She used to be the only woman in the room, now she’s one of New Zealand’s most successful business figures, aiming to bring more diversity to the country’s workplaces.

Liz Coutts holds some of the most coveted positions in New Zealand business, and has now become the first woman president of the New Zealand Institute of Directors.

In a climate of rapid political, technological and environmental change, Coutts says having diverse workplaces will be the key to New Zealand business success.

She would know. As a 20-something at one of New Zealand’s largest privately-owned companies, Coutts remembers presenting to a room filled with “mahogany and men in suits”.

“In the very early days I was the only woman in most rooms,” she said. “It was very, very difficult. I was nervous.”

“I went into Carter Holt Harvey to present and it was all male suits and mahogany, it was one of the most scary environments I could have been in – it was 1989.”

Not long after that, when she was 31, she was made chief executive of the Caxton Group which went on to acquire Carter Holt Harvey. She was head of Trust Bank New Zealand at 34 and has since held many governance roles.

Currently she is chair of the Ports of Auckland, Oceania Healthcare, Skellerup Holdings and Urwin & Co. She has directorships on EBOS Group Ltd, Yellow Pages Group, Sanford Ltd and Tennis Auckland, and is a member of the Marsh New Zealand Advisory Board.

Last year she was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for her services to governance.

Today’s announcement was, an “honour and privilege,” she said.

Coutts, who is a chartered member of the institute and formerly the first female vice president, will replace outgoing president Michael Stiassny.

She planned to tackle issues of workplace diversity, as she believed adaptive organisational structures were imperative to business success.

Diversity and strong company cultures would allow businesses to react to situations out of its control – like volatile international politics and technological disruption.

There was also growing pressure for businesses to be more transparent and focus on environmental, social and governance responsibilities, she said.

“One of the ideas that we are really pushing is organisational culture and that is because there is so much change going on we have to be looking how people are responding and adapting to these changes over time.

“The risks of getting it wrong is damaging financially as well as reputationally.”

This included making workplaces comfortable for all types of employees, she said.

“There is no one size fits all really, you have to adapt to who you are working with.

“A corporate environment is not for everybody, some people love processes and just crave that environment and some people don’t.

“Some people like the office and that homely environment, and some people want open environments – that’s the same with all workplaces you need to be adaptive to make people comfortable so they can perform well.”

“Just put yourself out there, it won’t be easy. The more you do, the better you get at it.”

The organisation would continue to support women in governance through its Mentoring for Diversity programme.

“What our role is and what we aspire to do is to inspire and include people across all sectors to be involved and to grow and to add value to business and society.

“If there’s any particular sector where there are barriers we just need to help. We might need to give them the resources, provide education – whatever that might mean.

“Women have different needs and have different needs at every stage of their life, we deal with them in the governance stage of their life and there are other organisations that assist them at other stages of their life.”

When it comes to her own business success, Coutts said she was simply “at the right place at the right time”.

“I was fortunate to have people who were in senior positions who supported me in my late 20s to early 30s.”

She named the late John and Peter Spencer, and Sir Richard Carter as among those supporters.

“They put me forward for senior roles when they sold Carter Holt Harvey. They were huge supporters of mine, I am very grateful to them.”

If she had to give her 20-something self advice it would be: “Just be confident. Just put yourself out there, it won’t be easy. The more you do, the better you get at it.

“When I went to events you were allowed to bring a guest, so I would take someone I knew so I wasn’t standing there by myself.

“I now have realised that the guys have that, too. Men have some of the same barriers, they have self-doubts just like women.”

Going to university was the best decision she ever made, and not networking earlier in her career was the worst, she said.

“Not being aware that you had to do that and burying myself in paperwork when I should have been out there talking and listening to people.”

It was the possibility of financial independence that drove Coutts, a chartered accountant, into the business world.

“I wanted to have independence, I wanted to be self-sufficient – it wasn’t about a job. I wanted to be in business and run a business and have my own financial independence.”

Her advice to other women?

“We all have to aspire to be at the top, we have to put the time in because it is not just doing the work but networking, too.

“Women have to have confidence to put themselves out there, work hard and have the confidence that they can do it.

“This isn’t a short game.”

“Always be adaptive, always look to the future, back yourself, work hard, network and be careful with your time.”

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