Plain Speaking about NZ Boards – An Interview with Rebecca Thomas
By Galia BarHava-Monteith
Rebecca Thomas emigrated to New Zealand from the UK. Professionally, she is the CEO of Mint Asset Management; she is also on the Board of the Financial Markets Authority as well as the Board of Kiwi Rail. She is vivacious, warm, outspoken, and great fun. Someone you’d like to have a coffee with. So I did – several coffees!
Rebecca’s first loves are saving and investing. Don’t laugh! She says,
“I have been passionate about investing and saving since I can remember. It’s a little sad but I have practised what I preach about saving since I was 21. I was making additional tax advantaged voluntary contributions to my pension at 21 …planning for my retirement.”
It isn’t surprising that Rebecca is passionate about women making sure they look after their financial independence. “I believe that women need to be financially self sufficient and that that in turn gives you choices and flexibility,” says Rebecca. To her, choices and flexibility lead to happiness. Rebecca really enjoys taking a topic like finance, which is swathed in mystical language and terminology that defies easy comprehension, and de-mystifying it for the woman on the street.
She is nothing but emphatic when she declares, “Let’s face it, no one really wants to think about saving. But in my lifetime governments have handed the baton over to individuals when it comes to saving for retirement. This is because state provision has become unaffordable, either because of demography, or because the end of communism has forced financial realism on certain countries.” Rebecca tells me that when she started working in 1986, it was only a year after the practice ended whereby English women had to elect to be separately taxed when they were married!
Rebecca became a Non-Executive Director in the UK just after she turned 40. She started out in roles that were directly related to her specific industry experience and then broadened out into other governance roles. From her mid 30s, she had been a CEO of a listed entity in the UK and, as you can probably tell, she is extremely financially literate.
In New Zealand, Rebecca’s directorships are all on Crown-owned companies. She isn’t doing it for the money….for Rebecca it’s about giving back to her adopted country. Rebecca brings her deep knowledge of running businesses as well as her knowledge of the markets and she has, in a short space of time, reached positions of influence here. She is certain that two things in particular make her able to contribute effectively around the Board table:
- being financially literate
- having experienced situations where she had to make tough decisions like making people redundant.
Boards in New Zealand
“I have been to a number of events in New Zealand where women discuss wanting to get onto Boards. My view is that – given the low numbers of women who have been at the top echelons in executive roles – that this aspiration is a bit of chicken and egg. This doesn’t mean that Board-ready women don’t exist but it does mean that the pool of women with requisite experience may not be massive at this stage. I should say that I don’t believe in quotas because I am a meritocrat. What I want to see is selection being made from a more diverse range of appropriately qualified candidates.”
On a somber note, Rebecca is critical of our Boards. Originally, she looked at our listed companies through her Mint lens and thought that the pool of directors in New Zealand was too small. She saw the same people on many companies’ boards. Rebecca thinks that having the same directors on so many boards means that they can’t possible be doing a great job on all of them. Not only that, but this also means that these companies aren’t benefiting from the diversity of perspective that a wider range of people would bring.
What do Women Bring to the Board Table?
In her view, there isn’t a difference between the contributions women make to management as opposed to Boards. An executive team and a Board both have collective responsibility for decision making whether it is in respect of day-to-day management or governance matters, and women bring their own perspective to each table.
Even though she would hate to generalise, she does think that when it comes to managing people women can make an excellent contribution. She told me about the team she assembled around her when she was the CEO. It had a majority of women: seven out of ten to be precise. This was the first and only time in her career where this was the case. She says it was a wonderfully supportive experience which delivered results in a tough environment. People asked her if she favoured women over men but she says it was absolutely merit based. Goes to show, there is no shortage of good women if you only look for them! Finally, Rebecca says that managing people is just one area where women excel. Research identifies innovation and risk management as being two other areas.
About the Number of Women in Senior Positions in New Zealand
Rebecca thinks that NZ is behind the 8 ball when it comes to women making it to the top echelons in corporates. The exceptions are in industries where women’s performance can be objectively judged such as professional services.
Fund Management is a classic because individuals are assessed and measured by third parties outside the firm. There are independent league tables of fund manager’s performance, and firms want whoever is best regardless of gender. The politics of the corporate is irrelevant to the capability and ultimately the career success of a fund manager.
Similarly, she thinks that lawyers and accountants are judged by their billings and independent testimonials around their ability.
To her, the depressing statistics around listed companies in NZ reveal that the number of women at the top is getter fewer and this is in stark contrast to the results achieved from overseas initiatives to increase the number of woman in senior positions in listed companies.
Rebecca is aware of the number of initiatives running now to try and reverse this trend. In part, she believes the very poor track record in this area reflects the fact that NZ is a small country and there are skill shortages in a number of key areas. But nevertheless, she feels that there are too few listed company Directors, and that these few ‘hog’ the space.
Looking on the bright side, she points out that New Zealand is a country of SME’s and not large corporates.
“I meet plenty of women who have chosen to start their own businesses and are really just getting on with it, which is what being a woman in business is all about.”
Advice for Women Who Want to be Directors
Not surprisingly, Rebecca’s first piece of advice for women is to “learn how to read financial statements”. She also advises women to get involved in governance matters in the non-profit sector, which so many of us do already, but the key is to learn how to leverage those into other, paid positions. Indeed Rebecca says we need to learn how to network. Her very practical advice is get our CV out to all the search and selection firms we can think of and talk to people who are on Boards already to see if there might be a suitable opportunity for you.
“I have a very important comment,” says Rebecca:
“Women have to remember that with the glory comes responsibility and they are equal parts of the same thing. Director’s duties are not to be taken on lightly. Recent court cases have highlighted failures in listed entity Director’s behaviour and standards are rightly high and sanctions commensurate with this.”
Rebecca is hugely protective of her own reputation. The way I see it, I sell my reputation every time I go on a Board. That’s all I have.
It isn’t a magic bullet being a Director. It is hard work and can be rewarding, but we, as women, have to be prepared to put in the hard yards, do our homework, make sure we are financially literate and have a tough skin.
How Does she Manage it All?
She doesn’t, is the very honest answer. Rebecca embraces outsourcing (and we wholeheartedly agree!). The appearance of everything being under control is achieved with help from husband, her Nanny, ironing service and a whole lot of compromise about doing the most important stuff and not sweating the stuff which is not critical. She adds with a smile; “Of course I still beat myself up when I can’t do everything and still lack the wisdom not to let this go!”
She is very honest in adding that what usually falls behind is looking after herself, spending time at the gym, seeing her friends, doing things that are just for her. She craves some alone time which she still sees as a bit of an indulgence, but something she’d like to work on.
In fact, her personal life is what she is most proud of. The fact that she met and married her considerably younger husband and managed to have a family in her 40’s is what she sees as her biggest achievement. Her previous relationships never lasted as her partners were always on the same career trajectory as her and they ended up competing. At one point she even had to make a boyfriend redundant. He was very mature about it she says, but – unsurprisingly – the relationship didn’t last.
She met her younger husband when he was a graduate and so they never competed. He has since carved out an impressive career for himself and is doing very well professionally. But their relationship never had that added stress of competing in the same space!
And Her Best Advice?
You need to develop a thick skin, it isn’t a level playing field between men and women and you have to work harder and be better to achieve the same position. The harsh reality of the uneven playing field means you have to have real conviction about wanting to succeed despite the compromises – or you may decide it is just not worth the compromises you will have to make. And this is fine too.
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