Teaho Pihama is the head of Māori advisory at Kiwibank (Photo: Amber-Jayne Bain)
Teaho Pihama is the head of Māori advisory at Kiwibank (Photo: Amber-Jayne Bain)

BusinessJanuary 19, 2021

The man with a mandate to change the way Kiwibank thinks about Māori

Teaho Pihama is the head of Māori advisory at Kiwibank (Photo: Amber-Jayne Bain)
Teaho Pihama is the head of Māori advisory at Kiwibank (Photo: Amber-Jayne Bain)

A distinctly colonial institution, banking has long ignored te ao Māori. Teaho Pihama believes investment in tikanga Māori at Kiwibank can have significant, positive outcomes for Māori.

In early 90s Tāmaki Makaurau, when Teahooterangi (Teaho) Pihama was growing up riding his bike around the streets of Kingsland until the streetlights came on, the inner city suburb was in the midst of gentrification. The neighbourhood was beginning to change from a diverse working-class melting pot to a distinctly middle-class, white collar Pākehā area. He watched as the Māori and Pasifika families were replaced by white lawyers, accountants and media personalities.

At home Pihama was surrounded by te reo Māori me ōna tikanga. Of Te Ātiawa, Ngā Māhanga-a-Tairi, Tainui, Ngāti Maru whakapapa his taha Māori was always a core part of his identity, but it was during high school at Auckland’s Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Hoani Waititi under the philosophy of Te Aho Matua that he invested himself fully into the language and culture of te ao Māori.

Pihama was raised by two mums. His birth mother is a professor and senior research fellow; his whāngai mother is a long-time teacher turned lecturer. The value and potential offered by education, especially mātauranga Māori, was a big part of his whānau and moulded the multidimensional way he sees the world. 

This upbringing – grounded in te ao Māori but increasingly surrounded by te ao Pākehā – helped foster the bicultural understanding and vocabulary that guide his new role as head of Māori advisory at Kiwibank.

“It gave me the ability to walk between both worlds on that tight rope,” he says. “I can still authentically be myself but I’m able to effectively communicate with non Māori, a Māori view. I can also explain non Māori concepts – such as finance – to Māori as well. I found a niche where I could translate both ways.”

Pihama was appointed to the Māori advisory role in December 2019, but he’s been doing the mahi advancing investment in Māori outcomes and understanding at Kiwibank – at the same time as doing his day job – for much longer than that. For two years as a business manager for Kiwibank in Pōneke he was part of a group dedicated to creating greater engagement with both the Māori communities the bank served and tikanga Māori internally. 

“In te ao Māori we always face things as a collective. So we started a group, a rōpū of around 35 Māori and advocates of Māori,” he says. 

They started chipping away at the Kiwibank culture, using moments like Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori and Matariki to subtly seed their plan. Then last year the group created and delivered the Kiwibank waiata ‘Pūrangiaho’, a celebration of the bank’s strength that comes from its people and the way it represents all Aotearoa. 

“That just pulled a lever and we had a huge groundswell of requests for conversations to incorporate more te reo and tikanga into the organisation.”  

For all the team’s successes, it was clear the work needed more focus than a group of volunteers could give it. Te ao Māori couldn’t be an extra-curricular project. There was now a mandate to understand the unique requirements of Māori from the banking sector, and create a targeted approach to delivering better financial outcomes for Māori. 

“That’s the role I now hold, and it’s a privilege for me to hold it,” says Pihama. “I’m here to support the relationship between Kiwibank and Māori. I’m not only accountable to Kiwibank, I’m not only accountable to the rōpū, I’m accountable to te ao Māori.”

Pihama has become a bit of a celebrity at Kiwibank – albeit a reluctant one. It’s easy to see why. When we first met, after hongi, the first five minutes of our interview were dominated by him asking questions about my whakapapa and my life. He was genuinely interested in who I am and where I come from; his warmth was immediately palpable.  

