Words of wisdom: Top Kiwi businesswomen spill the beans

Careers are rarely linear and advice can take many forms depending on the personal experiences of the leader or mentor involved.

There are, however, moments in every career that stand out and linger in the mind, no matter what great heights the person eventually goes on to achieve.

As the stories of seven high-flying New Zealand businesswomen show, those moments can arrive in the most unexpected way – and we often only realise their impact years later.

Each woman featured is a member of non-profit organisation Global Women, a collective committed to increasing equity, equality, inclusion and diversity for women in both the workplace and society.

'No one wants to work for a superwoman' – Alison Andrew, CEO of Transpower

The best piece of career advice I ever received was from one of the CEOs I worked for relatively early in my career – he told me not to try to be a superwoman and do everything. He said: “No one wants to work for a superwoman – they’re just too hard to live up to. Be human, take time off to go to your kids’ sports days and be (appropriately) vulnerable.”

Early in my career I thought I had to have my game face on – as a young mother I had to prove to everyone I could have a big career and a family and I could do it all, no problem. Of course I could do it all, but it had its moments, and some of these were held together with sticking plasters! By sharing this with women along the way, I found many approached me with similar experiences and were happy to help. I think since then we’ve thankfully moved on a lot as a society – it’s now quite acceptable to openly take time off for family – going to the kids’ sports days and special occasions, but it hasn’t always been that way. It’s important as a leader to model behaviours to make it easier for the next generation coming through and as women starting out – to be honest about what is important to us.

'Commit to the long game for a dream'- Ai Ling,Gynaecological Oncologist

I always knew I wanted to do medicine to help others, but it was my parents’ support – particularly though medical school – that kept me on the path to where I am now. As an Asian female with no networks, I had to make decisions based on the opportunities presented. At any fork in the road, my Mum helped me weigh up the pros and cons, and supported me the best way they knew how, telling me to keep that end point in sight and take one step at a time. This all came to a head when I completed my specialisation in Obstetrics and Gynaecology and family commitments meant I didn’t initially pursue my end-dream of sub-specialisation in Gynaecological Oncology. However, with time – and as my passion for looking after women with cancers did not diminish – I went back and completed my journey.

A career isn’t always a straight A to B, sometimes you need to take the longer more scenic path to learn things about yourself along the way – but that opportunity to see and try new things helps you fine-tune your focus to distil what you truly want. It is always important to reflect on your underlying intention – if this is good, just try- as often a deemed-failure could be success in disguise.

'Have coffee every week with someone new' – Vanisa Dhiru, Commissioner of communication and information at New Zealand National Commission of Unesco

Early on in my career, two different colleagues suggested I meet as many new people as possible, as it was likely I’d find the next roles that I wanted to apply for through networking.

One of them mentioned that they had coffee every week with someone new. This advice is something that I took on board and over the years, and while I haven’t met the goal every week, I certainly have been able to meet a lot of new people through inviting them out for coffee.

Sometimes the coffee meetings are created through networking events that I attend, sometimes a mutual colleague will connect me with people they think I should meet, and other times I might listen or read about somebody and I just ring them up and see if they would be willing to spend 30 minutes or an hour with me over a cup of coffee. By having some allocated time to discuss and connect, I have been able to form strong relationships early on with people. I’ve learnt that most people you invite out for coffee are usually very willing to help you. The gift of being able to help somebody else makes you realise that giving up an hour once a week is time well spent, and is also very rewarding.

'Seek to broaden your experience'- Justine Smyth, Chair of Spark

As we grow and hit hurdles in our careers we are often reassured and reminded that a career path is rarely linear, and building on that important piece of guidance I would go even further to say – make sure it isn’t. There is a lot to be said for broadening your experience and taking risks by assuming responsibilities in more than just a functional context.Doing this will arm you with the ability to make a more significant contribution as a leader and in business more generally.

My personal experience is that the lessons learned around making decisions from owning and managing my own businesses have enabled me to contribute as a director in a far more impactful way than simply contributing as a chartered accountant (which is where I started).

The other really important piece of advice is: if you are offered a seat at the table then: take it, sit in it and own it!

'Leverage the power of networks' – Amanda Ellis, executive director for Asia-Pacific, Global Institute of Sustainability and Innovation

The best career advice I received was when I first joined the NZ Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) in 1988. I was excited to be assigned to the International Secretariat of the Pacific Economic Co-operation Conference (PECC, forerunner to APEC). I was less than excited when I discovered my Secretariat role couldn’t be fulfilled because I was female. Meetings were held at the (then all-male) Wellington club! I’d joined MFAT to help save the world and it seemed being female meant I couldn’t even get into the meetings to discuss it.

Warned by colleagues not to “rock the boat” as all the MFAT senior managers were members, I finally plucked up the courage to raise the issue with the Secretary of the Ministry. He suggested if I felt strongly about creating change that I reach out to other Ministry women to create a network that could advocate for inclusion. That was the best piece of career advice I’ve received – it’s movement from lower down the pecking order that has the means to create real change. Those in power rarely have the same burning desire to share it, as evidenced by the fact not a single country has yet achieved full gender equality, despite the now well-documented economic benefits of the diversity dividend. Initiatives such as Global Women’s Champions for Change is a wonderful example on a national scale of the positive impact of collective engagement and inclusive governance.

'Your identity should be more than your job' – Agnes Naera, CEO of Global Women

If I ask you who you are, in my experience a lot of people lead with their job – be it CEO, entrepreneur, artist or teacher – we confuse the “who we are” with the “what we do”, 9-5. Therefore, the piece of wisdom I would like to pass on isn’t strictly career advice, but it’s the life advice passed from my tupuna – knowing who you are and what you stand for is really important.

Since nowadays we often identify ourselves based on our job, it can lead us to believe what we do is our identity and our self-worth. However, this can be a slippery slope. The more we wed our identity to our job roles and derive our sense of self from them, the more we risk losing when our career hits a hurdle. So my advice is to spend some time and figure out your personal purpose, away from your job – what do you care about? What do you want to do? So you can use this purpose to help keep you centred. Once you know this, it’s true that your job may then become the vehicle to your ambitions – but not the core of it – instead your purpose will be at the centre. Knowing your purpose will arm you with the grounding to show up as your best authentic self, meaning you can enjoy your work – whatever it may be – without tying your identity to it and risking losing yourself in the process.

'Make time to establish and foster key relationships' – Caren Rangi, chair of the Arts Council of New Zealand Toi Aotearoa

A piece of career advice that has stood me in good stead throughout my working life was not something that was said to me directly but was a practice that I observed being undertaken by the first (and best) boss I ever had. Despite the time demands of his role, he regularly made time to meet (formally and informally) with a whole range of different stakeholders (friends and foes). Sometimes those meetings had specific agendas, but often it was just space made to grow and develop the relationship. Some of those relationships were vital to the smooth operation of our regular work, while others became useful at strategic points. Overall though, he developed a reputation as someone who was never too busy to listen, and garnered much respect for this.

I have applied this same approach and the benefit for me has been a strong and diverse network of colleagues, contacts and friends who have helped with my various roles by broadening my thinking and by providing a safe testing ground on tricky issues. Some of this relationship time is also spent helping others to develop (through advice and mentoring). I have recently entered into a mutual mentoring arrangement with a young woman (half my age!) where I am providing advice on how she can develop a career in governance, and she is sharing with me her views (as a young person) on governance practices, so I can understand how to support the next generation of governors.
As busy as I am, I have never regretted taking the time to grow and foster relationships, both professionally and personally, as this investment has paid dividends many times over.

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