MW COVER STORY Therese Walsh: On Career Crossbars

It’s perhaps not surprising that the blokes at NZ Rugby’s head office used to rise to their feet when Therese Walsh came into the room. That was when she first started working there in 2003. These days she’s less of novelty – there are now more women in senior roles at the NZRU – but Walsh has charisma that’s helped mark her out as future high flier.
Last year’s corporate win – New Zealand rights to host the 2011 Rugby World Cup ahead of Japan and South Africa, and her own personal touchdown – regional winner of the NZIM Young Executive of the Year Award, have contributed to Walsh’s career profile. But this smartly dressed, confident and attractive 34-year-old is not entirely comfortable with the image of “having it all”.
“I don’t want to be written about like I’m achieving lots and it’s all brilliant. I really don’t want to set other women up to think ‘gosh you can do all this’ because it’s actually very difficult.”
She’s not talking about the job – she loves it – but about the challenge of balancing work and motherhood.
“The hardest decision in my career is children – not having them but leaving them. My two are now nine and six years and I think I’ve tried everything [to get the right work/life balance], working part time, half days, three days week, four days week… Now I’ve sort of given up and am fulltime in what is pretty demanding job.
“But I do think that it is absolutely the biggest struggle of my career; how best to fit family and job together.”
She and her husband Dave share the caring – but he has an equally full-on role in the New Zealand racing industry.
“We both work quite long hours at quite demanding jobs so we find it big challenge when we want to get involved in other things outside of work.”
There’s the kids’ school, their evening classes, her fitness regime… and, of course, the rugby – not just her son’s involvement in the game – but its almost overwhelming presence in her life. She’s not rugby fanatic, Walsh admits – but this is, after all, New Zealand.
“I feel like we’re running an organisation with four million shareholders,” she says wryly.
“Everyone has got view, everyone is interested. It’s something that pretty much everyone in New Zealand is passionate about.”
Microsoft CFO Chris Liddell would no doubt agree. The former CEO of Carter Holt Harvey and director of the NZRU was recently explaining the iconic status of rugby players in New Zealand to an American interviewer.
“Their fortunes probably are more important to the national psyche of the country than GDP growth. I used to joke I thought I had an important job as CEO of the second largest listed company down there until I became director for the NZRU. I was often stopped on the street by strangers who gave me their opinions on every issue from the coaching to player selection.”
That interest is ever present, says Walsh.
“You work in goldfish bowl here. There’s lot of very high profile people who have an opinion. So you can work on something contentious during the day then come home and hear about it on the news. It’s not job you can escape from at all, even in your social life.
“That’s probably one of the biggest challenges – just trying to meet everyone’s expectations.”
But she enjoys the variety of people she works with, from small provincial unions around the country to adidas personnel in Europe or members of the International Rugby Board.
It is, she adds, unique work in more ways than one – being woman in male-dominated industry is part of that. While there are now lot more women around, they’ve only recently started appearing in more senior positions.
Not that her minority status has been any sort of drawback.
“I’ve had some fabulous opportunities come my way in my time at rugby – I certainly haven’t been held back one iota because I’m woman. In fact it’s almost the opposite. When I was first involved – and things have changed lot since then – they would stand when I walked into the room. Now it’s all very normal.”
Walsh is not unused to male bias in the workplace. Born and bred in Wellington, she chose to train as chartered accountant and worked nine years at KPMG, primarily as an auditor.
“It was reasonably male dominated and lot of the clients I worked for were male dominated so I think that’s New Zealand wide issue – not just rugby issue.”
Her first role at NZRU was as chief financial officer.
“It was just challenge for me at the time I accepted the job but over time it’s grown into an amazing opportunity.”
It didn’t start very auspiciously. Walsh arrived to take care of finances during what could be described as “interesting” times. The organisation’s bid to co-host World Cup 2003 failed miserably generating lot of internal and external acrimony that led to major restructure.
“We lost quite few people as result of that and it was very difficult time. Since then we’ve had lot of good people come on board and the whole organisation has just changed enormously.”
She gives lot of credit for that change to the NZRU’s chief executive officer Chris Moller who was appointed at the start of 2003 and in Walsh’s words has proved an “outstanding” leader.
“I rate him as the most important mentor I’ve had to date. He’s just very wise person and I’ve learned lot from him. In terms of advice, I must say I’ve haven’t had many mentors who I can turn to – particularly in the sense of dealing with that dual role of manager and mother. There’s just not too many people you can have that conversation with.”
The restructure saw the NZRU split into three main divisions – one that focuses on the All Blacks, second whose key focus is the rugby and commercial operations and the third which she now heads, corporate services.
“I run all the support functions here but also get involved in most of the strategic projects.”
An indication of how morale has improved in the NZRU camp over the past two years is the organisation’s recent appearance in the “Best Places To Work” hall of fame. It is described as one of the biggest improvers in the BPTW survey – something that is attributed to “a committed and passionate management team intent on the pursuit of excellence”.
“I’m lucky,” says Walsh, “to have been around in time when it’s transitioned into being this really professional organisation that’s just humming. People are happy and we’re achieving things – I mean winning the Rugby World Cup 2011 is one of the most massive things that’s happened in New Zealand in long time. It was just an enormous achievement and the fact we drove it makes you very proud.”
Professionalism is strength Walsh believes she brings to her job.
“Because I’m not rugby fanatic I probably bring bit of distance and objectivity. I come from very professional background and some of the key things I’ve done involve building up some professional processes in the organisation. And certainly I’ve played hand in bringing in some really good people.
“I like to bring woman’s perspective to things – and it is different perspective.”
Walsh believes men and women tend to work in quite different ways.
“Women are much more open, communicative – they tend to bring more of the EQ [emotional quotient] aspect to work in the sense of being in tune with people’s feelings. It’s just recognising when people are having bad day and acknowledging that.”
She also sees women as being good multi-taskers and able to juggle several issues at once while men tend to be more solutions focused. The different sets of skills complement each other, says Walsh, and organisations need that mix to function more effectively.
She does feel real responsibility to be an advocate for women both in the organisation and out in the wider community. That’s why she’s keen to talk about the NZRU’s “small blacks” programme.
“One of the interesting things we’re doing here is that there’s lot of work going on in terms of community rugby and how to get more school children involved. There’s lot of focus going into making rugb

Visited 44 times, 1 visit(s) today
Close Search Window