It’s apparent that his fundamental humility makes him resistant to talking about himself. But once the conversation moved to te ao Māori, his whānau, and his mission at Kiwibank, his passion overwhelmed his modesty. Pihama is unapologetically Māori and tūturu about who he is. It’s this pride in his taha Māori that has allowed him to have such a powerful connection with his colleagues, especially Māori staff. He’s just 29 but his impact on the Kiwibank culture is already significant. 

“He has this special mana about him which I think everyone connects to,” says Charlotte Ward, Kiwibank’s chief people officer.

She witnessed the effect he has on his colleagues while running cultural workshops with the contact centre in Hastings. Predominantly Māori, it was clear that the Hastings team appreciated the authenticity of the way Māori values were articulated in Kiwibank’s purpose, she says, and they know Pihama is a big part of that cultural growth. They demanded to know why he hadn’t been to visit the team recently, and requested to “get him up here” immediately. 

Pihama has become a reluctant celebrity with his Kiwibank colleagues (Photo: Amber-Jayne Bain)

Banking is a colonial institution based in western individualism. It’s an industry that doesn’t naturally fit with the traditional way iwi, hapū and whānau operate as a collective where resources and wealth are shared.

That cultural disconnect is one of the reasons Pihama believes Māori are underrepresented in the banking sector, especially in leadership roles – at Kiwibank 7% of staff identify as Māori when Māori make up 16.7% of the population and 18.8% of Kiwibank’s customer base. He thinks this underrepresentation is one of the many reasons Māori have low home ownership rates and distrust the banking industry. 

“The main reason is, we can’t see ourselves in the bank, in the people we are communicating with and the services being provided. We also can’t see our values in that individualistic nature of wealth creation,” says Pihama.  

His role is to change that. He wants to create a culture where more space is created for Māori staff at Kiwibank and where non-Māori staff understand the unique needs of Māori customers. Pihama believes Kiwibank, as the largest New Zealand-owned bank, has an obligation and social licence to partner with tangata whenua.

“To move that in a positive direction is to understand the requirements of our Māori customers. The only way to do that is educate our staff on what those requirements are. We need a workforce that’s educated enough to understand there are different ways of looking at things. And you need a diversity of workforce to do this.”

In July, Pihama delivered Kiwibank’s new rautaki Māori ‘Hoake Ki Uta’ to the Kiwibank chair, Kiwibank executive leaders and the Reserve Bank – Te pūtea matua o Aotearoa. The rautaki, a strategy for the bank’s future engagement with te ao Māori, is symbolised by the three parts of a waka: te kei – the stern, te haumi – the hull, and te tau ihu – the bow. 

Te kei represents Kiwibank’s rangatira, its leadership – current and future – and their role in steering the organisation to greater cultural competence. Te haumi represents the bank’s people and the need to build an organisation that is comfortable and confident in te ao Māori, in order to deliver better outcomes for Māori. Te tau ihu represents the role of the Kiwibank’s hapori and kiritaki – its customers and communities – in leading the organisation’s direction in building strong and meaningful relationships with Māori. 

What does this rautaki mean for the way Kiwibank works? 

“What we are trying to do is educate our wider workforce on te reo Māori me ōna tikanga. We are also wanting to increase the number of Māori in the organisation so we can have that authenticity when we are having those conversations about what we’re changing and why,” says Pihama. 

“We will support our policies, processes and procedures to understand how te ao Māori should sit within those, so we can better deliver our products to Aotearoa,”

Pihama is Te Ātiawa, Ngā Māhanga-a-Tairi, Tainui, Ngāti Maru whakapapa (Photo: Amber-Jayne Bain)

It starts with small symbolic changes. Te pū taka Māori consists of 10 consonants and five vowels; the letter “s” does not feature among those 15. Plural nouns are usually indicated by the particle “ngā” before the word. Most plural Māori words look (and sound) the same as their singular form. 

