Dr Adele Whyte drinks her tea from a large orange mug that says Born to be the Boss. She swears it’s a joke. “I’ve never seen myself as a leader. What I have done is less about brains and more about tenacity.”
On the flip side of the coin Nicola Ngarewa was raised to take charge. “I’ve come from a background where my mother was the cleaner at the school where she later became the principal. She groomed me to change the status quo.”
Somewhere between them lies a picture of our female leaders. They are not all cut from the same cloth, but there are themes, and listening to them tell their own stories brings into focus a dynamic portrait of the women who lead in our community.
Pulling together any list like this is bound to spark dissent; it’s never going to be comprehensive or satisfy all perceptions. Ours is a snapshot of women in leadership roles now, across a range of sectors and levels of power. Some influence through their positions, some seek out opportunities to contribute wherever they can. They work for the greater good, and the ripples caused by the waves they create are far-reaching.
There are commonalities, and things that set each apart. Some are leaders-rising, some have been in top positions for years. Many have studied, most believe learning is a life-long pursuit. Most have children: many grown and flown, one still a babe-in-arms. Almost all are part of a strong marital relationship; half of those are with their second significant partner. Some are highly visible in our community. Others fly beneath the radar.
Collectively their influence in our region has breadth and longevity.
Heather Skipworth did her first Iron Man in 2009. Riding the adrenaline wave, she established her own version, Iron Maori, that same year. “I am a thinker. I can be exhausted but my head will tick for hours. And I love making people feel good about themselves.”
Her background is far from privileged, but her leadership strengths are focused on raising up others.
“My story as a kid was being written as one of a cyclic life. Once Were Warriors has nothing on the life we lived. I don’t resent it, I learnt from it,” she says.
Jenny Yule is the founding director of PORSE, but says she never set out to run such a business. “I love babies and I’m outspoken in terms of saying that as a society we are over-institutionalising children. This work takes open-minded skills and an appreciation of personal growth.”
Liz Stockley is the chief executive of Health Hawke’s Bay. She completed her second masters degree when her girls were toddlers.
“You can juggle as many balls as you like. Your job, education, even friends, those balls are rubber and they bounce. But your family and your health, those balls are glass, so don’t drop them.”
“The only person I ever compete with is me,” says Jacqui Grey, who’s been practising law with Gifford Devine since 1979; a partner since 1987. “If you’re working you have to be passionate about it. It’s hard enough without fighting the fact that you don’t really want to be there.”
When Annie Dundas arrived four years ago, new to the region, to take up the top job at Tourism Hawke’s Bay she began constructing a strong foundation. “I had to build up a confident and credible base in the Bay. You have to prove results,” says Annie. “I like to get things done and I’m action driven.”
“My philosophy is: be the best that I can be.” says Adele Whyte. She’s 35 with two young children, and bachelor, master and PhD level degrees. Now she is chief executive of Ngati Kahungunu Iwi Inc. “This role is part of who I am. It’s my whakapapa. I am so grateful for where I am. It’s a huge privilege.”
Roots have shaped Diane Vesty’s role too. “I grew up on an orchard and my parents were fruit growers,” she explains. As manager of Hawke’s Bay Fruitgrowers, and with the industry being a mainstay of Hawke’s Bay’s GDP, Diane’s role as facilitator and advocate is vital. “Fruit growers are tenacious people and they can stand a lot of adversity. They get back on their feet and find a way forward. I’m that kind of person too.”
As editor of the Hastings and the Napier Mail newspapers Diane Joyce brings together a long history in management and a shorter one as a journalist. “I’ve always fared better in positions where I’ve been in sole charge or managing. Maybe it’s just that I don’t like being told what to do!”
As deputy mayor of Hastings District since 2001 Cynthia Bowers has held senior leadership positions in a range of areas. “Resilience is required for women. You do need to put a tough shell around yourself,” she explains. “I look at men and think ‘What do I have to do to be better than that?’”
Claire Vogtherr heads a family business that goes back four generations and 100 years. “The heritage is both a wonderful thing and something that makes you think about the decisions you make,” she says.”There’s a responsibility. You can’t very well blow it, can you?”
Claire Hague had what she describes as a conventional career path with rapid progression. She is deputy chief executive of EIT. “In the past I have been the only woman around the table. It’s quite daunting initially. Now I don’t notice, but it did give me a taste of the fact that there is a gap.”
