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A place for all

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A place for all

New Otago Council member Carrie Hobson brings many skills to the table, not least a deep appreciation of the transformative powers of education.

Otago alumna and new University of Otago council member Carrie Hobson is used to appraising other people’s CVs, but when asked to reflect on her own career path she notes both ironic twists and a pleasing symmetry.

A recurrent theme of her vocational journey has been gaining insights into what makes people better at what they do, and how employees’ expertise, diversity and values drive success – both for individuals and the organisations they work for.

“I started out as an intensive care nurse, doing my thing, and then years later I’m on the board of Health Waikato and running my own executive search company – I often think ‘how did that happen?’ It’s been an amazing journey.”

Hobson’s recent appointment to the University’s Council will mean frequent visits from Auckland to the city where she grew up and first gained an appreciation of education’s transformative potential.

After attending St Hilda’s Collegiate in Dunedin, she was unsure of her next step – she laughs at the irony, given later career choices, of finding the prospect of working in a bank unappealing. The Otago Nursing School seemed a good option because it offered education, accommodation and income.

“I had no idea what being a nurse meant, but soon realised I was very fortunate. Nursing provided me with the community I needed at a young age and it was hospital-based training with great teachers and colleagues. I loved it.

“Nursing also taught me about the importance of the human component in health care – about recognising the strengths of the people you are working with and what they bring to various high-pressure scenarios. This stood me in good stead throughout my career.”

She graduated as a registered general and obstetric nurse in 1983 but, after several enjoyable years in neurosurgery and intensive care nursing, realised a degree was a prerequisite for progression in the health-care system.

Broad interests led her to Otago where she took papers in management, epidemiology and health promotion, maths, statistics and economics; and juggled study in the mornings and work (and later tutoring) at Dunedin’s Public Hospital in the afternoons.

Many of the issues she studied in the late 1980s were being played out in real time as New Zealand transitioned from regulation and protectionist policies to a free-market economy; the context, in combination with her lecturers’ expertise, added to her interest in the world of finance and economics.

“I was fortunate to have great lecturers and mentors in the Business School and my business, economics and health management papers were fascinating. I did well, somewhat to my surprise, and was thrilled to receive the J. W. Hayward Prize for Commerce, which enabled me to do honours and be a tutor.”

Hobson’s 1989 dissertation used microeconomic and econometric frameworks to discuss life expectancy and infant mortality, and make broader observations on the impact of health reforms. It also consolidated her interest in health economics.

Following university, she decided to pursue a career in commerce and banking and joined the National Bank’s Corporate Banking team, managing a corporate client portfolio worth more than $500 million.

“I learnt a great deal of resilience, but I also liked the intensity and decision-making – it was like working in intensive care. Later, in corporate banking, I had the privilege of building relationships with corporate clients to help them with finances and project planning to turn visions and aspirations into viable businesses, many of which are still thriving today.”

When her husband, Otago medical graduate, Associate Professor Malcolm Legget, accepted a postgraduate cardiology training position at Seattle’s University of Washington, Hobson found employment at US Bank – the country’s 20th largest bank – and “lucked out” by working in its most nationally successful corporate division, East King Country Corporate Banking.

Her experiences as a senior credit analyst reinforced her belief in the need for diversity in the workforce.

“Initially I was retiring and aware of being a Kiwi and, as only the second woman appointed in that area, there was some pressure to compete with the guys. But these things were actually points of difference. Now I think corporate banking has since realised diversity matters, that different perspectives and skill sets are needed for constructive decision-making.”

At the completion of her husband’s studies – and despite good offers from US Bank to stay on – Hobson was pleased to return to New Zealand and corporate banking and governance duties in the health-care sector.

Before heading to the US she had served on the South Auckland Crown Health Enterprise Establishment Board and enjoyed acquiring professional expertise in areas such as the establishment of new hospital facilities and complex capital projects.

Her time on the board also highlighted the importance of communication between governance groups and clinical and executive teams.

“I remember listening to doctors at a meeting who had seen successive corporate structures and teams come and go, and being struck by how these people had kept on working and delivering. They were wary of change – and rightly so. I had huge sympathy for them because I’d worked in the health-care system and the business world. I could see the challenges of bringing them together –ultimately the process was about creating a culture of trust.”

These lessons proved invaluable during three years’ service on the Health Waikato board, and as chairperson and trustee on the Health Waikato Charitable Trust.

“I learned a great deal about how constructive debate is critical to strategy, and how board members shouldn’t be afraid to dig a bit deeper and ask questions because, ultimately, you have to understand and be responsible for an organisation’s activities.”

Another lesson was about the relationship between boards and executive teams.

“The valuable thing to remember is cohesion; the directors and the executive have to say ‘we are all in this together’ and make decisions that make the organisation successful. I genuinely believe that if you can have an open, transparent and fair value-based conversation, then you will achieve very good outcomes.”

The ability to engage in critical processes and be honest about how they “add value” is something Hobson looks for in candidates applying for executive positions through her executive HR company Hobson Leavy, which she and business partner Stephen Leavy founded 12 years ago.

“In corporate banking I learnt that determining if a business could deliver on plans often came down to assessing the skills and values of the people involved. It’s similar in HR because if someone says they are going to develop a new market I’ll ask ‘how are you going to do it?’ This often comes down to them being honest about their own potential, and valuing integrity.”

Hobson is “extremely engaged” with family and business and community commitments – such as fundraising for the Mercy Hospice (Auckland) and the Ballet Foundation – but is confident her expertise could benefit her alma mater.

“As a King’s College Foundation member I’ve found it’s very useful to ask questions like ‘what’s the purpose of education?’ or ‘what is it that parents want?’ I think we value education so highly because we want our children to gain skills and knowledge to become independent adults who are able to live the lives they want to lead and add value to their communities.”

Similarly, as a complex organisation operating in a competitive global market, Otago must deliver value for students so they can reach their potential as individuals and make a contribution in the global community, she says.

Serving on Otago’s Council fits with Hobson’s broader philanthropic interests, which have included fundraising initiatives for cancer research and the Heart Foundation.

“There are always people better and worse off than yourself and you have to ask ‘what can I do to give someone a hand-up?’ To my mind, that’s what education is about. Everyone has the right to a place.

"Young people go to university to learn independence and, along the way, lecturers and others impart knowledge and values that make them better people … and you only need to look at student volunteer groups to see young people are interested in ‘paying it forward’."

“Otago makes an enormous contribution in so many areas and I feel incredibly fortunate to have attended the University, so it’s a great privilege to have the opportunity to give back and be part of the Council”.

Photo: Graham Warman