Stat­ing her terms

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

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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, be it per­sonal or at work, where you get chal­lenges and strug­gles and 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 – but be­ing re­ally clear about your val­ues and your in­tent and what you’re there to con­trib­ute. For me, that’s very much about in­tegrity, and hu­man­ity, and putting your cus­tomers at the cen­tre of the uni­verse.

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.

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.” 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 work, and life in gen­eral.

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. 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? It’s ir­refutable that greater gen­der bal­ance – and even more so 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. From that, we need to think about the en­vi­ron­ments we’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”? 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.

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. Ad­vice and sup­port is ev­ery­where you look for it in the in­ter­net age. And just ask, as well.

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. It doesn’t elim­i­nate the arts; it pro­vides an amaz­ing plat­form for them to grow even fur­ther.

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Xero chief part­ner of­fi­cer Anna Cur­zon is adamant that gen­der and eth­nic bal­ance are key to busi­ness suc­cess. PHOTO: CHRIS SKELTON/STUFF

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