PROFILE: Christine Rankin – Still Lighting The Flame

Mention the name Christine Rankin to almost anyone and they will know who you mean. It’s those earrings and the reputation for short skirts and plunging necklines that remain in the mind, eight years after the kerfuffle and resulting court case that drove her from office as chief executive of Work and Income New Zealand.
But there is great deal more to Christine Rankin. survivor from home where her father could be extremely violent to his four children, poverty was often factor and educational ambitions severely limited, understandable low self esteem meant her future life was never likely to be easy. An early failed marriage that produced two sons and left her on benefit before she had even embarked on career made life’s challenge even tougher. She acknowledges that she could have become dependent on the welfare agency she eventually came to run.
Instead, she took her chances and rose rapidly through the public service ranks to become CEO of WINZ in 1998, leading staff of 6000 and responsible for $14 billion of taxpayers’ money. She departed amid the controversy around the booking of $200,000 worth of charter flights to WINZ conference in Wairakei, made by staffer without Rankin’s knowledge but for which she accepts full responsibility. Painful though the memories are, she has put those public service days behind her and moved on to the challenge of transforming as many as she can of New Zealand’s large and small companies.
Four years ago with elder son Matthew, human resources manager, she formed management consultancy called the Rankin Group, which they renamed this month to something they regard as more ­appropriate.
“We’re now the Transformational Leadership & Change Company (TLC) because that’s what we do,” said Rankin.
“People think that the private sector is whole lot better than the public sector, but no, it is not. All companies are different and I’ve seen some really great things happening, but often they’re just like good old government department; they have all kinds of rules that stop people achieving and there is dramatic lack of leadership.
“Any leader who locks themselves in an office, closes the door and plays with pieces of paper, has got problem. I sat in an open plan office for very long time because people talk to each other and you know what’s going on. Managers should be aware of everything and should be fixing problem as soon as it arises.
“Matthew and I go into company and work with the executive team. We put them through leadership exercises which show how they operate. Then we start to coach them. At the end, those managers are interacting with their people in completely different way.”
So why can’t these companies fix themselves? “Sometimes people just get in rut. They’ve been doing things particular way and while our culture talks about leadership, it’s just management really. We manage the nuts and bolts and we’re quite good at that, but in terms of leadership we don’t take that extra step, and that’s the magic that will give you the savings and enable you to produce what you want to produce. Some companies are doing incredibly well but there are lot that could be doing better. They just need to open their minds to some new ways of doing things.”
How was she able to achieve the results she did and now transform significant New Zealand companies with formal education only to School Certificate level? She says major factor in her rapid rise from the bottom at WINZ lay in good communication with her managers.
“Profound things happened to me in the department in the early days. I had no self esteem, I wouldn’t have said boo, but they kept telling me how fantastic and different I was. That feedback was really powerful, I didn’t want to let them down. I worked to be what they wanted me to be.
“I came to understand that one of the greatest secrets of leadership is talking to people. Tell people where you want them to be, paint picture for them and put them in it. Tell them when they’re really great, tell them when they’ve done something fantastic, and tell them when they haven’t and they’ve got to fix the problem. It works.”
Although Rankin has achieved success without university degrees, by no means does she denigrate the value of qualifications.
“It’s an incredibly important base, but it’s not the be all and end all. You’ve got to open your mind to what it is that gets people to perform. Some of my worst performers became my very best. It’s what you say to them and how you deal with the surrounding issues. Education is great thing, but there are people who don’t have that education who are exceptional, they just have that ability to lead. We have to make room for those people, too.
“I often speak at occasions where there are lot of graduates and I say: ‘Please do not take what you’ve learned at university and think that’s it, because it’s not. The real business world is very different.’ Leadership doesn’t seem to be something they study in the way I believe we should.”
Are you manager or leader?
“Oh, I’m leader. Of course, leaders have to make sure an organisation actually runs well, but they actually lead and they get people with responsibility for others to lead, too.
“At the end of the day, the chief executive is the leader of an executive team who’ve got all the talents to do the job; you’re just the conductor of the orchestra. I always said that the people who surrounded me would be the best possible because the better they are, the more I’m going to achieve.”
Is she surprised at what she is doing now? “I’ve got used to it. I always thought that my career was going to be in the public service – I would just go on to do bigger and brighter things. I wasn’t quite sure what that was, so it was hell of shock for it not to happen. But in way it’s been great because our company is doing really well and we do some very exciting work.
“There are very enterprising chief executives out there and I always look for those people – someone who’s really edgy and wanting to make things happen. Then I approach them. When you work with company, the results can make you very excited, as they used to when I was chief executive.”
Christine Rankin describes herself as very determined about what she wants to achieve. “I’m very energised and I rarely think in down way. I’m enthusiastic about life, no matter what it’s dished out to me. I suppose I’ve always got up, dusted myself off and got on with it.”
Life has not have turned out the way Christine Rankin might have imagined it would, but she is satisfied with it. Apart from her consultancy work, she is councillor for the Auckland Regional Council, motivational speaker and chief executive of For the Sake of Our Children, charitable trust aiming to combat New Zealand’s high rate of child abuse and neglect. After three failed marriages, she is happy in new relationship, is practising Buddhist, copes with sometimes debilitating autoimmune disease and revels in her time with her friends, sons and five grandchildren. At 55, she has mentally moved on.
“I think I’m quite comfortable in my own skin now. It took quite long time, but I really don’t care anymore what people may say or what judgements they may have of me. The people I work with are the ones who’ll make the judgements as to whether I deliver. I know that I do, so it’s pretty good life for me at present.”

Brent Leslie is a freelance journalist.

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