Justine Smyth is the Chair of Spark New Zealand and one of our many impressive alumni. We sat down to talk to about her career, and the challenges of being a leader.

What was your role at Deloitte and when were you here?

I started as a graduate in 1987 in Tax and became a Tax partner in late 1996.

During that time I spent a year on secondment in the Deloitte Sydney office as a Tax Manager. As a partner I seconded myself into my biggest client - Lion Nathan, to run the project of migrating as a listed public company from New Zealand to Australia. I ended up leaving the partnership in 2000 to work for Lion Nathan in Sydney.

What do you think is unique about working in Deloitte compared to other places you’ve worked at?

The environment at Deloitte was unique in so much as all the people that I worked with and for were similarly focused, most had similar career aspirations and there were many colleagues of similar age at a simliar career stage.  So this meant the environment was great for learning, promoted hard work, but was also lots of fun at the same time.

Today 20 years on from leaving Deloitte I still have wonderful friendships and great respect for the colleagues I worked with.

What do you think makes an outstanding Chair?

Many things must work in unison to make an outstanding Chair.  The Chair is responsible for creating the culture of the Board and a highly effective board is one where the environment is such that the Directors and management feel confident to challenge each other, resulting in better overall decision making.

As such the Chair must not be dominant, they must be great listeners and observers and set the standard around work ethic. They must have high EQ and ensure that each Director is given the opportunity to make their best contribution.

An outstanding Chair must not only be able to manage Director’s contribution, but must also be able to deal with issues of performance management of both the CEO and other Directors, if required.

Why is it enjoyable working on a variety of boards?

Each organisation has its own set of challenges and that is what makes the variety interesting.  For me the variety also means that I am going to be exposed to different groups of talented people and that interaction is what I enjoy most.

How I contribute as a Director on different Boards depends on the role that is required, so that different aspect of how I ‘show up’ in each of those roles creates learning opportunities which I also enjoy.

What skills or knowledge did you take from Deloitte that you use today?

The discipline around taking in lots of information and boiling that down to the salient points, i.e. being able to take in a lot of detail but quickly ascertain the key drivers.  Also the learning to be rigourous around time management has kept me focused, but I am delighted to have left the time sheet behind.

Do you have a mantra that you live by or one that you would like to?

I believe diversity is the antidote to ‘group think’ and as a result a truly diverse group of individuals will produce better decision making than a homogenous group.

I have publicly stated that I will not take a role on the Board as the only female as there is evidence that one voice does not create diverse thinking.  I am an advocate within my organisations for greater diversity and inclusion across the businesses and most importantly, at leadership levels.

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learnt in your career so far?

I think there are a number of lessons and it is hard to single out one.  I would say firstly that your career is unlikely to be a straight line to the top – as a result it is important to take career risks along the journey and broaden your experience so you are capable of  creating more value in your next role.  It is crucial that you are always learning in your role and it should be fun – if not change it up!

And always keep in mind – when one door closes another door will open.

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