As a teenager, Michele Embling wasn't sure what she wanted to do when she grew up. But she did know one thing: she wanted to be financially independent.

"I don't know where that came from but I was probably around 14 or 15 and I clearly had some sort of epiphany," says the PwC partner and chair of PwC's New Zealand board.

It was her father who set her on the accounting path, getting her a job at the local accountant's office in Pukekohe.

Not only did it add up to a good career, but Embling says those early lessons on the value of client relationships and supporting the community are still with her today.

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Embling is the first woman to chair PwC New Zealand, after being elected late last year by the firm's 120 partners to a four-year term.

She says while sponsors and mentors will give you opportunities to push ahead in your career, there are times when it's a case of backing yourself and stepping into the unknown.

Putting her hand up for the chairman's role - an electoral process - was one of those scary moments.

"Politicians do it all the time of course, but standing up and talking about yourself, talking about what you can bring in the future and how you would add value - you actually put yourself out there." But the timing was right.

The financial reporting specialist was heading the firm's national assurance business and on the executive team, an operational role that gave her significant experience in building and leading teams and running a profitable business.

"I think you need that as your credibility when you stand for this type of governance role," she says.

Embling was able to draw on governance experience built up over the years -- from chairing the school board of trustees when her children were little, through to industry standards boards and as deputy chair of Global Women.

"I'm always looking for opportunities to stretch and expand and grow," she says.

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"If I go into a role, then I believe you should go in and add value, put your stamp on it.

"But I'm a strong believer a successful leader is one who has created succession and has created resilience, then they step back and let other people come through.

"This for me, from a personal perspective, was the next stretch and an opportunity to learn and grow and add value."

I'm a strong believer a successful leader is one who has created succession and has created resilience.

Running the board of the firm where she works means it is important to compartmentalise, taking off one hat and putting another on, she says.

It's also been crucial to get clarity from the board and partners about what they are here for, how they add value and what success will look like in four years' time.

"The challenge for all boards is to not get down into the weeds.

"You have to stay up and you have to stay looking forward, so to me it's all around the time horizon - we've got to be looking out."

Creating success for both genders has been grabbing headlines of late and it's an area of focus for the firm.

"It would be great if we were no longer having to have these conversations quite frankly," says Embling. "In 1980 if you said we'd still be talking about these things now, I don't think I would have believed you, but we are.

"It's all got to start with the transparency and facing in to what the reality is.

"Once you've done that then you can do something about it."

In a professional services firm, the only way to close the gender pay gap overall is to have more women in senior roles right the way through to partner level, she says.

"We're not where we need to be quite frankly and we're not alone."

While gender is important, as a global firm it is only part of the picture, with many of the workforce now coming from a range of different countries and cultures.

Embling says the change needs to be driven from the top - the board and executive - and it was former CEO Bruce Hassall who laid down the challenge for all the firm's leaders to support women and minorities to progress their careers.

Crucial support for Embling's own career has come from her family and friends.

"My husband in particular, but I've also got two grown-up sons, or young men, that I'm really proud of.

"They've all been there when I've had to make big decisions and had to put in the long hours and had to work hard, because no one gets to any of these jobs without working hard and being fairly focused.

"It means you give up family time or some other things, but they've always just been incredibly supportive of me and that's a really precious gift."