Carolyn Young

Leading with heart and vision

Te Kunenga ki Pūrehuroa Massey University alumna Dr Ellen Joan Ford (Nelson) is more than just an academic. She is an ex-Army leader, a ground-breaking consultant, an advocate for inclusive workplaces, a proud mum, and most recently, a beacon of hope for many Afghans seeking safety. This multifaceted powerhouse has made a lasting mark locally and globally. 

A decade in uniform and a pivot to academia

Ellen served a remarkable ten-year tenure in the New Zealand Army in her early years. During this period, she was deployed across the globe, from Afghanistan and Antarctica to Australia and the Pacific. Each deployment and mission enriched her perspective, shaped her character, and laid the foundation for her subsequent organisational leadership and well-being work.

“In my ninth year with the army, I contemplated leaving. I wanted to broaden my skill set.” Subsequently, Ellen took up the Executive Master of Business Administration (EMBA) programme at Massey. “The structure of Massey’s programme, taking place on weekends rather than weekdays, was an ideal fit for me. I deeply valued every bit of that experience. Plus, achieving a commendable grade boosted my confidence to explore further.”

Having pursued her EMBA in 2013, Ellen then ventured into a PhD, which became a turning point in her life. “It wasn’t a career necessity for me to get a PhD. I was drawn to it because I felt it would be an esteemed qualification.” Ellen delved into a PhD, researching women’s leadership journeys and well-being in professional settings. Through extensive interviews with women in the military, she discovered recurring gender-related challenges that echoed her own experiences. Instead of merely documenting these findings, Ellen took it upon herself to catalyse change. She transformed her research into actionable strategies, partnering with organisations like the NZ Army to rectify systemic barriers.

Changing the working world

Ellen’s expertise was not restricted to academia. Post-MBA, Ellen embraced the corporate world. Her stint at PTS Logistics and as a Regional Manager and business consultant at NZTE (New Zealand Trade and Enterprise) showcased her versatility. 

But a calling awaited. “During parental leave, the idea of starting my own business took root,” she shares. “My focus? Leadership. I am terrifyingly ambitious to change the working world.”

Ellen illuminates how her multifaceted roles – army officer, academic, business consultant, and most importantly, a mother – informed her mission. “Being a mum underscored that the role of a parent is paramount. Our parent skills, from negotiation to time management, are invaluable in the workplace.”

She further elaborates, “The structural barriers plaguing women and parents aren’t just diversity and inclusion; it’s a leadership challenge. How can leaders make the workplace more inclusive and conducive to everyone?”

Ellen’s innovative campaigns, #workschoolhours and #belongingautonomypurpose have captured significant attention for their principle-based approach. The core of #workschoolhours revolves around three foundational principles: valuing that people have things they care about outside of work, focusing on outputs, not hours, and promoting flexibility. 

Ellen emphasises the significance of valuing life beyond work, “Being able to attend my 6-year-old’s kapa haka event, and fit my required outputs in and around that, is precious to me.” She further highlights how skills developed through parenting can be pivotal in a professional setting. Ellen’s insights on this movement will soon be detailed in her upcoming book titled #workschoolhours.

A hero beyond borders

Ellen Ford - Local hero of the yearHowever, for Ellen, the work doesn’t stop at just reshaping professional environments. Deep-rooted with compassion, her heart led her to spearhead the evacuation of 563 Afghans in danger. 2021 and 2022 was the craziest time for Ellen, as she spent months fighting to bring these Afghan evacuees to New Zealand after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban. Collaborating with a team of dedicated volunteers, including Chris Parsons and Martin Dransfield, they formed a close-knit team. Together, among the weight of the enormous, emotionally draining task, they collaborated with various sectors, raising almost half a million dollars, liaising with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and more to save lives.

Ellen’s commitment to the cause was recognised with the prestigious Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year – Local Hero 2023 award, and ‘Person of the Year 2022’ – Manawatu Standard. She attributes this success to collective efforts, highlighting the incredible teamwork, generous donors, media support, collaboration with Government officials and the indispensable role of Afghan interpreters.

“It stands as a monumental testament to genuine teamwork,” Ellen remarks. “It was more than just completing a mission; it was living out the principles I deeply believe in, that a sense of belonging, autonomy, and purpose truly works. Our team shared an unparalleled sense of unity. We’ve witnessed each other’s emotional highs and lows, from tears to joy. We were more than just colleagues; we formed a close-knit family. On the autonomy front, we never set rigid work hours. Everyone managed their time organically, balancing professional tasks and personal commitments like family. It’s astonishing how efficiently people operate when given such freedom. Our mission was unmistakably clear: evacuate these individuals from Afghanistan. And all these facets—belonging, autonomy, and purpose – interwove seamlessly in our endeavour.”

Ellen Ford Diagram

Rooted in family

For Ellen, life is a rich tapestry of experiences. Each chapter has shaped her, from the arduous terrains of Afghanistan to the halls of Massey University and the corridors of corporate New Zealand. “The most vital part of my story is my family,” she says, emphasising that the mixture of all her roles - mum, sister, daughter, friend, colleague - fuels her passion.

With every keynote talk, every consultancy project, every leadership training facilitation and every movement, Ellen seeks to redefine leadership, well-being, and the very fabric of the working world.

To engage with Dr Ellen Joan Ford (Nelson), follow her on LinkedIn and Facebook, or check out her website:

Ellen Ford Diagram