But Māori kupu that have entered the everyday lexicon are often treated to an English pluralisation with an s. “Kiwis” is probably the most common victim. 

The Kiwibank purpose was captured in the slogan “Kiwis making Kiwis better off.” It’s a succinct attempt to explain what makes the bank different from the big four Australian competitors Kiwibank was set up to challenge: it’s about investing in the future of New Zealanders. The idea resonated with Pihama. But it also jarred. 

“I liked the purpose and what we were doing to deliver on it. But in the back of my mind I always had this annoying whisper that something wasn’t quite right,” he says. 

When he came into his role as head of Māori advisory and his mindset shifted into te ao Māori he realised how much the mistake was affecting him. 

“I was at a hui and someone kept saying ‘Kiwis Kiwis Kiwis’. It was that word that had been annoying me for three years. It wasn’t until I had the bandwidth and licence to begin thinking about these things that the penny dropped.”

Pihama is trying to build a relationship with Māori from within the heart of the organisation and do it authentically. But when the bank’s slogan makes a mess of te reo Māori it undermined the authenticity of his mission. He felt his tipuna in his ear, celebrating the bank’s vision and his work, but reminding him the language, their language, is tapu – sacred and deserving of respect. 

“How are we going to put that statement out there as the purpose for the organisation if it’s incorrect? I realised we can’t do anything without first correcting the most public piece of information the bank has. If we can’t have our purpose correct, how can we authentically deliver on our rautaki?” 

He was prepared for some really tough conversations with senior staff. It didn’t feel like the most fun conversation to tell the chief executive the way the organisation had been using a word at the centre of its identity was wrong. 

But when he told his leader and mentor, Shelley Robertson, chief advisor to the chief executive, she encouraged him to push for change. ”That makes sense,” she told him. Chief executive Steve Jurkovich said exactly the same, as did many other Kiwibank leaders. 

The path was cleared for a small but powerful change. In November last year staff were told the bank would be switching from Kiwis to Kiwi across all communications. At the new Auckland office the updated slogan glows in neon lights as you exit the lifts – no s in sight. Next comes the long process of updating staff habits. It is a cultural shift, one letter at a time. 

“If we are trying to build a relationship with Māori that is inside out and do it authentically the first thing that any Māori is going to see is our purpose and our values. So if we really want to deliver on our aspiration for Māori we need to correct the way we use the language,” says Pihama.  

Before and after: a small but important change.

The next step is systemic. While he was always fascinated by the power and potential of money, Pihama entered the banking sector by accident. He was born with the Māori entrepreneurial spirit. As boys, he and his twin brother Kumeroa would mow the lawns for his nana and all her neighbours, stashing away their income. Throughout high school they worked part time jobs at Auckland Council swimming pools. 

“My brother and I always focused on how we could make more money. It wasn’t necessarily the financial gain, more the pride that came with that. We started Kiwisavers really early, and both bought houses in our early 20s. It showed all those steps lead to something pretty awesome at a young age.” 

Pihama started a commerce degree at the University of Auckland, but never finished it. When he met his future wife at a New Year’s Eve party his journey took a new direction. The couple’s relationship was forged long distance between his home in Auckland and hers in Porirua, before Pihama moved south to be with his wife and expanding whānau. He started work at ASB in Porirua in 2012. From there he moved into business lending in Wellington before being approached by Kiwibank with the opportunity to join their business banking team in 2017. 

On LinkedIn, his career path looks straightforward and well planned. But it wasn’t an easy journey. As a young man with brown skin, the hardest part was getting his foot in the door. 

His early career progress was stalled by racism. When applying for entry level banking roles – with a good CV detailing a history in insurance, sales and customer service – he found he wasn’t getting any interviews. He believes his long Māori name meant he was overlooked by recruiters who had a predetermined idea about Māori. 

So he broke down the door, seeking out managers who were hiring for roles. He realised that if he was going to succeed in the industry he needed to put himself in front of the people who were making decisions and demand he be given an opportunity. 

