Working with Jock

Jock at Massey University, Palmerston North, at the launch of The Settled Landscape theme

Jock at Massey University, Palmerston North, at the launch of The Settled Landscape theme

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.

Jock looking unusually relaxed (apparently, though, after a tramping trip)

Jock looking unusually relaxed (apparently, though, after a tramping trip)

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.

10 comments have been added so far

  1. Comment made by Mel || October 28th, 2014

    One of the things I loved (?) about Jock is the way he starts talking about whatever is on his mind as he approaches you – often from some way back. It means that as you turn around to face him, he is already well into whatever problem it is and I, at least, am left struggling to follow and it takes quite a while for my brain to catch up.

  2. Comment made by Caren Wilton || October 28th, 2014

    I concur; Jock is quite a guy, and it’s been a privilege to work with him. My favourite memory is probably being summoned to team meetings with a whistle, as if we were a rowdy bunch of sheep to be rounded up. I wrote more about My Life Working With Jock at

  3. Comment made by Heath || October 28th, 2014

    Great post Ross.

    The 3 lead designers for Te Ara over the years would likely agree, that the “hero meetings” (Picking the cover image and background colour for each story) are the stand-out memories. The debate from behind me would usually come to an end when Jock waded in with his thoughts. But things would drag on when even Jock couldn’t make up his mind between beige and very light sandy brown.

    Jock is a force of nature and a great leader. I’m still surprised he let me become Lead Designer (I’m not setting you up for a joke Ross)… and was more surprised when he actually listened to me (shhhh Ross). And the fact is… he listens to everyone. He might disagree with you in the moment, but later on, perhaps over a weekend walk, it would sink in and his position would change.

    As Mel said above, week later, you’d pick up the conversation mid-sentence and realise he’s discussing an idea from a week ago that he’s now in favour of.

    I wouldn’t call what Jock is about to do “retirement” as he’ll probably end up continuing to work harder than most. We need a new word for it… perhaps “retirentrepreneurism”.

  4. Comment made by Kerryn || October 28th, 2014

    I reckon one of the reasons why Jock has been such a great leader of a great team is that he combines a formidable intellect with a democratic spirit. A rare pairing I think and one that has taught me a lot.

  5. Comment made by Helen Rickerby || October 28th, 2014

    I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone quite like Jock. His amazing knowledge coupled with a boundless energy and enthusiasm is one of the wonders of the world. Like others, I have learned a lot from him, and also learned that there is no point trying to keep up entirely with him. It’s just not possible! I suspect that Te Ara could never have been without Jock, and it certainly could never have had such a coherent, focused and fun team as the one he has built. Jock, it has been a pleasure and an honour working with you.

  6. Comment made by Angela Mitchell || October 29th, 2014

    Great post Ross brings back many memories. Stand out moment for me was Jock bringing Basil, Em and Kristy and condolences from the team to Dads tangi in 2009, learning a waiata on the drive from Wellington to Taupo than returning the same day. One of many shinning examples of who Jock is, andcthe support of a loving family behind. Nga mihi nui kia koutou katoa.

    Another great quality of Jock’s is that you always knew what he was thinking lol because he told you directly, both praise and otherwise. One funny moment was when Jock was receiving random emails from someone called Angela, in true Jock style he politely asked if it was me and if I was ok. Lol funny but i like that it was cleared up immediately, and random Angela was blocked.

    Nga mihi nui ki a koe Jock, me to whanau, te whanau o Te Ara hoki.

  7. Comment made by Nancy || October 29th, 2014

    Working with Jock has been a huge privilege and pleasure, and full of surprises. One of those has been the revelation of his fine acting skills (I refer to the feature slide on the Te Ara home page entitled ‘Disco Queen’). In the early days of Te Ara, a number of us took a Maori language course run by Te Wananga o Aotearoa. It was great fun – the tutors were brilliant and we had a lot of laughs. At the end of our first term, the class was required to present a skit entirely in Maori. We decided to do a Maori-language version of Cinderella, and of course Jock and a burly policy analyst were cast as the ugly sisters. There was much discussion of costumes and I was interested to discover that Jock had quite an extensive drag wardrobe – I remember him earnestly discussing which of his three handbags would be suitable for the occasion. Our play was a huge success, and of course Jock and his ‘sister’ completely upstaged the poor girl playing Cinderella. The tutors laughed so much they nearly fell off their chairs!

  8. Comment made by Simon Nathan || October 29th, 2014

    Its just over a decade since I started work as theme editor for ‘Earth, Sea and Sky’ and ‘The Bush’ sections of Te Ara. I look back on this time as the most stimulating of my working career, with Jock constantly questioning me (but generally taking my advice). The science sections were immeasurably improved by his insistence that every article should include human aspects, and I learnt so much about the craft of writing. A big thank you to Jock and all my wonderful colleagues at Te Ara

  9. Comment made by Jock Phillips || October 30th, 2014

    Thank you my friends and colleagues for all these memories. Of course I deny hotly all the stories, but put them down to the general ribbing and good fun which has made the building of Te Ara such a fabulous journey. It has been an absolute privilege working with you all.

  10. Comment made by Peter McPhee || October 30th, 2014

    It’s wonderful to read these warm appreciations of my former VUW colleague, Jock, who personifies for me the best values of the historian and citizen: knowledge, enthusiasm, a sense of the ridiculous, and a capacity for constructive crtiticism. His contribution to his land has been extraordinary (and will continue), matched by the respect for his achievement from beyond its shores.

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