Winning a Harkness Fellowship to study for a year in the US at Harvard University was a life-changing experience for Bay of Plenty District Health Board chief executive Helen Mason.

"It was absolutely a game-changer," she said.

As well as giving her the opportunity to focus on research into improving the quality of end-of-life care, she also held a parallel fellowship at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement in Boston, which gave her exposure to a range of experiences outside health care.

Standout experiences included spending time with astronaut Michael Fossum at Nasa, and with Harvard Kennedy School of Government's Marshall Ganz, a key architect of President Barak Obama's winning campaign in 2008.


Mrs Mason had been serving as the health board's chief operating officer at the time she took up the fellowships in December 2014. On her return, after a period as general manager of innovation, she won a contested recruitment process and took up the top job at the Bay's biggest employer, with responsibility for 3000 staff and a budget of $706 million. The role is the culmination of an 18-year career in Bay of Plenty health that saw her begin working at Tauranga Hospital as a night shift nurse in 1998.

She noted the fabulous team she worked with and the contribution of staff across the Bay's health sector. "Each one of them is incredibly important," she said.

Mrs Mason was brought up in Africa, mostly in Zimbawe, where her father rose to become chief financial officer of Edgars, a department store chain, although she was born in Ireland in her mother's home town in County Clare. Her parents eventually separated and her mother took on responsibility for raising Helen and her two sisters, all of whom followed their mother into the nursing profession.

In the early 1990s, she and husband Max Mason, who she met in Zimbawe, were living in Scotland, where she completed an MBA while working in pharmaceutical sales.

Her sister was by then living in New Zealand. When Helen and Max paid a visit in 1992 they loved it, and eventually immigrated in 1997. After a brief stint in Auckland, they moved to Tauranga where she first worked as a health care assistant at Matua Life Care while she completed a Return to Nursing course at the hospital, then was hired as a night nurse.

"I wanted to get back into the health sector," she said.

She was soon offered the job of manager, flexi scheduling, for the pool of 100-odd nurses doing relief shifts. After two years in the role, she drew on her MBA and nursing experience to get one of a number of new business advisory roles that had opened up at the hospital. She became involved in the project management of Tauranga Hospital's transition to becoming part of the Bay of Plenty District Health Board and served in various roles, including portfolio manager, funding, then as general manager of funding from 2006 to 2013.

During that period, she took a sabbatical, serving as deputy chief executive of acute care at the Department of Health and Families in Australia's Northern Territories.


In 2013, she was appointed chief operating officer at Bay of Plenty District Health Board until winning the Harkness Fellowship, only one of which is awarded from New Zealand each year. She was nominated for the fellowship by former chief executive Phil Cammish, who she eventually replaced after his retirement in 2015.

Mr Cammish described her as innately smart.

"The important thing for me at the district health board with all the executives was to grow people from within and we tried to do that by giving people opportunities. Some people will take opportunities, and some people see them and turn away. Helen is always looking for the next thing that will make a difference, not only for herself, but for the Bay of Plenty."

Her experiences in the US included the opportunity to spend time at Nasa where they were working to extend the time an astronaut could spend in space up to two years as pre-planning for the manned Mars mission.

"You got to see the thinking and the systems they have in place and what we can learn from that in health," she said. "We are so often focused on the next six months or year. What really impressed me with Nasa was that they were anticipating it will take them 20 years to figure it out."

Mrs Mason's fellowship focused on improving end-of life options.

"We have a large elderly cohort in the Bay," she said. "Our aspiration is that everyone will think about how they want to live towards the end of life and let their loved ones know what really matters to them. As we say, 'it's always too early, till it's too late'."

Health board chairwoman Sally Webb said Mrs Mason had prepared herself well to be an excellent chief executive. "A real plus is she's homegrown from within the health board and has really passionately wanted to do this job," she said.

"She's well respected across the country for her thinking and strategic abilities and is becoming well recognised within the organisation."

Exercise important to the Masons

Helen Mason loves running and yoga and has become a keen hiker.

Husband Max - the former chief executive of Tauranga Chamber of Commerce, who is now with Priority One's business attraction programme - spent six months completing the demanding 3500km Appalachian Trail during her fellowship year.

"We've been married for 26 years, but we were missing each other," said Mrs Mason.

"He'd been thinking of doing it this year, but that would have meant another six or seven months apart."

The couple were able to walk some sections of the trail together and plan on entering the Auckland Marathon this year. Helen completed the Tauranga half marathon and was part of the Bay of Plenty District Health Board team for the 50km Oxfam Trail Walking Challenge.

She also has a long-term goal of completing the Camino de Santiago pilgrims walk, which ends in Spain.

The couple's 20-year-old son Mungo is at university and is a keen rugby player.

Helen Mason:

* Role: Chief executive, Bay of Plenty District Health Board

* Born: Kilrush, County Clare, Ireland

* Age: 51

* First job: Nurse

* Currently listening to: Avenue of Mysteries by John Irving