As the time comes to wish Jock Phillips well for a long and fruitful retirement, we can reflect on some of the special qualities he has brought to the leadership of the Te Ara project.
It’s particularly wonderful to see his delight in the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in non-fiction, coming as it does when the focus is on Jock’s recent work for Te Ara. Jock wrote 43 entries for the online encyclopedia. That’s about 200,000 words, the equivalent of a very substantial, heavily illustrated volume. Not to mention that over the same period he also produced books, essays, interviews and blog posts, and wrote hundreds, possibly thousands, of captions, and read every single one of the over 3 million words in Te Ara – most of them more than once.
To me the outstanding qualities of Jock’s leadership have been his energy and his commitment. He has been totally engrossed in every aspect of the work, and his delight in the discovery of new material, new insights and new ways to tell a story has been generously shared with the team, at meetings, at morning tea gatherings and at social events.
The other truly notable quality of Jock’s leadership is his consultative way of working. He’s not short of ideas or the drive with which to progress them, but he insists on testing his ideas and assumptions with others, whether they be the acknowledged experts in their field, iwi and whānau with a duty of kaitiakitanga, or, equally importantly, his colleagues in the Te Ara team who will have to live and work with the consequences of decisions.
And this intelligence, incisiveness, creativity and energy comes with generosity, empathy and humility. Within reason. The man is profoundly human: witness his willingness to change his mind and to admit when he has made a decision he regrets, his recalcitrance on matters of progressive house style, and his appalling sense of humour.
Notable and characteristic foibles include:
The down-trou: Legendary in the early days of Te Ara was Jock’s ritual disrobing when he arrived in the office after cycling in. One of the hazards of open-plan offices is the sharing of too much information.
The weekend walk: Staff visibly blanched and shuddered when at a Monday staff meeting Jock would say laconically ‘I went for a walk in the weekend and …’.
This generally prefaced an announcement that ‘I have changed my mind entirely’ about a decision reached after much discussion and argument; or ‘I had an idea’. This inevitably meant a new feature or a completely revamped approach to the way we had been doing something.
The storm down the office: We have gradually become inured to the sight of Jock travelling purposefully and at high speed down the office, brandishing a piece of paper and with a face like thunder. The cause may have been a misplaced apostrophe, a typo, or a more serious error or omission, but all were treated with the same urgency and seriousness.
We learned not to be afraid and to admire Jock’s amazing and unflagging attention to detail. If genius is the infinite capacity for taking pains, this man is up there with Einstein.
Unravelling the Jockism: Unsurprisingly, with so much knowledge spinning around in his cranium, Jock had a tendency to make some bold statements in his writing, which in some cases required writing a whole new subentry page in order to unpick and clarify them. He has internalised so much knowledge about the background and history of the Irish that we had to preface the entry with an explanation and explication of the forces at work behind the Irish immigrant experience in New Zealand.
A gift for informality: Like all geniuses, Jock is probably somewhere ‘on the spectrum’. His up-close-and-personal style of conversation takes a bit of getting used to. One colleague commented on ‘all that “D” coming down on you’, but Jock doesn’t intend to intimidate. It’s simply his informality and good-heartedness, generosity of spirit that encourages you to be as open-minded and fearless as he is.
Jock’s belief in the worth of the Te Ara enterprise has caused him sleepless nights, consternation and despair. His vehement support of probity, good sense and openness has struck fear into the hearts of some of the more faint-hearted or soulless he has encountered. This same confident but consultative and co-operative approach has earned Jock the loyalty and support of his Te Ara team. This is the kind of cohesion and team spirit that money can’t buy, and no regime of team-building exercises could engender. Those of us who leave the project now will I think, like me, remember working with Jock at Te Ara as the best working experience, and one of the most satisfying personal experiences they will ever have.
It’s a cliché, but it’s been a pleasure and a privilege to work with Jock; he’s quite a guy.
Everyone will have their own favourite story or memory and I hope some will share them here.