One of New Zealand’s most accomplished businesswomen, Joan Withers, shares advice for corporate success.
Know your business
Being a director is hard work and the Chair’s workload is significant. I find the role really enjoyable but you need the discipline to immerse yourself not only in the business, but also the industry, and be cognisant of what is happening in the wider environment.
Fundamentally, you need to understand the business and know the detail. It’s all very well for a Chair to say, ‘I’ll come at the role from a strategic level.’ Yes, you do have to be strategic but you need to understand the detail of what the company value drivers are as well.
Have people you trust
Having trusted advisors working with the board is important. Frequently boards set up specific committees, thereby ensuring the effective use of the skills and experience around the board table.
As an example, you might set up a valuation committee to make recommendations to the board. Every director still needs to be involved though, and satisfy themselves with the robustness of the process and the veracity of decisions reached.
Learn to filter
What do you need to become a chief executive or a director? The responsibilities are different but the skill-sets are very similar. In my view, you need to be smart, with high cognitive ability. The rate of change in the business environment is now so rapid that you must be able to absorb a lot of information quickly, and retain it.
In this digital age, where data and information are coming at you from almost limitless sources, you must also be disciplined about filtering out what you don’t need, to ensure you aren’t swamped by material that is not relevant or is not presented in a succinct and digestible format. This is a particular challenge on some boards.
Surround yourself with great people
If I could put my finger on one factor that has helped make my career a success it is the ability to persuade great people to work with me. When it comes to picking a team, my husband Brian would be the best testament to my understanding of gut instinct. Even at the age of 15, I knew he was a good person!
But while instinct is important, it’s not everything. I have also been well trained in terms of how to handle recruitment. But I think I can get a good reading of people and that’s just luck.
Consider the important things
Figure out what will be important to you when you’re 40, 50 or 60. What will be front of mind when you look back and say, ‘I’ve been successful because of these things.’? Try to frame it that way rather than being specific and saying, ‘In five years’ time I want to be doing X’.
I didn’t do it this way, of course! Because I met Brian when I was so young, I think marriage and probably children was the extent of my aspirations at that time. At school I recognised I could have taken a different path and gone down the university route, but clearly it wasn’t a compelling enough objective for me to relinquish what I saw as an opportunity for a relationship.
If I’d had six kids and not had a career, would I regret that? I don’t know. I think the most important thing is being healthy, in a sustainable relationship, being able to help the people you care about and, hopefully, being rewarded for doing something you love. The rest is a bonus.
Many women are hampered by a lack of confidence in their ability to fulfil every aspect of their role to an exemplary level. If you talk to recruitment agencies about finding people for CEO or board roles, they will tell you a woman will typically not push herself forward unless she ticks all the boxes whereas a man — and this is [a] generalisation — will put himself forward if he thinks he meets 60–70 per cent of the criteria.
I’ve been involved in mentorship schemes and talking to women about their self-doubt, which is generally unfounded. I keep saying to them, ‘You can do this, you just have to push yourself forward, don’t be intimidated.’
My proposition is that women need to be given confidence, all the way through the pipeline. With the appropriate skills and experience they can occupy these senior roles and perform successfully.
Drive your development
What advice would I give to a woman seeking a career in governance or the C-suite?
To be a good director, capable of asking the right questions, you need to be an independent thinker, widely read and have a strong command of financial information. You’ll need essentially the same qualities you would need to be a top chief executive: honesty, integrity, high IQ and EQ (emotional intelligence), the capacity to absorb and retain information, the ability to communicate, a willingness to listen and keep an open mind, and courage and tenacity.
It’s also about making sure you take control of your own development. Don’t be rabidly ambitious but make sure you are getting credit for the things you do. Don’t let your light be hidden under somebody else’s bushel.