Women embracing their strengths, says telco boss

Something unusual happened to Maxine Elliott a couple of months back.

Sitting down with senior staff from one of her biggest clients, the head of Vocus Communications' wholesale, corporate and government arm found she was at an all-women table.

Until recently, the 49-year-old telco industry veteran has been used to being the only woman in the room.

"It is changing and it is really nice, but it is still not that often.

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"I mean, we comment when it happens but at least it happens now."

In the early days of her career, Elliott's response to being the odd one out was to don the black suit and try to be one of the boys.

What she learnt over time was to embrace her point of difference - something she says has become easier in the past decade.

"The women I've come through with that are in the industry now are a lot softer than the previous generation," says Elliott.

"The previous generation, I think they very much were still in the having to be the man to get ahead and I think that has started to shift.

"I think you're starting to see women play to their strengths, which is often communication and people and some of the EQ [emotional quotient] stuff, which wasn't there in the past."

She says the corporate, rule-bound environments of her early working life have also fallen from favour. "I find that so refreshing because you can try different things and not conform to those rules.

"The world has shifted quite a lot in terms of what it is to be a leader and what a business is actually about.

"I think we've moved quite a long way from the black suit days, thankfully."

Elliott has also actively sought out roles in businesses with a start-up bent or undergoing change.

She came on board at Vector when the lines business separated from the retail arm, Mercury, in 1998.

"We had to recreate ourselves, so there was a lot of change in terms of how the business was being structured.

The women I've come through with that are in the industry now are a lot softer than the previous generation.

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"I'd come in as the new kid on the block.

"In some ways it was easier for me because I didn't have a past history and I was just excited about how we were going to get this new network business on its feet and position it."

When an opportunity came to move into Vector's growing telecommunications fibre business, Elliott switched from her role as general manager of commercial to head the small team bringing together the network strands into a commercially viable business.

It culminated in Vector's ultimately unsuccessful bid to roll out the government-backed ultra-fast broadband network in Auckland, aimed at bringing high speed internet to hospitals, schools, businesses and homes.

The Auckland leg of the project is now being completed by Chorus.

"That became quite a passion of mine because I could really see what was possible and that this was going to be probably even more revolutionary than electricity had been 100 years ago."

Elliott took that passion south to Hamilton-based UltraFast Fibre, which was contracted to build the ultra-fast broadband links in Waikato urban centres, Tauranga, Whanganui and New Plymouth.

With a few resources chipped in by shareholder WEL Networks, the new venture was starting from scratch - getting the networks up and running while nailing down contracts with retail partners.

There was a bit of a change programme on both sides in terms of culturally understanding what those differences are, how you work together and how we get the best of both worlds out of that.

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"Probably the big learnings for me there was how a public-private partnership works," says Elliott. "When you've got the government on one side and your private shareholder on the other, that's pretty challenging at times."

It was a massive, demanding but fun project, says Elliott, but after three years she felt she had reached the limit of what she could achieve and it was time to pass the leadership on.

The opportunity to head Australian-listed Vocus Communications' New Zealand-based network and data centre business drew her back north to Auckland in early 2015.

Vocus had gained a toehold in the New Zealand telecommunications market after purchasing ISP and datacentre provider Maxnet in 2012 and Wellington's FX Networks two years later.

Brought in to guide staff through that change, Elliott was quickly facing the merger of Vocus' New Zealand business with M2, an Australian telco that owned the Callplus, Slingshot, Orcon and 2Talk brands, which all came together under the Vocus name.

She has remained head of the big business side of the business since the deal was signed off in late 2015, but says there has been a lot of learning about the retail side of the company even though there was previously a client relationship.

"There was a bit of a change programme on both sides in terms of culturally understanding what those differences are, how you work together and how we get the best of both worlds out of that."

She admits change will be constant in the business and her approach is to be open and honest about the challenges.

"It's so much communication - I think 90 per cent of it."