One of NZ's best known women talks about life lessons & business success.

When it comes to sharing tips about how to get ahead in business, Theresa Gattung knows what she's talking about.

Gattung is one of New Zealand's most successful business people – she was the first woman to run one of the country's biggest companies (Telecom) and more recently helped start a firm (My Food Bag) that was turning over more than $100m within a few years.

Now the chair of the board for both AIA Australia Ltd and the Sovereign Assurance Company Ltd and the recipient of this year's Women of Influence Lifetime Achievement Award, Gattung says making a point of working for companies supportive of women in their workforce is one of the factors that helped her to be successful.

"I was always a feminist, I did women's studies at university, so I moved around companies consciously looking for environments that I thought would be responsive rather than blocking," says Gattung. "I never worked for a sexist boss, ever. They were all gender-blind in terms of talent."

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That's why chairing the boards of AIA and Sovereign has been such a good fit. This year Sovereign won two White Camellia awards, presented by the New Zealand Women's Empowerment Principles committee, for transparency and leadership equality, which delighted Gattung.

It is very important to her that companies she's associated with embrace gender equality as well as diversity, health and wellness. She's pleased AIA and Sovereign have equality measures in place, such as having shortlists for roles that must include both men and women and offering support to women "who might have that 'imposter syndrome' feeling of 'I can't do it'."

Gattung decided at business school that she wanted to run a public company by the time she was 40: "But I never dreamed I would be the first woman to do it."

Becoming CEO of Telecom in 1999, when she was 37, is still a career highlight, but it's disappointing that nearly two decades on, only a handful of other women have had the top jobs in similar companies.

"Twenty years ago there were only a few of us but it looked like we'd broken the mould and it was all set, and then we went backwards. It's taken us a while to be honest, to say, 'Actually, we're not ahead of the pack, what are we doing about this?'"

It's crucial to take steps towards making those changes and that's why her advice to budding leaders is to think long and hard about the companies and the people they work for.

"You can learn from bosses who have flaws but on the whole it is better to work for people you admire and you can learn from," says Gattung, who has also been involved with not-for-profit organisations such as the SPCA and the World Women Charitable Trust.

On the flip side, valuing those you work with has benefits all round: "Maya Angelou, the writer and civil rights activist, said: 'People don't remember what you did, they don't even remember what you said, but they do remember how they made you feel.' That's a very good quote."

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When it comes to other important lessons she's learned throughout her 30-plus years in business, Gattung says she's come to understand that sometimes you just have to accept what life throws at you and ride the waves.

"My biggest career learning, which is also probably my biggest life learning, is that there's a time for everything. Everyone's lives have some really good times and some not-so good times, and you have to roll with that and understand that other people's lives are going through the same cycles.

"I've had periods where it has been up and up and up, and others where it felt like it was down, down, down. You've just got to stay grounded, do your best in every situation and realise it won't last."

Gattung was "blown away" to receive the Women of Influence Lifetime Achievement award in September. She received the award on the eve of the 125th anniversary of women in New Zealand gaining the right to vote and paid tribute to the suffragettes for their determination to push for equal rights for women.

She also mentioned the further goals the suffragettes set after winning the vote, which included having equal pay for equal value.

"This last one is still not done," she says, "125 years later."

For more information: www.nzhealthiestschools.blog