely political university yes.

PAUL You say Ray Avery one man can change the world, and indeed we've seen that because of you millions can now see. In fact you say that when somebody wakes up after the operation and starts looking at everything in the way a child does, it's like seeing God in action.

RAY Absolutely. I mean that catharsis that you have when you can see that you can alter people's lives profoundly, I think the important thing about leadership is that it's a continual cycling process, and I like the fact that John's here particularly because when I was saying goodbye to Fred Hollows - I went to Sydney to say goodbye to him - and he put his bony finger in my chest, and he had a little diluted whisky next to him, so I knew he was sick, and he said Ray stop making money out of sick people and do something *^%*^* useful with your life. You know he had problems with not saying any swearwords and then sentences at the end. And to some degree that was the catharsis that got me set on changing the world, and it's interesting that John's here because you know Fred challenged me to get a proper job and start doing work for humanity, and ironically John's come to that point. You know after shaking the be Jesus out of the guys at Oxford now he's got a proper job where he's working in a philanthropic organisation which can actually change the world. So good on you boss.

PAUL You did shake the be Jesus out of Oxford though, and you've set them on a - well hopefully a successful path. Is part of leadership simply staying the course. Is it staying the course is that it? Is that what you did?

JOHN I don't think you have any right to stay the course, I think you only stay the course if those with whom you're working want you to stay the course, but you'll never achieve your vision, unless you see it through.

PAUL Can you learn to be a leader, can you go on a course?

RAY I don't think so, I don't think you can run into a room and set a stage for a leader, in fact I would suggest in my case the leadership was one of a filtering mechanism, because if you didn't get through the orphanage you didn't get through the next part, or you didn't get through commerce, you wouldn't be a leader, you would have failed. I mean I'm probably 1.1% of the kids who actually got out with some sense of sanity and humanity out of those orphanages. We never get rid of it, but if you can learn to manage it in that way you can use your skills I think in a way that other people would find incomprehensible.

PAUL Yes you have said that you see a poor snotty dirty little kid in a poor part of the world and you go that's me, and they need a leg up.

Congratulations Ray Avery and thank you John Hood for coming in. Congratulations to you too.

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