Breaking into the Boardroom: Vanessa Stoddart
- New Zealand Refining Company
- Otago University Business School Advisory Board (chair)
- Air New Zealand executive team 2003-2012, leaving as the airline’s most senior human resources executive and responsible for the airline’s technical operations engineering group
- Carter Holt Harvey 1993-2003, including chief executive of the Australian packaging business
- Senior solicitor at Russell McVeagh
Family: Married with two children under 10
Described as having contributed significantly to the business and cultural transformation of Air New Zealand in the last decade, Ms Stoddart was tipped as an early contender to succeed previous chief executive Rob Fyfe.
But she quit the airline last year, stepping out to launch her governance career.
“For 10 years [the airline] had consumed me. I loved it but it was time for something different. So then the question was, do I want another executive role or am I ready for governance?” she says.
At Air New Zealand she had her fingers in lots of pies. So she knew it was no longer about what she could do in her career but what she wanted to do.
Governance provides flexibility to put her hand to more things, and nine months along on her new career path, it is everything she was hoping for.
“But you have to be really disciplined to do your homework and reading and get out and learn the industry. You can’t contribute in a valuable way, if you don’t have enough knowledge,” Ms Stoddart says.
“There is no one there to teach me now. I’m also my own PA and travel agent.”
Having been absorbed in the airline industry for 10 years, there has been an element of “breaking in” in her new roles.
“You have to make the effort to get out and get to the functions and constantly invest in your learning or you don’t deserve to be there,” she says.
“I’ve been overwhelmed with the amount of support and encouragement I’ve had.”
She names Joanna Perry, on the boards of Genesis Energy and Trade Me Group, as one of many senior female directors who have been hugely encouraging of her new step.
“The operational skills and experience gained from working in turnaround businesses with great leaders and directors are of enormous value to other boards and you just have to believe in yourself and go for it,” Ms Stoddart says.
“One of the most important pieces of advice I got was that it’s not just what you take on but what you turn down. I’ve said no to a few and that has been a good learning process too.”
She believes at this early stage four directorships is ample. A third directorship is in the pipeline and she hopes to have a fourth in 2014.
Ideally there will be an Australian or transtasman company in that portfolio to stay somewhat global and relevant.
“So I don’t want to fill my pot too soon and not have space for that. The international one may not come for a while. I’m sure I’ll need to earn my stripes here first.”
Ms Stoddart knows some people in the business community were surprised at her decision to cut short her successful executive career.
The face of governance is changing, she says, and boards are fully aware of the importance of diverse thinking and experiences at the board table.
“I don’t see it as the end of my career but the start of a new chapter.
“And I have been so lucky working for amazing companies and leaders, I want to make sure other people get the opportunities I did.”
Having led the engineering division at Air New Zealand she was no stranger to being the only senior woman in her work environment but that hasn’t been a struggle.
“I constantly question myself though: Did I do enough for others? Was I pushing hard enough when I was the only woman around the leadership table?
That’s another reason she is working with IPENZ on initiatives to get more girls into engineering.
“One of the other big diversity issues we have to crack is ethnicity.
“Why is it there are amazing Maori and Pacific Island leaders in the community but we don’t see enough of them around the board table or in senior jobs?”