For most of us in the states, new employee orientation is a day to forget… filling out HR forms, getting an ID badge, a tour of the facility, a quick trip to IT, perhaps a few inspired words from the big boss, and perhaps if you’re lucky a nice off-campus lunch with the team.   To me, it has often felt like a missed opportunity, and as a leader I have regretted not doing more to make a favorable impression of my organization on new hires.

Last month, I was invited to the hospital on a Monday morning to take part in a traditional welcoming ceremony known as a pōwhiri.   I had already been working clinically for several weeks, so I assumed this would the Kiwi equivalent of a large white-sheet-cake-cutting ceremony in the hospital C suite.   When I was asked to invite my family, I realized it might be more than that.

Before I describe the pōwhiri, it is crucial to understand just how integral the Māori culture is to the culture of New Zealand.  Representatives of the British Crown and New Zealand’s indigenous Māori population in 1840 signed the Treaty of Waitangi.  Its purpose was to provide a common set of laws and agreements for the British settlers and the Māori people to live together in New Zealand.  The treaty set the foundation for modern New Zealand culture, and the Māori influence in day-to-day life here in Gisborne is ever present.   49% of the population here in Gisborne is Māori, and based on the number of febrile babies we’ve seen in the ED this winter, I’m guessing the percentage is growing.

The agreement has not always been perfect; as with any agreement involving human beings, there have been times in the modern history of New Zealand where those in power have interpreted the treaty to their liking, leaving the Māori people more often than not on the short end of the stick.   But real integration has happened here. White New Zealanders of European ancestry, or “Pakeha”, learn Māori culture from early childhood.  Our own children refer to their teachers as “Koka” and “Matua”.  School assembly at school includes the performance of ritual Māori dances and songs, including the famous Haka that American rugby fans will no doubt know from watching New Zealand’s national team, the All Blacks (Lucas claims he’s starting to figure it out).  Meaning, this is not something that is learned by reading a textbook, watching a Hollywood movie, or visiting a reservation. Māori culture is an integral part of Kiwi life here in Gisborne.

[As an aside, it is difficult to witness the treatment of Māori culture in NZ and not feel ashamed about the historical and current treatment of our own Native American population.  The debate over the Cleveland Indians and Washington Redskins team names and logos seems silly in comparison to what should be the real discussion about the much broader injustices and complete marginalization of Native Americans in the United States.  This is the argument for traveling and seeing other cultures firsthand; I hope our children are seeing the same thing.]

The hospital pōwhiri that we were invited to attend was held in the chapel, and involved the entire hospital leadership sharing in Māori songs, traditional Māori dancing, and prayers. Picture for a minute the hospital CEO, himself a Pakeha, reciting by heart (in the Māori language) the words to a traditional welcome prayer.  Now picture the entire hospital nursing leadership performing a traditional Māori dance accompanied by a guitar, and you can imagine the impact the ceremony had on all of us.   The 45-minute pōwhiri ended with the hongi, the traditional Māori greeting akin to a handshake line that involves the pressing of one’s nose against another’s to signify the exchange of “ha” or breath of life.   We were now part of the team.

After leaving the chapel and saying goodbye to my family, the morning session ended with more “traditional” first day orientation topics.   There were PowerPoint presentations outlining the derivation of the hospital logo (the Waka sails, which Chloe and I had learned about on her school field trip), a talk on the hospital core values, some brief words from the CEO, and finally a “morning tea”, which fortunately included coffee and cake.    

But my main takeaway from the pōwhiri was a great appreciation for the team that I had joined here in Gisborne.  This was an organization and leadership team that knew and lived its culture, which in turn reflected its country’s culture.   It was a very powerful message and a great example of what new employee orientation can and should be.   


Jesse Irwin

Jesse Irwin

It's Jesse. I'm an emergency physician and healthcare leader, a Navy veteran, a father of three children, and until recently a land-locked Washingtonian with dreams of living on the ocean. I'm also a Luddite and an unapologetic introvert. But I'm going to give you, my family and friends, and this blog my best attempt at sharing my experiences here in Gisborne.
Jesse Irwin

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