Adri Isbister has been working outside traditional lines since she was very young, and wearing a range of hats. She is chief executive of Radius Medical Group. “If you surround yourself with good people, you can do anything.”
“Women understand team,” suggested Tracee Te Huia, general manager for Maori Health at the HBDHB. “We fit things in alongside our work, that are just as important, like the needs of our family. And that seamlessness allows our professional lives to flourish.”
Tania Kura is the area commander of the police in Hawke’s Bay. She’s been with the service for 27 years. “An underlying thing for me is fulfilling potential. Whether you’re at home with kids or here at work, it’s about challenging ourselves to get out of our comfort zone.”
“On the farm, I think ‘This is my place.’ That’s where I am healthiest and happiest,” says Tania Kerr, farmer, Hastings District councillor and advocate for the farming community. “Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I think you should treat people with respect, from the cleaner to the mayor, respect who they are and what they bring.”
Sarah Von Dadelszen too comes from a farming community. Alongside her on-farm work she wears a number of off-farm leadership hats, adding value wherever she can. “I never envisaged myself doing the leadership stuff. Opportunities come up and people say, ‘Get involved, you’ll enjoy it.’”
Nicola Ngarewa is principal at Tamatea High School and while making massive inroads there has become a rising star of leadership.”Opportunities come and I have passion and drive and a way of thinking that means I take them. I think: ‘I can do that, why not?’”
“I’m a truth teller,” says Rebecca Turner. With fingers in a number of pies Rebecca is making impacts across Hawke’s Bay, particularly in the areas of philanthropy and the amalgamation debate. “When change needs to happen I’m not scared of putting facts on the table. I do it because I can’t bear seeing people doing stuff for their own benefit rather than for the greater good.”
Liz Stockley could be called one of life’s accidental leaders, where some aim for greatness others slot in where they’re needed most. “I’ll fill a leadership void,but I won’t see it as a competition and step in where I’m not needed.”
“Everyone has their own leadership style,” says Adele Whyte. “One of the strongest characteristics I admire in a leader is communication, valuing those around you and knowing that everyone has a part to play.”
Nicola Ngarewa calls for a broad view on leadership. “We need a flexible and broadminded view of what leadership is. The most beautiful forms of leadership are in the most hidden places. If you don’t keep your eyes out you’ll miss opportunities to change the world.”
Diane Joyce views leadership as four-fold. “The most important traits are calmness under pressure, the ability to prioritise, patience, and the realisation that the buck stops with you.”
Claire Vogtherr’s leadership style is intrinsically linked with her own personal and family values. “You need to work hard and earn respect, have honesty and integrity, and love what you do.”
Women leaders especially shine in specific areas, says Adri Isbister. “Building relationships, networking and most of all developing others.”
For Tracee Te Huia leaders need to be courageous, calculated and accountable. “And they need to allow people to grow without stifling them.”
“Leadership is a big responsibility,” says Tania Kura. “And when you see someone else’s perspective you’re a better leader. If you’ve had a go at being goal shoot and you’ve missed all the goals you’ll understand how hard it is to play that position.”
“Leadership is about influence, self awareness, cognitive ability and intelligence. People follow you because you can communicate. Men do non-verbal communication really well; women use words,” says Tania.
For Claire Hague, strong leaders nurture leadership in others. “A key leadership skill is removing barriers for others to be leaders,” she explains. “I identify real leadership not necessarily in official leadership positions, but in people who are prepared to be innovative, do things differently, work through challenges, not simply conform to status quo.”
Good leaders “surround themselves with people cleverer, stronger and more innovative than they are,” Claire says.
“The ‘inspiration’ word is an important one,” says Annie Dundas. “A great leader is someone who brings a good team along with them.”
Leaders also need to have a view of the world bigger than themselves. “There’s a lot of people looking after their own patch, saying ‘What’s in it for me?’ That’s not leadership,” says Sarah Von Dadelszen. “Leadership is thinking about the wider picture and what’s best for the industry, not the individual.”
Risk Takers and List Makers
Their approach to risk is a key area where women take polar positions. Tracee Te Huia proudly says, “I am a risk taker. But I get a sense there’s gems on the other side of risk. I don’t have a conversation about failure. I realise that a lot of my self-talk has kept me small in the past.”
