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Lead with success > Celebrating Success > Lynette Stewart: A Distinguished Career

Lynette Stewart: A Distinguished Career

By Sarah Wilshaw-Sparkes

I first saw Lynette Stewart at Auckland University’s Business School, as she addressed a roomful of people. A mixture of whanau, academics and alumni, they’d all come to hear her give a lecture to celebrate her award as a Distinguished Alumna of the University.

She comes from a large Northland family, her father Maori and her mother Scottish. Several of her ten siblings share her taste for public service; one of her brothers is currently New Zealand’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. Kiwis will know that means Lynette carries the genes for charisma, oratory and political survival! Those characteristics shone through as she spoke about her years of work in Maori health initiatives – and as she adroitly handled some rather loaded questions from the audience.

Lynette is also a mother of five and a grandmother of nine. Impishly, she described herself as “a five foot two squit.” I doubt anyone in the lecture theatre – with the possible exception of her brothers – would have dreamt of agreeing!

After all, she has not only held the Chair of the Northland District Health Board since 2001, but has also been CEO of Te Tai Tokerau MAPO Trust (a Treaty-based health partnership between the then Northern Regional Health Authority and the iwi of Te Tai Tokerau) for twelve years. She recently completed her term of a seven year membership to the NZ National Health Committee and the Public Health Advisory Committee and has participated in numerous National Health and Disability Support Services projects and reference groups. Lynette’s long service and commitment to the health sector was recognised in 2006 with the Companion of New Zealand Order of Merit in the Queen’s Birthday Honours.

Lynette described the University, where she’d completed her Master of Management degree in 2005, as the place that gave academic legitimacy – “the breath of life” – to her passion for lifting the standards of health enjoyed by Maori. This was something she clearly deeply appreciated.

It also seems to have given her a taste for the scaling the heights of academic achievement: she has since embarked upon a PhD. But as you’ll see in what follows, Lynette Stewart is not a woman to shy away from challenges.

Recognising Potential

One theme that shone through Lynette’s speech was her passion that all children in New Zealand should be able to realise their full potential. Health and education opportunities were to the fore in her comments. It’s hard to argue with such statements but I sometimes find it hard to truly feel the need and the urgency. During our interview the next day, however, Lynette told me a story about herself. It packed one heck of a punch and when she’d finished, her passion for potential made total sense to me.

First, she sketched for me her mother’s attitudes to women’s role in life: Lynette grew up in a household with a long and largely unquestioned tradition of women living their lives in service of their menfolk. At school, Lynette then told me, her talents for expressive writing went by largely unremarked and unencouraged. Intensely shy, she drifted into marriage and motherhood.

It was only when, aged about thirty and signing an affidavit for custody of her children at the end of her first marriage, that something wonderful happened.

The lawyer handling her paperwork, a man, asked her the confronting question of who she really was. She replied that she was “just a mother.”

He told me I was so much more, and listed the many qualities and strengths he’d seen in me. For the first time in my life, someone finally reflected my true potential back to me. That was the real beginning. I never looked back.

That watershed was half a lifetime ago. Lynette can now point to a career that has led her to numerous senior executive and governance positions across the country’s health and social work sectors. The contributions she has made in that career to innovations in grassroots healthcare through MAPO and other organisations has helped other women realise their potential, too.

For example, Lynette pointed to a large number of Maori women in the Northern region who had successfully studied for higher qualifications in nursing and other disciplines. The resulting broadening of their outlook and aspirations had been very rewarding for them, though in some cases their marriages had sadly not survived the changes. Once the women had tapped into their potential, it seems they couldn’t go back to the way they were before.

Professional Working Women

I was keen to hear Lynette’s views on professional working women. Her opinions were, to me, surprisingly positive and upbeat, but this is a lady who has the strength to rise to big challenges and eventually overcome them. She told me,

“Professional women have broken the back of it. We are getting tougher and we are well able to run the race. Yes, we can still feel isolated but we can assist each other. I take responsibility for supporting the development of professional women. And of men, too!”

Nevertheless, Lynette pointed to three areas where she felt professional women still needed to dig in and push for more progress:

  • Women do not necessarily get the same opportunities to undertake tough roles, which they need to give them essential experience and competencies so they don’t go into jobs ‘half-baked’. “Line managers aren’t so open to women. We need male CEOs with integrity and vision to get women equal opportunities on their merit, and to get us past the situation of being the ‘little woman’ on the staff.”
  • Men still seem frightened by women and by the prospect of losing power. “It’s an issue of trust. We can all be mates till it gets to promotion time. Then it changes.” Lynette finds this frustrating: “Women should be seen as a great opportunity to get the input of a different perspective, rather than a threat. I accept men and I expect them to accept me, too.”
  • New Zealand firms are not good at making it work for working mums yet. Women need to find allies at home and work to help them make it all balance.

