At Sheffield, we work with some of New Zealand’s most influential and inspiring leaders. Our Leadership Series is a chance to gain insight into their leadership style, learn about the journey it took to get there.
In this interview, Sheffield Wellington Director Katy Anquteil interviewed the Chief Executive Office of Horowhenua District Council, Monique Davidson.
What have been the most important influences in shaping your leadership style?
I always talk about my mum and dad. They are parents of seven kids and taught us all hard work and humility. In being a member of a big family, you quickly learn the art of compromise and influence. So many of my leadership reflections are actually reflections of being a good person within society.
Ultimately, it's people who I work with every day that inspire me to be a better leader.
I would say that my two biggest inspirations are my parents as well.
So really, that really resonates with me. Monique, next question. What are the five key principles that define your approach to the challenges and opportunities presented by leadership?
We work best when we work with others. I've always taken a firm view that we should surround ourselves with great people who often are better than us. It’s in partnering with those people, whether they be individuals, groups, or important voices around the table, for example, mana whenua. Partnership is certainly a key principle of my leadership style.
I talked earlier about mum and dad and some of the values they instilled in us. Social justice was a big thing for us growing up, but ultimately, it was about service. Part of the reasons I'm in local government is because we make a difference. So, when I think about the role of leadership and the principles of leadership, a huge driver for me is service, serving people, whether that be the people we lead, or the people that we are delivering for.
I often describe myself as the ‘fairness queen’. As I've matured in my leadership journey, and particularly when you become a CEO, you start to recognise what a critical role you play in enabling and ensuring fair process for your decisions.
Believing and connecting to the ‘why’
Whatever you're leading and whoever you're leading, you want to create an environment where there's a belief and purpose and that you're connecting purpose to why we're here and what we do.
There are two lenses to this. Leadership doesn't come with a fancy title or a badge. But it comes with this idea that we do cool stuff, we make cool decisions, and we ultimately influence outcomes. I believe anyone can do that, despite their badge, title or salary. What drives me is to create an environment whereby we empower people to be the very best at work.
The second lens is that when we are leaders, we're real people. How we empower ourselves at home, or in our personal life is important. It's a continued reflection around what we do at work and how we do that at home.
How has your approach to leadership adopted given the enduring context of rapid change and disruption?
Circumstances change the context of how we operate, but ultimately, what doesn't change is that we're people and that we feel stuff. What comes with that is a yearning for connection and feeling valued.
I think what hasn't changed is the fact that I'll always be a people-centred leader. I get out of bed each day excited knowing that I get to lead people who make a difference. You get that motivation by spending time with people, coaching, supporting, celebrating, and reflecting with them.
Whether it be the pandemic, or whether it be the constant demands on your time as a leader, finding time to do stuff with people as a down to earth human is pretty critical.
Certainly, I think it's probably shown where that is prominent for leaders in the last couple of years, and where it's absent. From a strategic perspective, which of the current global trends interest and/or concern you the most and why?
International relations, and particularly in a New Zealand context, we've had our slice of paradise. We've been able to remain fairly immune to a lot of those pressures. But I think the current economic pressure, around inflation around interest rates, we can’t avoid the impact that that has on our communities.
As an employer, we can't avoid the impact that's having on our people. What the additional pressures that means that they're having, and therefore the impact for them at work and be the very best version of themselves.
What personal strategies do you use to keep focus on what is critical for business and personal professional success as things change and disrupt around you?
I set goals. I have clear objectives. Leaders often talk about organisation roadmaps or business plans, and I have all of that. I also have it for Monique. When I haven't planned, typically the world around me falls down.
But also, I'm human! I've learned over my career, and I continue to learn, about how we gracefully let balls drop. How we make deliberate decisions about what balls we let drop in order to make sure that we are focused on the things that really matter.
I'm a mom of two young kids, and I like to think I do a pretty good job of that. But I'm a big fan of outsourcing as much as I can, so that when I am at home, I am focused on being a really good mum.
I think the most important strategy is humility. So as a leader, we should remind ourselves that we are no more important than anyone else in the organisation. As soon as we think we are, we've lost this notion that we're there to serve the people we lead. That humility must be at home as well. That's a little bit of being kind to ourselves when you might have forgotten to fill out the parent consent form that was due a week ago, or not pay for the child's gymnastic fees, which I forgot to do.
You are speaking straight into my heart right now – I'm remembering that time I forgot a costume for Book Day - so I appreciate that.
I think the grace, both that we show the people in and around our workspace, but also that that is applied to self at home, because it's you need grace there too. That can be the hardest thing that we see with leaders, is their ability to apply that same grace to themselves.
The absence of the ability to apply that grace is when you see much higher levels of burnout. It’s an interesting direct correlation between those two things.
In hindsight, what would be one piece of advice that you would give yourself at the beginning of your leadership career?
Early in my career whenever there was a 360o, people would say all these wonderful things that would make me sound heroic.
But the constructive feedback I was always given was about finding balance: “she should enjoy her 20s, or she should be enjoying her 30s”. At the time, I remember shrugging that stuff off. I think learning to seek balance out earlier in my career wouldn’t mean that I would have got anywhere faster.
I look back and I see now that the balance I'm able to at times bring into my life, or at least the awareness around balance, means that I'm being a better role model for my staff.
What is the best piece of leadership advice that you've received?
One is to never stray from what you believe is right. That doesn't mean you have to leave your job. If you see that's not right, do something about it.
The second thing is ultimately trusting your gut. If you think something's up, or if you're feeling a bit funny about something, or if you really think that that person has potential, typically your gut is connected to your heart and your mind. The two combined make magic.