New Zealand Post Group CEO John Allen believes that intellectual curiosity is inherent in good leadership. But it is not just curiosity that motivated New Zealand Post Group to find out why it was missing out on leadership potential through not having more women at senior levels.
"We had already made a commitment to quality employment practices in order to achieve the business benefits of a versatile workplace," he says. "This naturally extended to wanting to understand and address any obstacles facing women who are in, or wish to pursue leadership roles here."
New Zealand Post Group directly employs more than 10,000 people, 61 per cent of whom are women. But as seniority increases, the proportion of female employees decreases.
Three of the Post Group's directors are women .
Three women report directly to the CEO as part of the New Zealand Post Group Executive Team of 10. Just over a quarter of senior managers reporting directly to that Executive Team are women. Of all employees at senior manager level, just 20 per cent are women.
Such gender disproportion is commonplace in New Zealand organisations, but Post Group's response was far from commonplace. John Allen and his Executive Team were determined to try and redress the imbalance through a Women in Leadership programme across the Post Group.
Manager of HR Policy, Vicki Bazalo, explains the thinking behind the programme. "We first wanted to adopt a systematic and rigorous approach to gathering information which would enable us to lay a firm foundation for developing appropriate initiatives that would make a difference," she says.
"It was important to gain insights from as many Post Group women as possible, at targeted levels in the organisation. This included those who, for whatever reason, were not yet in, or had actively decided not to pursue, leadership roles."
As an appropriate survey mechanism was not available, Vicki worked with the EEO Trust to develop an online survey which would access the views and experiences of a broad cross-section of female employees across the Post Group of companies.
Vicki says that an online survey offered a number of potential advantages. "We could assure people that their responses and views would be anonymous, so they could be completely frank. It also enabled us to obtain hard empirical data which we could readily analyse and use to guide our future programme of initiatives."
In May 2007, John Allen encouraged more than 800 Post Group women managers, specialists and team leaders to complete the survey, saying, "I trust you will take this opportunity to give your open feedback and raise any issues you and other women face when it comes to taking your careers further within Post.
Vicki says that John's support has made a huge impact on senior women across New Zealand Post Group. "He's so very passionate and genuine about building up the numbers of women at leadership levels - and it's not just lip-service; he genuinely believes that it's a good thing for the organisation and that we're missing out on a lot of opportunities if we don't have a better representation of women in senior roles."
"It's been proven time and time again that it's good business sense to have diversity - including women - at senior levels. Because John has led this initiative from the start, people really knew that he was listening, that he was interested in the results warts and all, and that some positive initiative would result."
The survey explored women's experiences in seeking promotion, their views on the organisation's support for men and women seeking leadership roles, and their ideas on how to encourage more women to aspire to leadership roles.
More than 500 women completed the survey, a response rate of 62 per cent, indicating the survey topic's relevance. A number of reasons emerged as to why women chose not to apply for leadership roles across the Post Group. They included the lack of encouragement received, lack of individual confidence, and the behaviour of some leaders.
In terms of what would help them, the most common themes women raised were the need for encouragement with career development, including networking and support, a mentoring programme and mechanisms to help build their confidence.
The survey results were released in staff publications, a move that Vicki says was important, as it demonstrated Post Group's commitment to transparency. "We openly acknowledged that New Zealand Post Group businesses could do a lot better in supporting women who wanted promotion to a senior leadership role."
As a direct result of the women's requests for support and encouragement, a number of initiatives were then developed and subsequently endorsed by the Executive Team.
Vicki explains that the initiatives were agreed by the Executive Team as a priority throughout the business. However, the company deliberately steered away from setting targets for women's representation at senior management levels.
"We didn't want it to be a quota system which could turn people off," she says. "Furthermore, New Zealand Post Group is made up of a number of businesses which are all very different, so having an across-the-board target wouldn't be appropriate.
"It's more important that the businesses are visible in supporting the development of women into senior leadership roles, than for them to meet a gender representation target."
The key initiative Post Group has introduced so far is women's networking sessions. The aim is to build a professional, thought-provoking and supportive network across New Zealand Post Group to enable women to make contacts, establish and extend working relationships and share ideas, advice and success stories.
Vicki says that the initial sessions were so popular that extra sessions had to be held. "As word spread to the South Island, we quickly responded to a plea for a South Island session. The women attending that session brought the total number of attendees at the first four forums to 135.
"We've scheduled further sessions in the main centres and are working out how to meet the demand from those in provincial centres."
The feedback from the sessions has been overwhelmingly positive. One woman wrote that it encouraged her "to look at my career frontier and recognise this is an organisation that gives opportunity. What I'm doing differently as a result is believing more in myself as a leader, being more courageous and determined, and looking at taking up leadership opportunities."
Another wrote: "I found this very relevant as I'm a working mother. It was extremely encouraging to know that you can still be successful in the workforce even though you have children."
The Women's Network meetings will increasingly focus on addressing specific skills or information gaps identified by women such as networking techniques, confidence building, work-life balance and career planning.
Vicki says the Women's Network benefits the New Zealand Post Group by providing an opportunity for women from different parts of the business to meet and share ideas and inspiration.