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Speaker Q&A

Nurture Change: Learnings from a funny man who knows how to export

David Downs is the author of "No.8 Rewired – 202 Inventions that changed the world".

It's a book showcasing New Zealand's inventive past, and was published in 2014 by Penguin Books. Downs has a strong interest in working with companies that will help propel New Zealand into a position of world-leading innovation and success.

In his current role of General Manager at NZ Trade and Enterprise, he is responsible for programmes to help NZ business grow internationally. He has been a behind-the-scenes influencer in many of New Zealand's export success stories. He started his early life as a stand-up comedian - having a very recognisable face from his many TV show appearances in the 1990s -  and helped establish Auckland's Classic Comedy Club.

Downs is renowned as a brilliant speaker and at the Nurture Change Business Retreat, he will be sharing how to take your company global, with some great humour thrown in.

To be serious, you don't have to be solemn. You can have a good time in business and life, and take it seriously, while still having time for a laugh. That lesson came from my current boss Pete Chrisp, CEO of NZTE, and also the comedian John Cleese. They both have a lot of similarities.

What lesson in business do you try to pass on to others?

Business is about people. Someone told me once that if you want people to think you care about them, you actually have to care about them. If you don't have empathy for people, you have no role as a leader.

What has been your biggest learning in business to date and why? 

"Don't confuse the unintelligible for the unintelligent" – just because you don't understand something, doesn't mean it's not clever. I learned this lesson when working in the emerging markets of Asia, where business is done very differently than in New Zealand, but it all works to their set of norms. Taking the time to understand those norms is the secret to being successful in a foreign context.

Do you have any tips on how you can future-proof your business?

Keep one eye on the present and another looking 5 years out. The best way to do that (without going cross-eyed), is to have a set of advisors around you who challenge your thinking and force you to look ahead at the things you might not have the time – or desire – to think about. Good governance is about planning for an uncertain future, not only about compliance for today or looking back at yesterday's results.

Who do you think is a great innovator?

Whoever it is that designs the lids on milk cartons, and seems to change them constantly – managing to confuse hundreds of thousands of consumers on a regular basis. In my life there must have been 20 or so ways to open a bottle of milk. Enough! Leave well enough alone, I say.

What do you think is the most important innovation of your lifetime so far?

Many of the innovations in healthcare warrant that title, but I will choose the disposable plastic syringe from New Zealand inventor Colin Murdoch. This invention led to the disposable revolution in hospitals globally and saved countless time and lives. They are used in their millions daily, although sadly Murdoch – like many kiwi inventors – didn't profit from that success.

How do you look after your health and wellbeing?

Going through chemotherapy for blood cancer at the moment, this is top of mind for me currently! I try to eat healthily, and get plenty of sleep. I try to balance or harmonise work and life and I have interests to give my life meaning and purpose. I'd like to say I exercise regularly, but I am a work in progress on that front.

And the Nurture Change Business Retreat in Fiji? 
With any conference, the long-term value is often in meeting the other participants. Sure, the speakers will be amazing, and the venue stunning, but the connections and collaborations formed there will be the real payback for attendees. I come intending to learn and network as well as give my session, and I look forward to doing it in a relaxed and special environment.

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