Unequivocal ambition: the right woman for the job

Newsroom's Nikki Mandow talks to New Zealand's first female high-level NZX CEO - and its latest

Theresa Gattung remembers the day, in 1999, when it was announced she would be the new chief executive of Telecom New Zealand - the first woman in the role.

“My office was filled with flowers. It felt like I might be coming out of hospital.”

Twenty years on, and Telecom’s successor Spark has gone public with the fact Jolie Hodson will replace Simon Moutter as CEO on July 1.

There are a few flowers in Hodson’s office too. But she takes up the job in a different era.

Her chair is a woman - Justine Smyth - a former colleague at Deloitte and Lion Nathan. Her opposite number at Chorus, the other Telecom spin-off, is also a woman, former Telstra executive Kate McKenzie

Spark has a 50:50 gender split on its board at the moment, and that’s before Hodson replaces Moutter. When Gattung was in the job, the only other woman on the Telecom board was Patsy Reddy, now a Dame and New Zealand’s Governor General.

“The Spark board now is full of strong, competent women. I had one,” Gattung says.

This diversity is certainly not the norm in New Zealand; still, Smyth and Hodson are guardedly stoked by the fact that for the first time, a top New Zealand listed company has women in both the chair and CEO jobs.

That fact isn't necessarily adding to the pressure, Smyth says, but both women are aware of the importance of having female role models for the next generation of executives.

“We’re really excited by the fact we have talent of the nature we have and we have been able to bring through that talent - and Jolie happens to also be female,” Smyth says.

“There’s a job to be done, but these are pretty exciting times to be here, the first company of our size to have women leaders in both roles.”

Smyth is a bit baffled at some of the criticism following the resignation/appointment announcement. For example, Greg Smith at stocks research house Fat Prophets called it “a surprise” and “strange, timing-wise”. The company changed its recommendation on Spark from a buy to a sell.

Smyth says Hodson’s progression over three years from CFO, to CEO of Spark Digital, to customer director has been a deliberate process.

“We’ve had very strong succession planning in place and wanted to make sure we were well-transitioned.”

Simon Moutter took the Telecom job in August 2012 and had signalled from early on that he saw his tenure in the role probably lasting five-seven years, spokesman Andrew Pirie says.

With indications from chair Mark Verbiest that he might be looking to resign himself, the Spark board in 2016 offered Moutter a lucrative golden handshake arrangement they hoped would keep him in the job until June 30, 2019.

This gave the board time to bed in a new chair and to undertake orderly and considered succession planning, Pirie says.

Smyth stresses Spark made no secret of the “good leaver” provisions and calls the internal succession process “as-good-as-it-gets planning”.

Meanwhile Hodson had been unequivocal about her ambition.

"I would like to move to an ultimate CEO role. That is the opportunity in front of me that I am working towards," she said in a 2016 interview with the NZ Herald, just before she took up the Spark Digital CEO role.

Smyth says the announcement shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone.

“It’s not good governance to have a company’s chair and CEO change at the same time ... In 2016 we came to an arrangement with Simon, which we signalled to the stock exchange, that incentivised him to stay in the role until after June 2019.”

He leaves on July 1.

Gattung wonders if there’s a bit of subconscious bias happening.

“It looks like textbook succession planning to me. I wonder if Jolie was a bloke and the retiring CEO had bought in this hotshot male CFO, then put them in as the head of one of the company’s two biggest profit centres, whether people wouldn’t have been saying ‘He is being groomed for the CEO role.’”

Maybe things haven’t changed so much after all.

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