Twelve questions

Sarah Stuart poses 12 questions to well-known faces

Twelve Questions: Joan Withers

Joan Withers left school at 16, worked in sales, then went to university when her son was a teenager. The 60-year-old former chief executive of Fairfax and The Radio Network now chairs Mighty River Power and has a variety of other roles.

Joan Withers, MBA, AFInstD, is a New Zealand businessperson and professional director. She is deputy chair on the board of TVNZ and is the Chairwoman of Mighty River Power, as well as being a Director
Joan Withers, MBA, AFInstD, is a New Zealand businessperson and professional director. She is deputy chair on the board of TVNZ and is the Chairwoman of Mighty River Power, as well as being a Director

1. How important is discipline to you?

The only way I have got through is by being disciplined. Doing an MBA at age 36 while working full time involved getting up at 3am for two years during term time to study and prepare assignments. Although it was tough at the time the benefits have been significant and durable. I try to be reasonably disciplined in my lifestyle - eating well, drinking in moderation and getting at least some exercise. The diet is the hardest part.

2. What did your parents teach you?

My father had a very strong work ethic and impeccable integrity. He really sacrificed himself and his own aspirations to give us the best chance he could. My dad was highly intelligent but worked in a factory 60 hours every week. When I think things are tough in the business world I reflect on how soul destroying my father's working life must have been. Looking back I think my parents were perhaps too focused on getting financial security and becoming debt free.

There was never any spare money for holidays and the things that many children born in New Zealand take for granted. There were a lot of hand-me-downs shared between my two sisters and I, but I have to a large extent compensated for that since.

3. Did you ever regret leaving school at 16?

I used to have bad dreams about not having any qualifications. All of my friends bar two did sixth form and bursary and I knew that was something I hadn't done. I don't regret leaving school at that age given my motivation was being able to go out with [now husband] Brian during the week - and 40 odd years down the track I am very pleased with the outcome.

4. How do you keep a marriage together after such a long time?

Deep abiding love, physical attraction - he still rings all my bells - shared interests especially at home and the fact he continues to challenge me and frequently has a different point of view. Brian has no real interest in business except in how it affects me. We met when I was 15 and he was 18 months older at a church dance at the Papatoetoe Rugby Club. I didn't know when he asked me to dance that he lived at 49 Puhinui Rd and I lived at 119. To a huge extent we have grown up together and done everything together. We have almost no past history.

5. Have the two of you changed over the years?

I'm a lot more confident than I was but I don't think you fundamentally change. We're the same people but our attitudes to stuff have probably moved forward because we are living a different life. We didn't have any big aspirations as teenagers other than getting married and having our own house and having a baby. We didn't have plans for anything beyond that.

Being able now to live in a rural property with our three dogs and horses - we're living a very different lifestyle to the one my parents and his parents lived. And I never take that for granted.

6. Did you "lean in" as Sheryl Sandberg suggests women should to get ahead in careers?

Her book is in the pile for Easter.

I didn't have big dreams. It was hard work really that got me through. People kept giving me opportunities. I kept getting promoted. People would say here's a job and you could do this and I'd do it.

7. What job would you have liked to tackle in your career?

New Zealand High Commissioner to London or strategist to the royal family.

8. How have you dealt with stress in your life?

I think at my age you get things in perspective. I don't really suffer from stress any more but I did when I was younger. It was a nervousness, really, at underperforming. I'm a worrier. Exercise was important. And I'd take 24 hours to really think about something. Brian is always there for support and that matters hugely. Now I don't worry so much. It's one of the few good things about ageing.

9. There's a move back towards grey hair and no Botox for women: how do you feel about ageing?

I hate it. I think the best years of a woman's life are 40 to 55. Everybody hates the physical deterioration [of ageing], the subtle signs that it's started. I'm determined to delay it. This generation of women can get away with a hell of a lot more and I'll use everything I can to prevent it. I can't imagine ever going grey.

10. Did you parents enjoy your success?

My mum died three and a half years ago. [Mighty River Power] had just opened our new geothermal station at Nga Awa Purua and I had a photograph taken with the Prime Minister. I gave her a framed copy of that and for the last three months of her life she walked around with it on her walker. She was not a demonstrative person but the fact she carried it around meant she thought it was okay. Mum and dad didn't really have any aspirations for us, other than being happy and healthy.

11. What is the joy of work, for you?

I can't ever imagine becoming complacent and the more I learn, the more I realise I still have more to learn. That's energising in a way. You know you can keep learning and it's not that you come towards the end of your career and you stop. At the moment I'm learning about banking. I joined the ANZ board in July last year. There's a lot of technical stuff, great things like derivatives which feature in many large company balance sheets and you do start to acquire a much better understanding of that.

12. Can you ever see yourself retiring?

Obviously at some stage I will retire but I subscribe to the view that you "use it or lose it" so at the moment it is a relatively distant proposition. I truly admire the corporate women trailblazers such as Dame Alison Paterson. She's always elegant, well presented, incredibly astute and a lovely person, very generous of spirit. Women like Dame Alison continue to shine a light to show us what is possible with acumen, tenacity and integrity.

- NZ Herald

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