Personal finance and KiwiSaver columnist at the NZ Herald

Executive Success: Help yourself, then help others

Hospitality head wants it to be a more attractive career choice
It's hard to be a good leader if you aren't looking after your own wellbeing, says Vicki Lee. Photo / Mark Mitchell
It's hard to be a good leader if you aren't looking after your own wellbeing, says Vicki Lee. Photo / Mark Mitchell

It's an airline safety catchphrase that sums up the top business survival lessons Vicki Lee has learned.

"I make sure that I try very, very hard to put my oxygen mask on now before helping others," says the head of Hospitality NZ. "Make sure that you're alright and that you're physically fit.

"Over the years there are times when I haven't been, and therefore you're probably not the best leader you can be, so I really believe in looking after your health and making sure you're exercising, eating well, all those sorts of things.

"I didn't for a few years and my health suffered and therefore you're not at the top of your game.

"Make time for it."

Lee is new to the chief executive's chair at Hospitality NZ, the business association representing 3000 hospitality and accommodation businesses - from the luxury lodge to the corner bar.

While its historic roots are in representing drinking establishments - the organisation was formed in 1902 as the United Licensed Victuallers Association - more recently its membership has expanded to include 1000 members of Accommodation New Zealand.

Lee, who headed the children's health charity Cure Kids from 2009 until earlier this year, says the appeal of the role was the opportunity to influence and change within the sector, particularly growing it into a meaningful career choice for young people.

She says she'd like to see the industry, which employs about 155,000 people throughout New Zealand, move beyond the perception that it's just an option for part-time work while studying at university.

"It's so much more than that and I think it's very undervalued as a trade, I guess."

Lee, who moved to Wellington from her former home on Waiheke Island to take the job, has just wrapped up visiting many of the 21 AGMs held by the member-led organisation's regional branches.

She reckons she made it to at least 17. "Even Air New Zealand couldn't help me be in Canterbury, Northland and Taranaki all in the same day."

We need our members to be really focused on what the changing dynamic of international travel looks like.

It was an opportunity to get out among the members and to hear first-hand about some of the challenges they face, but also to sample the best New Zealand has to offer, she says.

"I can tell you, travelling around New Zealand, I'm so proud of how gorgeous this country is.

"I went to places I'd never been but always said I'd like to go, like the West Coast.

"It was a flying visit but the whole experience of driving through, getting an amazing coffee everywhere you went, but also the hospitality.

"No matter where you went there were stories to be told."

Australia is still New Zealand's number one source of tourists, says Lee, with around 1.5 million coming across the Tasman every year. But growth from China is strong, with 29 per cent more Chinese arriving this year than last and those 500,000 visitors spending more on average than Australian visitors, she says.

"From a hospitality perspective we need to be ready for that.

Honesty, integrity, communication: they're pretty simple things but so many people don't do those things well.

"We need our members to be really focused on what the changing dynamic of international travel looks like and make sure we're ready for them and train, train, train our people to be able to develop in hospitality so we can actually serve them when they come here."

Lee, who began her career in advertising and has worked in publishing, marketing, medical education and healthcare communications, says the common thread has been a focus on advocacy, either directly through work or on her own time.

"I am just a huge believer in giving back to the world in which we live," she says. "I think that's a really important thing for people to do."

Lee says she is looking forward to campaigning for the hospitality industry, but keeps in mind the advice she gives her daughter: you don't have to be loud to be heard.

"You can influence in many, many ways and it's not necessarily by being the loudest that you actually get listened to."

She admits to being a voracious reader, picking up ideas from sources that range from the All Blacks, to the book Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business, written by New York restaurant legend Danny Meyer.

Standouts have been Listen: The Don Rowlands Leadership Guide, a book on the insights of a local business legend, and Urban Legend: Sir Dove-Myer Robinson, a book she says every Aucklander should read.

"I've got to a stage in my career where it is not about me.

"It's about what I've learned so far in my life that I can actually help others, influence others and bring them through their career journey and teach them, hopefully, what good values are, what good business ethics are.

"I think that is really important to be able to pass that on to the next generation.

"Honesty, integrity, communication: they're pretty simple things but so many people don't do those things well.

"They say they have integrity but maybe it's a value statement on a wall and that's what we're going to do but they don't behave necessarily with integrity.

"But everybody I work with does," she says, laughing.

- NZ Herald

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