Face to face: Jenny Shipley : Life After Politics

Once you become Prime Minister it is the beginning of the end of your political career.” Jenny Shipley, former Prime Minister of New Zealand, the first and only female leader of the National Party and the former Women’s Minister – among raft of other political portfolios – is certainly qualified to speak about the rise and fall of political careers. Hers spanned 15 years.
But it’s what she’s done since then that is of more interest.
“When I retired in 2002 I was 50 and I decided I was very committed to public service, however I believed it was part of my life, not all of my life. When I left politics I was satisfied that I had left New Zealand stronger than it was, I was ready to move on. I left with no regrets at all…
“Building new career, I have proved to myself quietly and with determination that you can build new story. Yes, I’m the ex Prime Minister, but this is what I am today. I want people to understand that careers can be exciting and dramatic elements of journey where you build on skills… It’s challenging and exciting. You have to often make your own career. There have been some great opportunities. It’s not automatic. You have to work to build these businesses and your reputation moving forward.”
Shipley has done so. In addition to serving as the managing director of consulting firm Jenny Shipley New Zealand, she holds directorships in number of companies including Mainzeal Construction and Development (of which she is currently chair), its parent company Richina Pacific, and China Construction Bank (the second largest bank in the world by market capital). She also chairs Senior Money International (SMI) – parent of the reverse mortgage company Sentinel.
There are more, but why talk about directorships when what is particularly interesting is her obvious commitment to the social sciences and passion for trend spotting?
She explains: “Most of my consultancy and speaking work is on tracking mega­trends. I track political trends, demographics, the rise and fall of markets, and think about what should be on people’s radar screen so they apply their minds to strategy, allocating their people and finances into the right places. You learn so much… I then have fun pulling the situations and people together to think about what the new shape of the future looks like and where they fit into it.”
It is this keen eye for shifting tides in the global picture that makes Shipley the perfect commentator on where New Zealand should be steering. “I am optimistic about New Zealand, but we are going to have to be extremely strategic in how we do it,” she says. “From my point of view you can be New Zealand based and extremely active internationally. Even though it is long way [away] I think New Zealanders are well suited to taking that global view because we have to. In order to stay wealthy we have to sell success to the world in the form of our goods and services and ideas.
“I also think we have to work out how to use those one million New Zealanders abroad. While we have organisations like KEA – which are in my observation more social rather than business network – how do we turn that into set of business relationships where they can find entry points? The risk is that our children will view New Zealand as the beach to come home to in the summer.
“I think we are in very demanding phase. We have all the historical strengths of being first world, despite our being so small. The next 50 years are going to require some extremely astute allocation of human and financial resources. With the rest of the world being so incredibly accessible, our point of difference has to be discovered, quantified and exploited to far greater extent than it has been up till now. We are enormously successful at animal husbandry and food production and that will continue to be revenue earner.”
Shipley’s advice would be to leverage off the growth in personal wellness expenditure (such as nutraceuticals and pharmaceuticals), or as she puts it “leverage off that genetic knowledge and take it to another level, not just nutritionally but also exploring the attributes and benefits”.
This viewpoint is partly influenced by her extensive experience in China and Asia.
“I probably do as much in China as anyone in New Zealand at the moment, certainly at the strategic level. I have drawn lot of conclusions from what I have observed,” says Shipley.
And her advice is not limited to business. She gifts lot of her time to organisations – from raising an endowment fund for the Heart Foundation and sitting on the board of the newly launched New Zealand Global Women, to her family’s charitable trust, which benefits the children of Namibia at Ehomba School.
Both her social commitment and natural tendency toward leadership roles were hatched early on in life.
Born in Southland in Gore, Shipley spent the majority of her schooling years in Marlborough, before training as teacher in Canterbury where she married Burton Shipley.
“I entered into my political life mainly from that Canterbury base. Leadership was always topic of conversation as children. My father was minister so oratory ideas and discussing leading social issues of the time was very much part of the environment I was raised in. I was one of four girls and didn’t realise the world wasn’t an equal place until my 20s.”
Early inspiration included the Kellogg’s Leadership Course she attended in 1983, which helped provide sense of direction. “It reshot that natural leadership set of qualities I had. New Zealanders were starting to think about growing up and standing on our own two feet rather than feeding the United Kingdom. We had to choose between trying to protect New Zealand and becoming an open economy. We are best served being hugely competitive, productive, efficient and open. I’ve spent my political career seeking to achieve goals like that.”
The pursuit of those goals has carried over into Shipley’s current career, leaving number of sterling markers along the way – not all political. The great thing about being known for ‘firsts’ is that it allows you entry to the halls of the elite, and Shipley has given her time to two significant organisations: the Club of Madrid and the Council of Women World Leaders. The membership lists of these read like ‘who’s who’ of the powerful. The Club of Madrid’s membership constitutes the world’s largest forum of ex-presidents and ex-prime ministers (more than 70 democratic former heads of state and government from 50 countries), while the Council is made up of network of current and former female prime ministers and presidents.
Far from sipping cognac and reminiscing about former days of glory, the members of both groups use their members’ considerable clout to achieve global reform in variety of areas. “It’s interesting,” says Shipley, “that your country and politics are less relevant when you’ve retired. Your leadership and knowledge is what is sought after and revered. It’s the principle of sharing that knowledge that is important. If three or four former leaders show up and invite few people who haven’t been talking to events it’s often used as catalyst to get people involved… it’s that power to convene.”
She has recently returned from leading the third of four Club of Madrid delegations to Yemen, with three separate training sessions focusing on communication, leadership, and advocacy skills to improve women’s political participation in the country and help “unlock the potential of human capital through leadership capabilities”.
She says: “There is far more work than anyone can do. The geopolitical insights I gain help satisfy my political interests…”
With interventions in South America, East Timor and Egypt, to name few, Shipley clocks up lot of time away from home and manages this by continually asking herself: “What is critical versus non essential – of the time I am spending? And am I the best person to be doing this?”
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