New Zealand prides itself on its list of progressive “firsts” particularly for women’s rights

It was the first country to give women the right to vote and 112 years later, the first country to have its top five positions of political power ALL held by women at the same time. Now New Zealand has a female prime minister, who breastfed on the 9th floor of the Beehive.

So far – so good but here’s the bad news.

Today there are fewer women here becoming executives than ever before in our listed companies. Women make up just 18% of senior teams.

This means that New Zealand is one of the worst countries in the world, for having women in leadership positions – ranked 33 out of 35.

One of those few women executives is Vanessa Oakley. As the General Manager of Strategy and Business Operations at telecommunications broadband company (and NZX listed) Chorus, she’s a senior executive in a tech company.

“Every woman is a potential leader. They just need to back themselves.”

Oakley is relentless in her drive to get women to see their ability to be a leader and to get themselves into top positions in companies.

Until recently, Oakley’s boss, Chorus’ chief executive Kate McKenzie was the only female chief executive on the NZX.

“That shouldn’t be extraordinary. That should be ordinary. And when it’s ordinary, we won’t be talking about it.”

Oakley does more than talk about it. She’s changing it.

In 2017 she co-created a leadership programme with communications trainers, Amanda Millar & Co specifically for women, called UP. Its focus is to create a pipeline of female leaders by building their confidence, presence and communication skills. So far, the programme’s helped 45 women through the 12-month programme at Chorus.

“I kept seeing amazing women presenting and doing exactly what I used to do. They’d have loads and loads of notes with lots of highlighting and be trying to prepare for hundreds of questions that they were never asked.”

As a member of Global Women, she knows the value of having a supportive and resourceful network.

“Knowing you can draw on others and share experiences is crucial when you are a leader. I also wanted to create an environment where women leaders at Chorus could have a powerful network that worked at a deeper level than standard professional development.”

Oakley personally invites women in the company to go “UP” through mentoring, understanding the power of effective communication, seeing themselves on camera and learning how to be the best they can be, simply by being themselves.

“I know they know their stuff. I know they are really smart. I know they can think on their feet but they need that little nudge to be comfortable doing that, or to just be comfortable being uncomfortable.”

The rewards have already been immense for the women and for the company.

She reflects on a conversation with one of the UP graduates who told her, “I was about to leave my job when I received a note from you inviting me to do the UP programme. It’s changed my life.”

Oakley says it’s these moments that matter.

“When you touch someone in a deeply meaningful way; that is the gold and the reward for making an effort.”

After UP, that graduate not only stayed in the company, she went for a promotion and got it. The move was better for her and better for the company.

Surely, having the country’s third female Prime Minister proves we have outgrown the need for women-only development programmes?

Oakley disagrees. Along with the research, her 20 years of experience in the tech sector here and overseas backs her up.

She was recently chosen to be one of 24 top global business leaders to attend the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Sloan School of Management’s Advanced Management Programme.

The mother of a 12 year-old left her family for a month after she was selected by the Prime Minister for the scholarship.

Her classmates were top CEOs and executives from institutions like the European Central Bank, global leaders in the telco industry such as Nokia and Samsung, commercial banks, biotech firms and entrepreneurs.

She was surrounded by some of the best business and technology brains in the world. After all, MIT’s been dubbed the most innovative square mile on the planet – producing no less that 90 Nobel Prize winners.

Only six of the 24 on the course were women; the highest number of females the Advanced Management Programme has ever had.

“It would be nice to not still be having this discussion, but we are.  It’s not just about gender.  It’s about diversity and inclusion holistically.  Clearly, we aren’t where we need to be.”

Leaders though, need to be everywhere. Oakley’s programme recognises not everyone needs to scale UP the corporate ladder to be a successful.

She traversed sideways from General Counsel to her current role at Chorus and says leaders can and must be found at all levels, “you can lead from anywhere in the organisation if you take in other people.”

Her advice for all women is: Be as confident as you can in who you are.

“For me, it’s knowing who I am and being comfortable with that.”

She’s grown comfortable with being uncomfortable. This is another one of her top tips for success.

While Oakley confesses to being an introvert at heart, she always puts her hand up; presenting to hundreds, responsible for thousands of decisions and millions of dollars.

Once, she had to bridge and turnaround a billion dollar gap in a multi-billion dollar investment (which she did).

She puts her resilience down to a humble childhood growing up in Nelson as a detective’s daughter with two brothers and, knowing and living her values.

Those values, she keeps on her – literally.

In her wallet is a faded business card from 2011. On it, there are six key words that have been crucial to her development as a leader: creativity, achievement, learning, collaboration, empathy and trust.  She wrote them when she finished the first Global Women’s Breakthrough Leaders Programme.

They are almost a personal coat of arms. She even drew a shield around them.

“They have held true and they hold me up.”

Perfection isn’t one of them.

“Absolutely not!” she laughs. “I always aim high, but the world is more complicated and life is more complicated than that. So you might not always get it right (whatever ‘right’ that means). What you have to do is learn from what didn’t work. And keep putting your hand up.”

“It’s actually quite empowering accepting that you’re imperfect.”

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