We asked Dame Alison Paterson, a woman with a business career spanning over 50 years who was recently honoured for her stellar governance career, to tell us about her views on leadership, and the future of business in a rapidly changing world, following her recent appointment as Chair of one of New Zealand’s biggest energy businesses, Vector.
What is your perspective on leadership – your personal style, what works, and what lessons you have learned?
While leadership can come in different guises, good leaders have much in common. Of utmost importance is your reputation of integrity (i.e. that you are trusted to ‘do the right thing’ by everyone you are associated with) along with a strategic focus which drives your thinking and decision making. It’s about having the right attitude, being able to put forward a persuasive argument, being persistent, being pragmatic, being compassionate towards others and keeping the big picture and desired outcome in mind. Don’t let the urgent subsume the important. Above all, a leader understands that it is a team effort. Certainly, you need to challenge, debate with and monitor management, but you also need to nurture them. Within the board, everyone’s view is heard and respected and decisions are generally best reached by consensus.
As a high achieving woman, do you see female leadership qualities as being different from males?
While I am supportive of the need to get greater diversity into the workplace and around the Board table, and it’s clear that there is still an under-representation of females in senior roles in New Zealand, I don’t think that this is an outcome related to leadership qualities. I tend to think that leadership qualities, in and of themselves, are gender, age and background agnostic. Good leaders come from many different backgrounds. While some might argue that female leadership styles lean more towards the consultative, collaborative and inclusive, and male leadership styles run more towards the competitive, assertive and confident, I’ve been around long enough to see that there are always exceptions to these sorts of leadership style generalisations.
Any challenges you have faced getting to the top?
Not really. I do think it is a matter of attitude. It helps if you have no preconceived ideas of what is normal. You can then do extraordinary things without being overawed. In my case, I had no father and no other role model. In my first job, I was in a situation without precedent in the family but with the opportunity of doing what I enjoyed doing and was good at. Because I did not know that it was unusual, my progress was limited only by my ability – I don’t always know what happened along the way, but I was pretty good then and I was able to achieve a lot. The main message is to be careful not to be constrained by accepted norms and to give things a go. I’ve always had abundant energy and a good work ethic so I do what I have to do and I do what I say I will do – I’m focused and can get through a lot of work in that way.
What advice do you have for talented young women looking to get into a leadership role?
These days you need to be well qualified, well presented and in an industry or position where you understand and can articulate what value you add. Being up to date in terms of the ever-changing environment is essential. In every environment, the current imperative is to ‘put the customer in the centre of all that you do’. The decision of the Government to introduce a ‘wellbeing’ budget in 2019 is indicative of a general move towards the Maori world view, ‘it is the people, the people, the people’. If you can try to protect yourself by establishing a ‘get-lost’ fund so you don’t ever have to compromise your integrity – you can walk and people won’t forget you! Plan your career steps, and deliver in your current role by creating value and managing risks.
What is the role of businesses in today’s rapidly disrupting world?
At the recent Vector AGM, Chief Executive Simon Mackenzie cited a quote from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that I think sums up the world in which we now live: “The pace of change has never been this fast, yet it will never be this slow again.” In this world, people now rightly expect businesses to stand for something bigger than just the profit motive and shareholder value. Businesses are expected to play a leading role in helping to decarbonise New Zealand’s economy and deal with the real impacts of climate change. Businesses must lead the way on investment in the innovation and technology that will enable greater choice and competition for consumers. Businesses must also do what they can to help ensure that, as we inevitably transition to a more sustainable and technology-enabled and connected economy, that nobody gets left behind, as we so painfully saw in the Rogernomics economic revolution of 1984.
Any changes you would wish to see in the corporate/electricity sector?
While New Zealand has long prided itself on its electricity market, it’s clear there are major challenges ahead. Today, our wholesale market is extraordinarily volatile, there is little genuine competition, we have limited hydro storage, there is coal being imported to plug the generation gap between supply and demand, we have uncertain incentives around technology investment, we have relatively slow take-up of solar, battery and EV’s compared to the rest of the world, and customers are paying more for their energy than ever amidst concerns over energy affordability. As we speak there is a Government review of the electricity sector underway, and it’s my wish that the Government takes the opportunity to incentivise investment in the new energy technologies that will help empower customers, help solve these big market problems, and help promote more innovation and competition.
What is your vision for Vector?
My vision for Vector is simple. I want Vector to create a new energy future for New Zealand. A future where customers are fully empowered and have control and choice over where and when and how they use energy. A future where all consumers get the benefits of new energy technologies, not just the more advantaged. I want Vector to attract the best talent in New Zealand and contribute more than its fair share to a more sustainable, more equitable energy system. And I want all our people and the general public to be safe and secure around electricity. Not much to ask for is it!
Learn more about working at Vector here