Personal finance and KiwiSaver columnist at the NZ Herald

Executive Success: Opening the boardroom door

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Cast your net wide to find governance, suggests new director
You never know where directorship opportunities are going to come from, says Mary-Jane Daly.
You never know where directorship opportunities are going to come from, says Mary-Jane Daly.

It was a career break that opened the door to the boardroom for Mary-Jane Daly.

The former head of State Insurance made a decision to step out of her executive role when her ex-husband became terminally ill.

"I wanted to be there to support my kids and he had been a fabulous father, so they were going to have a big gap," she says.

Her plan was to take a year out, but she started to get calls sounding her out for directorships.

Daly says it was always a long term goal to shift into governance but, like the decision to start a family, it was about working out when the timing was right.

"Once I'd made the decision [to become a director] it became quite clear how I needed to pursue that."

A week-long directorship course was backed up with coffee after coffee as she networked her socks off.

"One of the things that intrigued me was the people I thought would be really supportive and helpful, they were supportive, but it was often people more broadly in my network who actually identified opportunities.

"You don't quite know where those opportunities are going to come from so that networking and casting your net wide and being really clear about what it is you're looking to do - I think it's the same for anything - that's really important."

Daly does admit she was a bit naive about the transition to director.

Her corporate career had unfolded in steps that had taken her from merchant banking in New Zealand, close to a decade of corporate banking in London, back to New Zealand with the Bank of New Zealand before taking over treasury and risk functions at the newly formed Fonterra.

"That was really the first time I did a role - apart from my first job - where I had a completely different environment.

"It was about leadership and getting the right team around me rather than necessarily what I directly knew myself."

After a restructuring at Fonterra saw her out of a job, she took a six-month break before shifting to insurance as chief financial officer at IAG.

Once I'd made the decision [to become a director] it became quite clear how I needed to pursue that.

Two and a half years in and she had the opportunity to run the State Insurance business.

During this time she came to the realisation that in banking you tended to be there at happy times in people's lives, but with insurance it's when things have gone wrong.

"There is something really special about insurance that - not everyone in Christchurch feels like this - but when bad stuff happens, there's somebody there to help get you back to where you were."

It was a career built on opportunities opening up, being in the right place at the right time and pushing through to the next level.

Daly says she discovered that creating a living from governance was something she had to work quite hard at - developing a new daily routine, grabbing opportunities for professional development and surrounding herself with trusted professional sounding boards and mentors.

She credits her ex-husband with helping her manage a senior corporate career when her three children - now in their teens and 20s - were little.

"The last few years my kids have supported me," she says now.

I've looked to have real diversity in my portfolio from an industry point of view but also from an ownership point of view.

Daly says she hopes that when they go on to have careers and families, they'll be really clear on how you work as a team to achieve ambitions.

Cigna New Zealand is the latest addition to Daly's governance portfolio, which includes Kiwi Property Group, Airways Corporation, the New Zealand Green Building Council and EQC.

Part of the process of making the transition into governance was working out where she could add the most value, what skills she needed to become a more capable director and what roles were going to challenge and reward her.

"I've looked to have real diversity in my portfolio from an industry point of view but also from an ownership point of view," she says.

"My role as a director is different in each of those settings and the businesses have different strategies, they have a different role to play in the community and different customers that they are serving.

"Those different settings mean how I engage as a director and the skills I draw on are different.

"It means I'm building up a whole raft of experiences that as I go on and do other things, I can draw on and really be much more effective and capable as a director."

She's philosophical about any board roles that she may have missed out on, saying the final appointment was either a better cultural fit or brought different skills to the table.

"You are working as a team," she says.

"You want to have something to contribute and you want to be able to influence so having that fit and that dynamic of skills and capabilities is really important."

- NZ Herald

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Personal finance and KiwiSaver columnist at the NZ Herald

Helen Twose is a freelance business journalist who writes regularly about KiwiSaver and entrepreneurial companies. She has written for the Business Herald since 2006, covering the telecommunications sector, but has more recently focused on personal finance and profiling successful businesses.

Read more by Helen Twose

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