A Woman in the Boardroom

A Woman in the Boardroom

Numbers show that around less than 30 percent of board directors in New Zealand are women, but Datum Projects board member Christine Woods is happy to be counted among them.

A full time academic at the University of Auckland Business School, Christine has recently been made a professor – this on top of a very busy teaching schedule, being on her local school board, as well as a mum of two. She was also part of the team that developed the Icehouse’s Owner Manager Programme, and she continues to facilitate that. Her area of expertise is entrepreneurship and small-to medium-sized business growth. This wealth of experience in business, governance and consulting was a definite plus when Datum Managing Director Seth Gleeson approached her to join his previously all-male board.

“I met Chris whilst attending the Icehouse Owner Manager Programme and was instantly impressed with her broad knowledge of business processes. I knew she would make a fantastic contribution to our board,” he says. “She brings an enormous amount of value and offers a refreshingly different point of view in many of our discussions. Much of our client base is female, so it is important that we address the needs of our customers, as well as demonstrate our company-wide commitment to equality and diversity.”

Ask a busy person…

As the saying goes, ‘If you want something done well, ask a busy person to do it.’ Christine laughs when she hears this, yet she was happy to commit to Datum when asked. “I got to know Seth, and liked his approach to business, his beliefs, the people and his team. And he brings a really disciplined approach to what he does.

“Seth was looking for some diversity, a different perspective to come in, but one that still looks at the numbers, because financial viability is clearly important! At the same time, I’m across what’s happening within the HR space. That’s the strength of a good board; a combination of skills, experience, and different viewpoints sitting around the table. And it’s to Seth’s credit that he recognised he needed more representation, and has done something about it.”

Good business with good people

Despite construction being a male-dominated area, Christine’s focus is on contributing to ‘good business with good people’, rather than the industry itself. Her board role involves bi-monthly meetings with three other independent directors and Seth, reviewing the reports that come in from different parts of the organisation, and helping to steer company direction and decisions.

“We each bring something to the table. Mine is an understanding of business that’s been built on 15-20 years of working across a wide variety of them. There’s a general premise that 80% of the issues faced by businesses are exactly the same, regardless of the industry.”

Chris explains every venture grapples with ‘How do you get the right people? How do you deal with people who are a challenge? How do you fund growth? How do you work as an owner manager to make sure you’ve got time outside your business?’

“Whether you’re a plumber, a tourism company, or you’re selling chocolate, the ‘business of business’ is very similar.”

The unsung heroes of the New Zealand economy

One of Christine’s strengths is looking at how businesses are resourced and what their growth strategies are for moving forward. And she is particularly keen to assist in the SME space.

“At Icehouse, we talk about owner-managers as the unsung heroes of the New Zealand economy,” she emphasises. “They’re the only ones that pay their own wages. A corporate CEO isn’t paying his/her own wages. I don’t pay my own wage at the university; the taxpayer does. But owner-managers are. That sometimes means it feels hard to have that sense of accountability to somebody else. And, by and large, most SMEs don’t have functioning boards in place.” She sees the role as providing both support, and a conscience.

Opening the door for all women

When asked if she thinks things are changing, and where the opportunities are for women to join boards, Christine makes a valid point. “There’s been some pretty good research around the fact that for many women, you’ve got to tick every box before you apply for something, or put your name forward.  Whereas many men might look at a list of 10 things, think ‘Yeah, I can do a few of those’, and go for it. Women might question themselves more and ask, ‘What experience can I bring to the table?’ But, the thing is, you’re not at that table to run the business. Sure, you’re there to help. You’re there to challenge, to support and to question, but you’re not there to run the business. It’s something I call ‘caring indifference’.”

The concept of caring indifference – akin to being impartial – is something she has learned from other successful advisors and directors. She says because it’s not her business, she can approach its governance with an ‘outside’ perspective from an owner-manager – something she feels allows her to make a strategic and focused contribution.

A lifelong love of learning

The rewards of being a contributing board member are apparent for Christine, who cites her love of learning as a key factor in her decision to be part of the Datum board. “I’m learning about that particular industry, and building on my knowledge more and more. Plus, I’m absorbing what it means to be a really good board chair, observing others who are terrific in their role, while sitting around the table. I’m in the business of learning – so if I’m not learning, I may as well pack up my bags and go home. And of course, I want to contribute to the success of Seth’s business. That goes without saying.”

Making a difference

If you’re a woman who is interested in following Christine into a governance or board role, her advice is to just get started. She cites opportunities in local communities to put your hand up and gain valuable experience. But she also urges people to think about what they would contribute, and how they would contribute. She found her niche working with the Icehouse. Another place to look, she says, is The Institute of Directors which runs programmes.

Despite her jam-packed schedule, Christine is not ruling out future governance roles, saying that when she relinquishes her spot on the school board, it will free her up to take on more. “One of the things I love about working with businesses is when I’m standing in a classroom and I can give practical examples of every theoretical thing that I’m saying. I’m also keen to pursue internship development, and bring in different guest speakers (from her network), so there are lots of different opportunities. It’s really, really exciting.”