Young Executive of the Year: Claire Szabó – A change leader

Restructuring an organisation is one of the hardest tasks chief executive can face – yet Claire Szabó has done it twice, putting her organisation in great shape over tough period in the business landscape.
“I have restructured twice since starting as CEO in June 2006, as strategic plans have taken us in new direction,” says Szabó, who heads English Language Partners and is this year’s NZIM Central Region winner and winner of the NZIM/Eagle Technology Young Executive of the Year.
English Language Partners (formerly ESOL Home Tutors) offers migrants and refugees range of English-language programmes delivered by combination of qualified professionals and trained volunteers. “Our clients are all people with amazing stories who have been through amazing things to get here,” Szabó says.
Staff management and leadership has been made easy by working with an excellent team of highly committed, diverse and skilled people, she says. “Being appointed chief executive at 27, I got lots of support from the fantastic staff in my team.”
Szabó says she inherited an organisation that was dissatisfied with its salary system. Funds dispersed by the national office for organising and delivering services were seen as inequitable and out of step with the market.
“Working with senior managers, I implemented programme of change on salary funding for members. This involved participatory processes to prioritise range of possible changes, external sizing of 200 roles, analysing roles to create categories, sourcing of market data, significant fundraising, and two-stage process to move salary funding to benchmarked bands over six-month period.
Hard on the heels of that restructuring and name change to better reflect the organisation’s role, Szabó went into year of strategic reviewing and planning, resulting in 39 recommendations.
Working with senior staff member, she drafted strategic framework encompassing vision for the community, vision for the organisation in three to five years, four result areas and 13 specific goals.
To gear up for the new strategic direction, she restructured the national office, appointed deputy CEO from within the staff and hired someone to new role as client relationships developer.
So which project is Szabó most proud of? “In 2008, I had the chance to negotiate new $1.12 million annual fund with the Tertiary Education Commission. This purchased programme for 690 people needing small group or one-to-one language support and was rolled out across all 23 locations. Seventy teaching staff were trained to deliver the specialised tuition.”
Szabó says the job was made tougher by very short timeframe, which created some stress. “But the tensions were worked through admirably by staff.” This year, the second year of its delivery, it funded 127 new tutoring positions, reaching several thousand clients year.”
External relations have been major focus, say Szabó, who was founding member of three alliances over the past three years – Adult and Community Education Strategic Alliance, Literacy Alliance and the Settlement Non-Government Organisations Networking Group, which she chairs. She has also created new partnership with the Open Polytechnic of New Zealand to deliver foundation skills programme, and with the Rural Education Activity Programmes Aotearoa NZ (REAPANZ) to deliver language training to learners in rural locations.
Formerly an English language instructor to adults at Berlitz language services, moving to become project developer for Berlitz International and the EU, and then consultant, Szabó says when she saw the calibre of her fellow finalists, she felt honoured.
Charles Berridge, National Board chair of English Language Partners New Zealand, says the award is very much deserved: “Claire is seen in the organisation as strong, clear communicator with knowledge and passion. Her commentary is sought by other organisations, both within and beyond the sector.”
Claire Szabó loves her job, but knows part of her role is to equip the organisation for the future. “If I were to leave tomorrow, I feel confident that the association would have very strong management team and national office, clear strategic direction focused on partnership with migrants and refugees, and set of compelling plans and ideas on to build capability and performance for the future.”

Judges Comments:
Claire Szabó

Chief Executive, English Language Partners

Claire Szabó, 32, is an outstanding young leader who will grow in influence, the judges said in announcing her as the Young Executive of the Year 2010. The award recognises leaders, innovators, team builders and high achievers aged 35 and under who make positive impact on the growth, productivity and morale of their organisation. Claire is energetic and confident. She is also strategic and visionary thinker who makes the most of her forward thinking capabilities, the judges noted. She is dynamic leader who has very professionally led her organisation through period of significant change. She engages her team and others in her change processes and has created collaborative solutions across the sector.

Sharon McCook

Group Manager, Health Research Council

Sharon McCook oversees the allocation of budget of approximately $6 million for national and international health research projects. She is holistic, innovative and strategic, the judges noted, and has demonstrated an outstanding ability to establish and maintain relationships in her role as group manager of research partnerships and to use these to create collaborative solutions. She is good listener with sense of balance and pragmatic approach. Most of all, she has an ability to deliver, which has resulted in high-level outcomes from the 100-plus research projects she overviews. The judges can see her as future leader in the health sector.

Brendon McWilliam

Operations Manager, Christchurch Engine Centre

Brendon McWilliam, 33, is an impressive young executive who has developed from technical background as an aircraft engineer to quickly become key executive in his organisation. Under his guidance, the Christchurch Engine Centre’s V2500 jet engine product line at Christchurch Airport has now positioned itself as the world’s number-one ranked overhaul facility, with 95 percent of its work coming from offshore. He has good business sense and broad range of skills, the judges remarked. Most particularly, he empathises with his people, with around 200 employees of 20 different nationalities working under his direction. He is enthusiastic and passionate about what he does, is self aware and is valued by his organisation. He will be another leader in his field said the judges.

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