From rugby to tribal leadership: Te Arawa Lakes Trust CEO Karen Vercoe’s leadership style was inspired by her sporting background

The skills Karen Vercoe learnt representing New Zealand in rugby and touch rugby are invaluable in her tribal leadership roles. To resilience and agility, she has added a willingness to be a servant for her people. 

Words: Amokura Panoho  Photos: Mead Norton


Ko Matawhāura te maunga
Ko Te Rotoiti-i-kite-aī-e-Īhenga
Ko Te Arawa te waka
Ko Ngāti Pikiao te iwi
Ko Ngāti Hinekura te hapū
Ko Pounamunui te marae
Ko Houmaitawhiti te tupuna

Matawhāura is my mountain
Ko Te Rotoiti-i-kite-aī-e-Īhenga my lake
Te Arawa my canoe
Ngāti Pikiao my tribe
Ngāti Hinekura my sub-tribe
Pounamunui my marae
Houmaitawhiti my eponymous ancestor

Karen is chair of Te Pūmautanga O Te Arawa, the Data Iwi Leaders Group (ILG), and Te Kāhui Raraunga, a charitable trust responsible for implementing the mahi (work) for the Data ILG.

She is a director of Central North Island Iwi Holdings (CNIHL), representing eight iwi owners of the largest contiguous forest in the southern hemisphere, and a trustee of the Ngāti Pikiao Iwi Trust.

She has a master’s in management and was awarded the Dame Mira Szászy Māori Alumni Award in 2016. This year, she received a New Zealand Order of Merit for services to governance and sport. She is also a recent appointment to the Sport New Zealand board.


I am the chief executive of Te Arawa Lakes Trust, responsible for the oversight and management of Te Arawa iwi settlement assets, including the region’s 14 lakes.

The trust (previously Te Arawa Māori Trust Board) has a significant taiao (environmental) focus and has reprioritized its purpose while strengthening its capability. Although I have swum in my lake, Rotoiti, all my life, I have had little background in environmental matters.

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My speciality is management and building great organizations. An initial three-month management secondment is now, four years on, a permanent position. We have gone from a turnover of about $100,000 to $5 million per annum; from one staff member — myself — to 30 staff, and we’re about to add on another 30. We are now seen as one of the leading Te Arawa organizations.


I was fortunate to have great role models in my maternal grandparents, Kawana and Hera Nepia. We were brought up on our marae in Ngāti Pikiao, where my grandfather was the kai kōrero (spokesperson), and my grandmother was the kai karanga (caller), and where my parents (Neal and Wai Vercoe) were always busy working.

I have fond childhood memories of growing up at the marae, thinking it was normal and cool because I was surrounded by cousins, aunts and uncles. My mother was the secretary for the marae for several years, and that also instilled in me from a young age what service for our people was about.

In 1996, I was selected to represent New Zealand in women’s rugby and in touch rugby a few years later. Playing at that high level under the mentorship of people such as the late Donna Morgan-Stone, herself a sporting legend, and our rugby coach Darryl Suasua introduced me to high-performance principles of teamwork, training, work ethic and commitment.

It took me five years to break into the Black Ferns; being in the same environment as the best women in the world in their sport rubs off on you.

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I have learnt that it is not about the individual; it’s about what you and the team are trying to achieve. My time as an elite sportswoman allowed me to take those lessons into my own leadership style. You have to have great people around you. You must motivate, inspire and support. Leadership is about getting the best from your team and creating an environment that keeps people passionate and motivated.

As a leader, you don’t have to be the whole package. You just need to be amazing at what you do and allow your people, your team, to do the same. I have had the benefit of watching leaders in different capacities — people such as Janice Kuka from Tauranga Moana, Herewini Parata from Ngāti Porou, Hayden Wano from Taranaki, Rikirangi Gage from Whānau-a-Apānui, Kahurangi (Dame) Naida Glavish, Ngāti Whātua and, of course, my own chairman, Taa (Sir) Toby Curtis from Te Arawa.

They demonstrate the ability to be principled while taking on challenges, especially with government and crown agencies, and to be unrelenting in their passion and commitment to their people.


My dream is to see all our hapū strong with the ability and resources to achieve their own aspirations for their whānau. I think that will happen in the next 50 years because we have a generation of kura kaupapa and wharekura (total immersion school) graduates who can walk in both worlds confidently.

I am part of an emerging group of leaders who are more collaborative, more inclusive, less gender-focused, less patriarchal, who want to dig in and make things work. I would love us to come together as the Te Arawa confederated tribes to kōrero to collaborate on the big issues.

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The original Te Arawa Māori Trust Board was established in 1924 to bring our people together for big hui (meetings) and takē (issues). Then our individual iwi can take that outcome back to their hapū. The recent pandemic and the need to ensure the wellbeing of our people demonstrates the value of our tribal mandate in leading the iwi response.


◆ Te Arawa Lakes Trust represents 56 hapū from the confederated tribes of Te Arawa, Ngā Pūmanawa e Waru
o Te Arawa (the eight beating hearts of Rangitihi in relation to the Te Arawa Lakes Settlement Act 2006).

◆ Te Pūmautanga O Te Arawa formed on 1 December 2006 to receive, hold and manage settlement assets on behalf of 11 Te Arawa iwi and hapū, known as the affiliates.

◆ The Mana Ōrite work programme between Stats NZ and the Data Iwi Leaders Group of the National Iwi Chairs Forum is a high-priority initiative for the Government Chief Data Steward and Stats NZ, providing data governance that reflects Māori needs and interests.


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NZ Life and Leisure This article first appeared in NZ Life & Leisure Magazine.
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