Jenny Yule is a natural born risk taker, even though she describes her husband as risk averse having lost a farm in the crash of the 1980s. “I have lots of values – trust and respect – and an openness for learning, and I think ‘Just go for it’. I am non-compliant and not scared to take risks.”
Risk is a big part of Heather Skipworth’s picture also. “If I have an idea it’s got to start and I’ve got to keep moving until I reach the finish line. I push and push until I achieve it. It’s not that I get bored, but I do need a new challenge.”
“I take risks but they are well planned ones,” says Annie Dundas. “I’m an organised person but I do like to err on the side of taking risks. It’s a juggling act. You can’t be super woman, you’ve got to have balance.”
Adele Whyte is more used to analysing process before taking risks, but her style of leadership is changing as she matures into her role. “I’m learning more to trust my gut reaction, figuring out the magnitude of risk, talking to people. I don’t tend to rush to make a decision.”
Claire Vogtherr’s attitude to risk has been built up over a number of years.”I do have a tolerance for risk, but I know you have to live by the decisions you make. Respect and integrity are everything. You earn it, you don’t command it, and you do that by working hard, and taking a risk or two.”
Rebecca Turner believes facing up to fear is the key to taking risks, “I have no fear. What is there to be afraid of? What is risk? Is it something that takes you out of your comfort zone? I don’t think: ‘I can’t do that’; I think, ‘How can I make that happen? How can I make that better?’”
Managing a farming operation through tough times has taught Tania Kerr to take risks. “We have learnt through farming in droughts, it’s not what we can’t do, it’s what we can that matters. You have to just keep making decisions. To balance it out I am definitely a list writer too!”
Many women are still butting heads with a mythical glass ceiling. It appears inability to climb to the top may not be the fault of the ladder, but a lack of confidence within the climbers themselves.
Claire Hague illustrates the issue using a job ad. “The ad lists eight competencies. A woman sees it and has five of those, she says, ‘I won’t apply, I can’t do the job’. A man sees it. He may only have three of the competencies, he says ‘I’m perfect!’ What happens next? He gets the job. The woman didn’t even apply.”
“Men are more confident in their abilities and women tend to be quite self critical, says Claire.”I was a bit of a goody two shoes, but still if there was a job to be done I would wait to be nominated rather than put my hand up. I had the support of others and often it was a case of being in the right place at the right time, and over the years I grew my confidence.”
“Confidence is a huge part of leadership,” says Annie Dundas who suggests that if you don’t have it naturally you need to work on it. “If you lead from the front then you’ve got to get on and do it with confidence, it’s essential.”
“Women have to overcome self doubt and shyness,” says Cynthia Bowers. “We carry quite a bit of guilt around with us. That doesn’t go away. Women still feel guilt about not being at home because as women we’ve been conditioned to be there.
It’s an inherent thought pattern. But if you are confident, you do your homework, you work hard, then you can compete with any man.”
In the farming community Sarah Von Dadelszen has seen both sides of confidence. Where she herself respects it, others undermine it. “If someone’s willing to put their head above the parapet I admire that. It makes me grumpy that in New Zealand people put up their hand and someone else comes along and chops it off. Sometimes that puts me off and I think twice about getting involved,” she says. Although she also admits, “My problem is I become passionate and end up doing it any way.”
Jenny Yule has a broad outlook of the way her business faces the confidence issue. “Our model only works because we enable and empower all the women who work with us. A lot of what we do is about validating women. All people need to be gainfully employed, for themselves and for their own mental health.”
Sometimes a lack of confidence can turn around at a pivotal moment. For Heather Skipworth it came when she participated in her first Iron Man. “I thought: If I can do that imagine what else I can do. When I was young I never felt satisfied that I’d reached my potential and it wasn’t what anyone else was saying, it was my own lack of confidence.”
“If it’s insecurity that holds you back in life, or your own doubts, you’re not helping anyone,” challenges Rebecca Turner, who is mindful that often the language used to describe assertive women does not help their cause. “Strong women are called tough, which is unfortunate. Because you are direct, you are perceived as tough. But directness is a lack of fear,” she says.
In Diane Vesty’s role she works closely with apprentices, and sees confidence grow in them in different ways.