Lynette believes that professional women can have it all and do it all, but the key is that women have to decide if a career is something they want to pursue with dogged determination.

The barriers are there, but you smile, you get over it and you get on with it.

She has had her own frustrating experiences of being underrated and overlooked because of being a woman. When her application for a CEO role in an area she knew very well was unsuccessful, she felt deeply disappointed. A senior man on the periphery of the selection process told her that her gender had gone against her despite her better credentials and her evident capability to take on the CEO mantle. He advised her to get out of that particular part of the industry and try again elsewhere.

“That was my worst day – and my best day,” she commented ruefully. She took the man’s advice and, combined with her trademark tenacity, she reached her goal.

Work-Life Balance

We didn’t have time to explore how Lynette had made work-life trade offs herself but we did explore how Lynette supported her team on this issue. In her opinion, helping members of her team achieve work-life balance makes good business sense.

If you want the best from your staff, you do your best for them. I want people’s best thinking and efforts at work. How can they give me that if they’re worried about a sick family member or worried their babies aren’t safe and happy?

I was nodding like one of those loose-headed toy dogs at this point. It was so refreshing to hear a compassionate yet commercial argument. Lynette says she makes it her business to know when her team members have issues at home and she sees it as part of her role to work out with them how best to attend to the problem. “It’s about reciprocity that’s right and appropriate.”

Good employers are those who want to make things work for their workers, she says, whether it’s job sharing or shorter hours or some other mechanism. In her own team, a direct report has twice returned successfully from maternity leave. She has taken enough time off to come back rested, she has been able to breastfeed at work, and she has also at times prepared reports from home. Also, with her husband staying home, she has been secure in knowing their baby has had the best care.

Lynette reckons New Zealand is not good at making it work for working mums yet –

…but any employer can do it, they just have to want to.

She referred to the option of developing ‘risk management’ pools of labour to back up rosters or teams facing intense client service demands. “It’s in employers’ power to change the way they order things in order to get the best competencies from their workers.”

It’s important to note that Lynette applies work-life balance and support to all her team “without fear or favour”, not just to women. For example, she is currently working to restructure the job her direct report does to allow this woman’s husband to pursue his dream of studying for a new career.

Lynette and Leadership

Of course I asked Lynette for her views on leadership. Unsurprisingly, some of her comments echoed the theme of potential. She takes the time, she says, to find out and assess what people’s strengths are. This allows her to enlist these abilities and leverage each individual to his or her full potential.

Her specific responsibilities are to set the direction and handle the risks. While, as a leader, she wants to demonstrate drive and a concern for quality, she strives to achieve this through a collective approach. “You work with others and I’m the leader, but not the boss. Yes, the buck stops with me but it’s absolutely not about the power. It’s about brokerage in its best possible form, negotiating on all fronts to get the range of resources and the results.”

She paused and added with a mischievous gleam in her eye, “I don’t have to be Madam Wonderful!”

Her view is that work should never be about divisiveness and as far as possible it should be positive. “Beating people up is a waste of energy. You need a team that wants to achieve because that generates incredible energy.”

Her Best Advice for other Professional Women

This is a question we love to ask at Professionelle. We never know what we’re going to hear but it’s always very valuable. Some people take a while to sift through possibilities but Lynette didn’t miss a beat. Straightaway, she said,

“We are women, so let’s be women. Don’t apologise for being a woman. Femininity is our greatest antidote to the arrogant male.”

I remembered a story she’d told at her speech the evening before that illustrated her advice perfectly. The day she’d started as CEO at the MAPO office, a senior male manager from the largest organisation in Northland had come to her office. He’d put his feet up on her desk while he talked to her about her new role and all the challenges she would face.

Lynette had moved round the desk towards him. She’d been wearing a skirt with a ruched hem that exposed a little bit of her petticoat.

“See this petticoat?” she’d asked.

“Lace,” he’d answered. “Very nice.”

“Not lace,” she’d corrected him. “Steel.”

A few months later he’d left, whereas Lynette remains in place to this day…

As we discussed this story, she added,

There’s no weakness in good manners and courtesy, but I’m always prepared to show steel if I’m pushed too far. You need appropriate self-confidence to deal with any oversupply of testosterone.

Five-foot two she may, but Lynette Stewart could never, ever, be described as a squit!”

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