How Kiwi women leaders got to the top

Helen Twose
How Kiwi women leaders got to the top

When Di Humphries took over at Pumpkin Patch in 2013 she had more than two decades in the rag trade under her belt, most of it with a single company.

Currently the only women heading up an NZX listed company, Humphries’ first job with former employer Hallenstein Glasson was in her early 20s when she ran a Glassons store in Palmerston North.

SEE ALSO: Gender Equality: Just how equal is NZ?

Clothing the local varsity students was the closest she came to university, having dropped out of the University of Canterbury.

It’s the kind of career trajectory that wouldn’t look out of place among her female peers in the United States.

When Harvard Business Review dug through the CVs of the 24 women who head up Fortune 500 companies, it found 20% were school leavers when they joined the companies they now lead.

In fact, the advice peddled to ambitious young women in the US to attend a prestigious university, followed up with a top flight MBA and work experience in a leading consulting firm or investment bank, before “hopscotching” between companies into a leadership job just didn’t stack up.

Pull out quote E Coutts

More than 70% had been long-term insiders before becoming the boss, with those who had been promoted from outside making the lateral move after a long stint at another firm.

“The consistent theme in the data is that steady focus wins the day,” Harvard Business Review says.

What it also found was it took women 50% longer to get that internal promotion than their male colleagues, which rang true for Xero NZ’s managing director Victoria Crone.

Her career began at Telecom in the mid-90s straight out of university.

Victoria Crone

Victoria Crone

18 years later when she left for Xero, Crone had clocked 16 different roles with the telco but says she progressed at a noticeably slower rate than the men around her.

Crone says women can have a different way of doing things that is often at odds with how a predominately male management team might work.

“We have a completely different skill set that hasn't always been appreciated and when you're in a male-dominated environment it takes a while for people to appreciate that skill set.

“They don't immediately gravitate to it because we do operate differently,” Crone says.

Before Humphries got the job at Pumpkin Patch, Norah Barlow held the crown for the only women in charge of a listed New Zealand company.

Norah Barlow

Norah Barlow

She had been in charge of Summerset since 2001, having spent the previous decade advising its owners, when she stepped down from retirement home operator last year.

Barlow juggled studying towards an accounting qualification with raising a family, and while regretting not doing some post-graduate study, didn’t feel the lack of an MBA has held her back.

“I did my MBA through living and learning and didn’t need it.”

While Barlow is a strong believer in promoting from within, she says New Zealand firms do tend to look outside for a new boss.

She says they often talk about getting greater skills into the company, seeing only the good parts of the “new and exciting” applicant, to the detriment of the incumbent.

If women might typically make the long climb to the top, then Elizabeth Coutts definitely hopped in the elevator.

As a 31-year-old, Coutts headed up Caxton Group, which in the early 90s was among the biggest private companies in New Zealand.

Elizabeth Coutts

Elizabeth Coutts

At that point she had more than 11 years in different parts of the forest industry but had resisted jumping between companies.

“I think if anything, if I’d jumped around that probably would have been to my detriment,” Coutts says.

She says her rise to the top was probably faster than a lot of her male colleagues because as a woman she stood out, plus she was prepared put in long, hard hours of work in Kawerau.

“Most women wouldn’t go to Kawarau.

“They won’t go and do some of these jobs, but you have to be prepared to go and do anything.”

Coutts, who has been a professional director since 1993, says she was also fortunate to work alongside “some very good people” – something she says she didn’t realise at the time.

Those networks count, all 3 women agree.

People you worked with in your 20s will pop up again further along in your career, says Coutts, and their support will be vital.

Their advice to ambitious women is to back yourself, show you’re there for people through thick and thin, and be prepared to put yourself outside your comfort zone.

“And work your arse off,” laughs Crone.

SEE ALSO: Gender Equality: Just how equal is NZ?


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