“Education and training in general are very important, whatever your job prospects. Women in particular can be at risk of underestimating their own value and potential.”
Jacqui Grey has always had confidence in herself, even when statistics have not been stacked in her favour. “I came through my education at a time when the ‘Girls Can Do Anything’ approach was out there, but only 30% of law students were women. On the whole I think that sometimes women put up a lot of barriers for themselves. It is very easy to think ourselves out of doing things.”
Even in the highest achieving women, Adri Isbister often sees a lack of confidence, and believes it’s the No.1 thing women in leadership roles need to succeed. “I meet so many competent and intelligent women that could do with a confidence boost.”
Tania Kura uses her role to model leadership for other women. “Often women haven’t had the confidence or the role models haven’t been there. Seeing someone like me do things is really important. I am a particularly resilient person and quite determined. When external voices say ‘You can’t do that’ I become stronger inside and say, ‘I can and I will’.”
The Kid Issue
An oft-quoted challenge of working women is that of balancing a job with children. But many feel that in order to achieve a society with as many female leaders as male ones, the intention for change must come from employers.
“We are not good at finding ways around the kid issue. A business has to focus on being flexible,” says Jacqui Grey.”You’ve built this knowledge and these skills in these women and if you’re not flexible you lose them.”
“I am a better mother because I work, not in spite of it,” says Liz Stockley.
Tania Kura agrees. “As a mother I am not weighed down by guilt. I went back to work because I was bored, and because I did my kids are independent, able and organised.” She also feels being a mother has influenced her leadership style. “There is a difference because I am a mother, rather than because I am a woman. I am far more tolerant and less judgemental than I was before kids.”
“It would drive me insane just being with the kids on the farm,” suggests Sarah Von Dadelszen. “I’ve always had an interest in what’s going on and I’ve always been politically aware.”
Nicola Ngarewa had leadership modelled for her by strong aunts and a mother who worked. She is now watching her teenage daughters grow into leadership positions.
“My first and most significant job is being a good mother and member of my family. The cross over between personal and professional is seamless. I don’t take off one coat and put on another. Work and family are interwoven. I choose it to be that way.”
Nicola also reshapes the traditional way of seeing career progression as a climb up a ladder. “I think it is naive to think our journey is an accelerated incline up a hill. It’s a movement forward rather than a movement up,” she says, adding, “There are so many other diverse things in that journey.”
Jenny Yule believes that life-long learning is integral to leadership, both through doing it yourself and through encouraging others to do it too.
“I encourage learning in my staff and this work can be life changing for them. Personally, I believe I write my own script and I am in charge of my own destiny.”
Much of Jacqui Grey’s extended learning has come from years of participation on boards. “I have been practising law for a long time. You get to a point where you do need to extend your skills. If you’re not careful you can get tunnel vision, you have to get out there and see from others’ points of view.”
For Diane Joyce, ongoing study ensures leaders remain current and vital. “It plays a part in keeping someone in a leadership role up to date, interested and prepared to take on new ideas.”
“Every now and then we should all take stock,” says Claire Hague. “We should reflect, check out others, and ensure we’re on the right track.”
The women in top-level roles in our region are a diverse bunch, but their inner self-esteem, outward motivations and ongoing quest for betterment mean we are richer for their input in our lives. They are a group who are open to seeing opportunities and audacious enough to take them, whether they were born to be the boss or not.
It’s a rare and wonderful treat spending time with many of the most distinguished women in our community over one single month. Imagine them all in the same room! A boisterous and stimulating cocktail party; dinner with twenty
influential women, and one humble writer
There is mana in that room, experience and education, universal insight and personal reflection. And alongside that there’s refreshing and reassuring honesty, and some hard home truths. Hearing their stories makes it okay to pursue lofty goals. It is still possible to keep your feet flat on the earth. Balance is key: responsibilities, ambitions, successes, moments of self doubt. Juggling is doable, as long as you only drop balls that bounce.
Editor’s Note: Few people play as critical a role in ensuring Hawke’s Bay’s environmental wellbeing as HBRC interim chief executive, Liz Lambert. Or in delivering vital social welfare programs for our region as Presbyterian Support’s chief executive, Sanja Sajatovic-Majstorovic. Each in crucial roles, and so recognised on our list, but declining interviews.