Putting diversity and inclusion into action – a leadership experience from the New Zealand Treasury

Speech delivered by Fiona Ross, Chief Operating Officer and Deputy Secretary, Strategy, Performance, and Engagement

7 December 2018, Women in Leadership Summit, Wellington

Tena koutou

Korihi te manu
Takiri mai e te ata
Ko au ko au ko awatea
Te hei Mauri ora


Well the day has dawned, the birds have sung, and it is a new day. It’s great to have this opportunity to start us off on the second day of this Summit, as we reflect on the lessons of yesterday and look forward to implementing those today.

It is a privilege to be here with so many curious and ambitious leaders.

Following yesterday’s sessions, and ahead of your final day, I thought it might be helpful to place what you heard in the context of a specific experience – my own at the Treasury: what we are doing for women, and indeed for all people in their diversity, and what we ourselves can do as well.  I’ll also offer you some of my own personal insights and lessons along the way.

Informed decisions#

The Treasury is New Zealand’s lead economic and financial advisor. At the heart of the Treasury’s role is the skill of analysis, the exploration of options, and the presentation of advice that allows informed decisions to be made by the Government.

We have been pursuing a diversity and inclusion strategy at the Treasury for just over five years now.  Diversity of thought makes the Treasury stronger, giving us the capacity for deeper insights and making us more resilient.

Inclusion allows us to seek out and engage those fresh and new perspectives, challenge our own biases and mindsets, and develop skill at integrating new ideas. And let’s not forget inclusion allows people to bring their ‘whole selves’ to work, giving them more capacity to engage and incorporate the views of others.   

Diversity and inclusion is not only important for the Treasury and its strategy, it is also a reflection on the leadership that is needed for our times.

The world increasingly requires a different sort of leadership. Technology developments, population growth, climate change, the shift of global politics from Europe to Asia, and the citizen, not institutions, now being a focus of decisions, means we face more disruption, volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity, and diversity than the world has previously seen.

Adaptive leadership#

These call for adaptive leadership, not technical leadership. It is time for collaboration, knowing your strengths and collaborating with the strengths of others. It is not hierarchical or vertical leadership that's required, but influential, networked, and membership-oriented leadership. We move from being able to be planned to being more focused on experimentation and fast learning. Open and transparent, with caution on privacy, has become expected.

And this world also involves employees having new expectations, people who want to bring all their skills and experience and not face any barriers to being who they all can be. People now expect the rights of individuals to be respected, and for difference to be celebrated and not diminished.

When I joined the Treasury 18 years ago, I entered like much of the world into a vertical and technically-focused organisation. I'd come from growing up in the Hutt Valley, where I learnt about feminism and how being different was not so cool. I’d recently worked at the Ministry for Women where Dame Jenny was my Minister, and proudly to me our first woman Prime Minister. I was brought in by the Treasury following a change of government where people with 'social' sensibilities were needed.

But my experience was mixed. While I learnt a lot about good policy making structure and got to see a much bigger picture across the New Zealand economy, I didn't have an economics degree (my disciplines are art history, history, and public policy). I worked in a team with 11 men and no other women. Everything I wrote was checked by the hierarchy, and my final position was decided by the executive team – role models for men.

We had a wharenui as a special place in our building, but I can never recall seeing it. The times required strong vertical discipline to build the institutions needed to support a new economic direction. I didn't get asked to bring my whole self to work. I left my whole self at home. Two years later I left the Treasury.


Switch to the Treasury today – nearly two decades later. After re-joining seven years ago, I’m now a member of the executive leadership team. I’m part of an active Women’s Network.  I feel I can bring who I am to work, and am encouraged to consider and practise how flexible working can suit me best.

At an organisational level, to support New Zealand’s success in the global economy the Treasury is now driving higher living standards, developing a framework for intergenerational sustainable wellbeing. Moving from the established single measure of GDP, the Treasury has developed a dashboard of multiple measures of wellbeing.  A (new to 2019) Budget process will support the Government to make even better trade-offs and choices on what to build for wellbeing and increased understanding of wellbeing in public policy decision making.

As we change to adapt to this outside need, we are changing inside too. We need to be more adaptable in our work, more collaborative, with increasing transparency and accessibility for the New Zealand public. We are driving a more inclusive culture, drawing on wider skill sets and encouraging a curious mind.

As part of this, we have focused far more on how New Zealanders are represented in the staff we hire. We have objectives around the number of women in leadership, although rather than setting a target, we look to achieve a range of between 40% and 60% of our leadership being women, or men, as our organisation is small and one person arriving or exiting can make a huge difference. As part of this, we are also looking at how we can capture and reflect information on those who are gender diverse – so going beyond two genders.

