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Anna Curzon is the chief partner officer at accounting software giant Xero, and was a finalist in this year’s Women of Influence awards. Curzon leads the company’s global partner teams. Before Xero, Curzon worked in internet banking at ASB and digital fir
Your CV is so impressive. Have there been times when you weren’t sure where things might end up? Oh yes. I think inevitably there are times in your life where you get challenges and struggles and you think: “My Lord, I haven’t been here before! So how do I cope with this?” It’s really easy to get into a bit of a tailspin. In my experience – and it’s taken me a while to learn this – being really clear about your values and your intent and what you’re there to contribute is the key. For me, that’s very much about integrity, and humanity, and putting your customers at the centre of the universe. You get a lot of strength from that.
Can you give me an example of an obstacle you’ve overcome that’s resulted in personal growth? I can think of examples where I’ve had to introduce a new way of doing things into the organisation that’s affected people right through the value chain. Breaking cadence is hard, change is hard. I’ve learnt to be curious about why people might be thinking differently to me, and seek to really understand.
If you commit to being positive, your team and the people around you will gravitate towards that. You can choose to think: “Oh it’s too hard, everyone hates me at the moment, what am I doing?” Or you can say: “In my heart of hearts, I know this is the right thing to do.” The energy you bring to the situation or to the room can have as much of an impact as the words coming out of your mouth.
Have you ever been in a situation where you’ve really had to back yourself, even when colleagues or higher ups felt differently? I can think about an example where someone significantly more senior than me was saying: “You’re over-engineering this, Anna. Stop.” I really had to hold my ground because I knew it was the right thing to do. I’d done my research and I thought: “Well, this organisation is paying me for my thought leadership, and I need to contribute to the organisation, ‘cos they’re relying on me.”
If you understand your values and the worth that you bring to an organisation, you will back yourself. It’s not to say that you should stop listening, and zig and zag when you need to, ‘cos you won’t have all the answers.
Where does that inherent self-confidence come from – do you think it’s born rather than made? I grew up in a family where we were always asked for our opinions, and we discussed current events around the dinner table. I just assumed I was expected to contribute to a discussion. Growing up in the Waikato, you get to be grounded in the realities of the day. Those things contributed to the way I approach life in general, and how I approach work.
The first thing you need to be curious about is yourself. There have been times where I’ve felt like the only freak in the phonebook, sitting in a meeting where I’ve been the only female and considerably younger. Your mind does start to play tricks on you because you look around and you don’t see someone like you and you think subconsciously: “Do I belong?” It might be because of your sexuality, it might be because of where you’ve grown up – it’s not just about gender differences.
You need to listen to the stories you’re telling yourself. As soon as you start hearing that story of: “Oh I don’t belong here, oh maybe my voice isn’t valued,” you flip that and you say: “Actually, all the research says diversity of thought is a great thing. It leads to better business outcomes. Isn’t this group of people lucky I’m here?” [Laughs].
The stories we tell ourselves inevitably come true. Start to tell yourself those positive stories because your brain won’t know the difference.
You’ve spoken about unconscious bias in the workplace. If you were Prime Minister for a day, how would you go about solving this? Again, it’s about being curious. People are unaware they might have said something that was derogatory or demeaning or unhelpful. It’s not necessarily helpful to call someone out in the meeting (though sometimes it is). Often a better approach is taking people out for coffee or grabbing them afterwards and saying: “Hey, what was your intent when you said, X?” Often people are horrified, because if they haven’t walked in the shoes of other people, it’s very hard for them to have that different lens.
It’s irrefutable that greater gender balance – and it’s an even greater effect with ethnic balance – leads to better business outcomes. There’s study upon study upon study that backs that up. For the health and wellbeing of our country, if we really want to grow and be successful, we need to get this diversity gig sorted. I’d be going to every board and saying: “Hey, do you believe this research or not? And if you believe it, what are you doing to actively become more diverse in your leadership teams?” It’s an issue about the bottom line.
From that, they’d need to think about the environments they’re building as businesses, teaching people to be more self-aware and
understand their unconscious biases, and create a safe environment to have those discussions. It’s kind of a long-term view but I think it’s negligent for any board not to have diversity. They’re really leaving opportunities behind.
What about people who say it’s just about getting the “right person for the job”? Whenever I’m looking to recruit someone, I look at the dynamics of the team that I’ve got. You’ve got to look at it in that context as much as being “on paper” the right person for the job, because as a team you’ll be making decisions.
If you understand unconscious bias, you understand that you often look to hire people like you or hire people that have been in that role in the past. I had a friend once who didn’t apply for a role – a very senior position – at a big organisation in New Zealand, to sit on their executive board. I said to her: “Why didn’t you apply,? You would have creamed them.” She said: “The person that’s in that role at the moment is out three or four nights a week at functions, at networking events. I’ve got a small son, I couldn’t do that.” I said to her: “You state your terms.” What happened before does not have to dictate the future.
Business wasn’t built to be family-friendly, quite frankly. A lot of businesses are still set up in manufacturing terms, on billable hours as opposed to outcomes. If you’re looking for the best person for the job, think about the outcomes you’re trying to deliver, your team and the impact that person might have. Think about the vacuums in your team – it might be you need someone who’ll come in and be that devil’s advocate.
Often women’s lack of presence in senior/ leadership roles is blamed on them – they weren’t assertive enough to ask for a promotion, or a raise. But what about those who are, and are still denied those opportunities? I think organisations, women, and men, need to work collaboratively to design roles to get the best outcomes. The responsibility falls on both sides.
The business landscape hasn’t really changed in the past 100 years or so. It’s been slow to evolve. We’ve got this amazing opportunity to really think creatively about designing a way of working that creates time and space for men and women to prioritise work and home and family or whatever gives them energy, because you need to think about your whole self. When you’ve got energy for your whole self, you bring the best version of yourself to work.
Advice and support is everywhere you look for it in the internet age. I often speak to women about the importance of peer support and networking. I say to them, “If you’re not finding it at work, jump online”. Jump on to Linkedin and start a breakfast catch-up.
And just ask, as well. Go out and research opportunities and make a case for taking these opportunities. Say: “I’d really like to participate at a high level of leadership and to do that, I really need more support, I need more coaching and mentoring, and I’d like an investment in X, Y and Z for the company’s future, please.”
Growing up in the Waikato, what did you think you’d do for a career? I always knew technology was super important, and I always gravitated to the technology and digital roles. I didn’t have a specific role in mind. But what I did have was a sense that I wanted to contribute and make an impact and I had every right to do that.
My mother instilled a very strong sense of fairness and equality in us, growing up. [I’d define] my personal purpose as being about democratising success though technology.
Technology is solving so many issues now – from health, wealth, wellbeing, relationships, communication. We need more people from diverse backgrounds participating in technology so we can solve everyday, real-world problems.
For me growing up in the Waikato, when I think about the amazing people I met there and that I grew up with, [I wonder] if they’d had access to the tools our children have today, what paths they might have taken. I’d love for every New Zealander to give themselves a goal and say: “In five years, we want to have the most digitally literate children in the world.” That will afford them opportunities and a competitive advantage that’s going to be huge for our country moving forward.
We’re a little country at the bottom of the Earth – being able to harness every bit of genius that we have is so important. So why wouldn’t we do that?
For people who are more artsy, rather than science or maths-inclined, what sort of opportunities are there in tech? If you can understand the basics of technology – how to build an app, for example – that’s a way to release your creative nous. It gives you the tools to be creative; it gives you a world stage to launch your creativity on to. It doesn’t eliminate the arts; it provides an amazing platform for them to grow even further.