Now, Pihama welcomes the chance to change the way the banking sector understands te ao Māori. He wants to help Kiwibank partner with Māori to understand their unique needs and how to reach them. 

“There’s a difference in the way [Māori] look at something like home ownership. The idea of kaitiakitanga or ahi kā versus ownership – in te ao Māori nobody owns anything. It’s about understanding how iwi achieve their aspirations. There are multiple ways we can show up in that space, using the tools we have but evolving the way we understand how they work for Māori.” 

Pihama was born with the Māori entrepreneurial spirit (Photo: Amber-Jayne Bain)

He says there is huge potential in the collective wealth of hapu and whānau that is unrealised because it doesn’t fit banking’s traditional template. He and his wife, who works in insurance, have become de facto whānau financial advisors, and they often discover where barriers exist for individuals, there are opportunities for the collective. 

“Generally with whānau Māori you will have kaumatua or parents that can contribute financially and potentially have been renting long term. And you have younger generations with really good baseline incomes but no savings for the deposit. We talk to them about pooling their resources. Going back to the papakainga mentality.”

Often when Kiwibank staff have that conversation about the potential of shared resources they discover the wider whānau are already living together in the same household. Pihama helps them understand how they can pool their resources and capabilities to support one another to achieve their goals. And the potential it unlocks for Māori communities is significant. 

“I believe the benefits that come from owning a home can significantly shift our statistics in a positive way, have a positive impact on our health statistics, on our wellbeing statistics – everything Māori shows up adversely in at the moment.”

But real social change requires systemic change. This involves transforming how Kiwibank thinks about the way their products work for Māori. It’s about changing the services they offer. And it’s about changing the way they communicate with Māori communities. 

“Banks are really quick to decline someone for something. Rather than declining, we should be having conversations about building capability and creating a map to what people want to achieve,” says Pihama. 

“If you build a journey towards what the person wants to achieve that creates a really strong relationship with that customer and it supports their understanding of what they need to achieve to reach their desired goal.”  

For now, success looks like lots of small steps. It’s about cultural shifts in the way the bank thinks and works. It’s about creating an environment where Māori feel comfortable and visible, and where non Māori feel empowered to embrace tikanga.  

“The finance industry is so far behind, by way of a true relationship with Māori, that we’ve got so many hurdles and milestones to hit before we reach a future success point,” says Pihama.  

He lists off his key objectives: an increase in the number of Māori in the industry, specifically in leadership positions instead of just frontline roles where the majority of Māori in the industry sit; the normalisation of te reo Māori in Kiwibank’s communications internally and externally; and the growth of cultural fluency across the organisation, where tikanga becomes a part of everyday operations. 

“We’ve had some pretty good success in that so far. It’s a continuation of that until it becomes really normalised, versus something we have to continue to chase. Then over the long term it’s about having an authentic relationship with whānau, hapu and iwi to deliver what their aspirations are.” 

Then it’s about putting te ao Māori at the heart of Kiwibank’s wairua. Māori think long term, using the past to inform their future. Pihama hopes the rautaki will embed the same approach at Kiwibank, asking the bank to think 20, 50 and 100 years into the future and invest in the young people who will inherit Aotearoa. 

“We know the Māori population is young if we can support Māori aspirations over the long term when Māori have a larger representation of the workforce of our customer base, then that’s when those dividends will come through, that financial return,” he says. 

“But for Kiwibank it’s not about the financial return, it’s about delivering on our purpose of making Kiwi better off. It’s an essential part of being true to our vision statement. For me that speaks to what te ao Māori truly is and how we look at the impacts of what we’re doing, not just on ourselves but the wider community, te taiao, Papatūānuku and Ranginui.”

This content was created in paid partnership with Kiwibank. Learn more about our partnerships here

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The Spinoff has covered the news that matters in 2021, most recently the delta outbreak. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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