We’ve done analytical work to understand our gender pay gap, and have been able to progressively tackle gaps at each band. We are also tackling the issue of lack of women in leadership, through succession planning.

Diversity of thought#

We’ve also worked on activities to foster a more inclusive culture, as this is a critical part of diversity of thought. We've carried out activities like re-orienting flexible working, so that every job starts with an expectation of flexibility. We've gone deep into unconscious bias and engaged with new communities such as iwi and Pacific community groups. We've talked to gang members and farmers. We have used blind recruitment for all our graduate hires. We are focusing on a wide range of economic perspectives with the Living Standards Framework.

And it is not only top down initiatives. We’ve got the ‘Let’s Talk Economics’ series, which is deliberately run by analysts (younger Treasury people) as a way that encourages diverse views to be put forward, and that is facilitated to encourage all to speak. We have active staff networks including a Women’s Network, the ‘Pink Dollar’ network celebrating our rainbow community, and a group of seniors who support staff to counter any negative behaviours they might experience.

Two cultural audits are saying we are changing for the better, and increasingly fit for the future world. The audits note leadership commitment to diversity and inclusion. We are talking more openly about how to allow people to say what they think. We've got the HR practices in place, and many of our tools and techniques have been well embedded. We’ve linked diversity and inclusion to the wellness and leadership programmes.

Our journey is far from over. There are only two women in a leadership team of seven, and as fast as we've developed women they've left for fantastic promotions. Our young women are leaving in greater numbers and earlier than we have seen for a long time. Our ethnic representation is well below the population statistics. Our staff are not yet saying across the board that they feel like they can speak up and have their perspectives heard.

The future Fiona#

We've now got to bed in the hard yards of culture change, which we know has to start with embedding leadership practice. My hope is that for ‘the future Fiona’ joining the Treasury, she feels she can bring her whole self to work.  She can collaborate with others – bring her strengths and develop theirs. She can help others inside and outside of the Treasury tackle the hard task of making trade-offs and choices to raise the wellbeing of all New Zealanders.

Looking at the reality of where we are as the Treasury has forced me to take a good look at the role I play as a senior leader on the executive team.

I’ve always worked on issues of gender, race, and class – issues of diversity and disadvantage, including in my university study and having had two stints working at the Ministry for Women. 

But it was only five years ago when I participated in some unconscious bias training that I realised how much we all – in our diversity – will be affected by our unconscious bias. For myself, I definitely had a bias that men are in the boardroom and women the kitchen. It was such a shock. I didn’t realise I could have that bias. While I temper this unconscious bias all the time, are there moments where it has leaked out? Where else does my unconscious bias play out? What stereotypes play out for me?

To counter this, there are three key things I have focused on – pursued – since understanding my bias and seeing what changes need to happen around me: three things that I believe are critical for my leadership role.

Three key things#

First, know the value case and the business case for diversity – and repeat, repeat, repeat.  For me the value case for diversity and inclusion comes naturally – instinctively – ‘it’s the right thing to do’. But others don’t share my values. That is what makes us diverse. So I’ve become versed in the business case. There is a strong evidence base that embracing difference does make business stronger. It makes a positive improvement to the bottom line. We are more likely to counter group think and generate more creativity and resilience. And we can tap into a much wider pool of talent.

Secondly, develop, trial, and review fair process practices as it’s a key way to encourage, grow, and benefit from diversity of thought. Nudge normal practices by allowing time to allow for individual thinking ahead of group thinking. Define a process where people feel equal to speak up – for example, not based on hierarchy in the group. Assign roles – for example, who will speak for and against an idea, and regularly change who has those roles. Seek to maximise diversity of your team, including the diversity of experience. Share your diversity story and learn the story of others.

Thirdly, network, link up, and share stories with people who are champions for diversity.  There is a wealth of experience out there – people who can share their experience: what worked and didn’t. Use the network to learn, celebrate, and have some fun.

We know great leaders today will keep a sharp focus on the outcome – keep experimenting, keep exploring other ways to get things done. They own working in a disrupted and ambiguous environment. They are transparent, and focus relentlessly on what people really want. They pursue a diverse and inclusive work environment.

I'm inspired and encouraged to be with you great leaders today. Leaders who are curious and exploring. Finding ways to achieve your ambitions. Finding ways to work with and support others.

Thank you for taking the time to hear about the Treasury and to encourage us – and me – on our journey for change.

Nga mihi maioha
Tena koutou, tena koutou, tena tatou katoa