The cut of her jib

This article first appeared in the November/December 2022 edition of Water. To read the full edition go to Issuu.

Recently appointed as independent board member for Wellington Water, Alexandra Hare has learned the benefits of working together when facing complex challenges as a high performance team – whether that’s in the boardroom, out on the project site, or when sailing the seas. By Mary Searle Bell.

With her childhood spent in rural Taranaki, Alex grew up with a strong connection to the land and the curiosity that comes with that. This background lends itself to a career in applied science, where she has grown from a junior scientist, to two decades later still being dedicated to the industry where she began.

“At school, I wasn’t the strongest in the class in science compared with my counterparts, with school life holding a mixture of sports, science, and academically, I loved English literature. I guess you could say I was well rounded.”

That being said, she did sit the International Baccalaureate exam in geography, achieving a mark that saw her ranked top in the world.

After finishing high school she headed to Otago University to do science and, perhaps unsurprisingly, excelled in her major of physical geography.

“At Otago, the Bachelor of Science degree was very applied and we spent a lot of time out in the field sampling or surveying. But we also covered international policy, emerging climate change issues, and human and physical geography.”

Growing up rural and having always been hard working, she was keen to start her professional career. As soon as she graduated, she got a job at Environment Waikato in its environmental division.

“I wanted to get out and experience application of my studies. My job at the regional council did exactly that. It was a mix of roles including water quality testing, environmental education, consenting, and compliance work.

“It was wonderful for me as I have a strong affinity for community and public service.

“It was a great team too. The people were excellent mentors. They taught me the value of authenticity in the workplace, and a supportive culture with candour – something I have taken into my leadership roles.”

Alex says that as a young graduate she was very fortunate to be tasked with enabling and enhancing the connection with research and community relations in Whāingaroa Raglan Habour and surrounds.

“There were a lot of council, environmental, and community groups studying the harbour and it was my job to ensure the different groups were talking to each other, and with community and mana whenua.

Her work saw her spend time listening to each of the different groups, which encompassed community leadership through to land care leadership, and bringing it all into an easy-to-read resource for the community. This was coupled with a community day to showcase the broad range of research in the area and for experts to liaise and engage with the people of Raglan.

“I was tasked with digesting complex information and sharing it in a way anyone could understand it. It was a brilliant job for a graduate.”

Alex then made the move to Lake Taupō , taking a role with the Wairakei Power Station.

“It was a tough job for a young environmental advisor as the business was going through a significant change with planned capacity increase of the geothermal fields.

“I learned all about the dynamics of holding oneself as an environmentalist in a traditionally industrial setting, the dynamics of the environment court process, and I also got to work with some amazing geothermal reservoir engineers who are some of our best leaders in the field of engineering, yet who are incredibly humble.”

This work launched Alex’s career in the energy sector, and she headed to Australia.

“Early in my career I focused towards the technical practice of environmental and social impact analysis in large scale energy projects. This is where I found my progression through project management and delivery, team management, and then unit management and leadership, particularly being the behind the scenes support and pastoral care to diverse technical teams.”

She spent seven years in Australia, from where she also undertook project work in the Middle East.

“Whenever I am asked to do something, I say yes. I took every opportunity I could early in my career.

“I found, like many Kiwis working internationally, our authentic ‘can do’ attitude opens doors and our grit allows us the resilience to work in difficult conditions.”

When Alex returned home she was asked to lead a “diverse and exciting” water and engineering design division for Opus.

“It had a really excellent mixed group of disciplines, thanks to its rich history of the Ministry of Works. My job was reshaping and supporting the team to be a part a swiftly evolving water sector, and with a higher frequency and need to respond to natural disasters or seasonal impacts in our rivers, communities and roads each winter.

“In the region at the time, Wellington Water had just been formed, and I lead our team who became part of the multi-year design panel team.

“It was a great evolution of procurement and collaboration for the industry to really support a more partnership-style delivery, and I felt at the time we were all a part of really exciting and healthy change in the way infrastructure outcomes for communities were to be delivered.”

In 2017, Alex tackled a very different challenge; sailing from the UK to South America then South Africa as part of the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race.

“When I moved to Wellington I was looking to create a community and as a pragmatist thought – Wellington… wind… harbour… and so took up sailing.

“Out on the harbour, status, age, job title, don’t matter. You’re all connected by a common goal. It’s an awesomely levelling place.

“Then my father died unexpectedly, and the grief gave me the desire to live as much as I could, so when the race popped up in my feed one day, I clicked on the link and committed.

“The fact that it was also connected to Unicef played a big part in my decision too, and the race gave me the opportunity to learn more and raise awareness about the shocking child welfare situation around the world.”

After a year of balancing her day job with the training of a performance athlete and learning how to sail, Alex sailed two legs of the race, part of the teams that raised £374,000 for Unicef in 2017/2018.

“It was an amazing experience and it reinforced for me that you can pull a diverse group of people together and perform, if you all have a common goal and drive.”

The 55 days and over 11,000 nautical miles at sea took a toll on Alex however, with a crippling spinal injury a year or so later forcing her to retire permanently from racing the sport, and take nearly a year’s sabbatical to relearn to use the right side of her body.

“To go from a very busy person to being bed-bound was extremely tough and it has taught me how to physically slow down and be gentler on the body – its isn’t easy and is a daily balancing act.”

Over recent years Alex has been working back in the public service alongside “some excellent engineers and scientists and policy leaders”.

She helped during early days of establishing the Climate Change Commission, worked with the Taranaki region as part of economic transition, and the formation of the new water regulator and the water reform, spending time linking central and local government agendas during a significant period of change in the infrastructure sector.

Last year Alex returned to the private sector, joining Aurecon as a director of infrastructure advisory and water industry leader, and just a few months ago, she also joined the board of Wellington Water as an independent director.

In the past eight years in the water industry, Alex has been part of what she describes as an excellent community of people working together to deliver services for the communities they serve.

“From our front line workforce, operators, engineers, and scientists, its truly an honest and hardworking community and industry to be a part of.”

Alex has held a volunteer governance career for a decade and she is currently a board trustee of the Engineering New Zealand Foundation supporting engineers during hardship, and a board trustee for Eureka!, which fosters the next generation of leaders in STEM.

She is currently also spending her spare time getting dirt under her fingernails while test planting a native forest and micro new wetland area on the Kāpiti Coast.

She is equally passionate about helping transform the water industry with the need for stronger water literacy and good partnerships across the sector and between the public and private sector.

“Communication is key. It was highlighted at the recent Water New Zealand conference that the water transformation process is peppered with misinformation and disinformation.

“It’s our time to be courageous as practitioners in the water sector, to explain clearly the need for change and bring our communities along this journey.

“Water literacy is key to this journey – sharing lived experiences and stories about our waterways and infrastructure journey that resonates with people.

“The problems we face are generational, and will require an all-in crew to genuinely partner together and push in the same direction – bringing together different skills, ages, experiences, and backgrounds to work together to lift our performance with regards to the well-being, conservation and management of water.

“We are small, diverse, and hard-working, these attributes is what set us apart globally and what is needed to get the complex jobs done.”

This article first appeared in the November/December 2022 edition of Water. To read the full edition go to Issuu.