Each week Eleanor Black invites someone to reflect on taking an exit - from a job, a lover, a lifestyle. This week, Gisella Carr on leaving a big job
You've been chief executive of the beloved World of Wearable Arts for four years. Why are you moving on?
It wasn't an easy decision. Every job is compelling; you invest in it and you put down roots. You don't wake up thinking, "This is it." Every time I have left a job, the hardest thing to leave has been the work that you know is coming down the pipeline, that you have been shaping. This role has meant that I have commuted between Wellington and Nelson for most of each year. The fabulous thing about that is that it has given me Nelson – I now refer to myself as bi-coastal – but I have had to travel every week and my family stayed in Wellington, so after four years I knew I wanted to be back in one city again. I won't have to constantly think about, "Have I bought too many vegetables, do I need to carry some back in my bag tonight or am I taking them into work and handing them out?"
What is so exciting about the newly created role you are taking on: Head of Arts, Culture and Community Services for Wellington City Council?
It has a large team, I am going to be running around 220 staff. One thing I have really enjoyed about WOW is that it's about 35 people most of the year and then suddenly [as the event approaches] it gets to 400 and I found that I really love running big teams, especially if you have great senior management. One of the things New Zealand does well is this sense of community connection to each other; this new job sits at the centre of that. Arts and the humanities, culture and collaboration are crucially important components in a healthy society.
A number of jobs you have held involved showcasing what New Zealand has to offer and selling it to the world. What are our core values?
I think sometimes we overtalk it. My mother, who is 96, says she enjoyed New Zealand before we had to keep saying how good we were and I take her point. A friend of mine who moved back to New Zealand after 17 years working in Europe said to me, "Do I really have to keep having conversations about how we're the best little country in the world?" But nonetheless New Zealanders have specific cultural orientations, as perhaps do other small countries – collaboration, a non-hierarchical [approach], egalitarianism, a sense of fair play – which are often commented on by people who work here, and which we should do our utmost to protect.
Working internationally is always somewhat of a corrective experience to delusions of grandeur. I remember being at an LA film market early in my Film New Zealand days, when we were seen as the country brand to beat in location shooting because of The Lord of the Rings. Two campaigns were running – I think it was Northern Ireland that was promoting itself as "the new New Zealand" and an Eastern European country, possibly Serbia, was "New Zealand but cheaper".
You have held many leadership roles. What makes a good leader?
There are multiple ways to be a leader. I am not an enormous fan of the cult of the CEO, I am much more interested in collaborative work processes. I am much more "we" than "I". But what I have learned is that you have to figure out where to focus people's energy and take them with you. Part of your role is imbuing confidence in the organisation. And the more staff you get, the less specialist you can be; your role starts to change as the scale changes. Great ideas are very appealing. I think we are going to see more ways of looking at leadership as we push for a more diverse workplace. Our discussion of these things is quite narrow and quite corporate. It doesn't really reflect the kind of leadership we see across the community. Or indeed the kind of leadership we saw in Christchurch [after the mosque attacks] or the Nelson fires. That's not to understate the value of the charismatic individual. There are creatives I have worked with who I would walk across broken glass for – what they are doing is so intoxicating you say, "Yes please, what can I do to help?"
Gisella Carr has been a chief executive of Film New Zealand and held senior roles at Te Papa, Creative New Zealand and the Royal New Zealand Ballet. She begins her new job at Wellington City Council in March.