Our People: New chambers CEO Leeann Watson talks business

Leeann Watson is set to take over the reins at the Canterbury Employers’ Chamber of Commerce next month – the first female chief executive in the organisation’s 158-year history. She spoke to Gabrielle Stuart

NEW DESK: After working at Canterbury Employers' Chamber of Commerce for 20 years, Leeann Watson is set to step up into the top role as chief executive next month. PHOTO: Martin Hunter

So tell me a bit about your background?

I’ve actually been at the chamber for 20 years, for the last seven as general manager. I started as an international trade adviser, and as I identified opportunities along the way I just put my hand up for them, and worked my way around the whole company. So you could say I know the organisation inside out and back to front.

What was your very first job?

My first job was working for an exporting company in Dunedin, hence the international trade work.

International trade, sounds pretty glamorous – is it?

It certainly wasn’t glamorous. It was a lot of paperwork, a lot of export documentation looking ahead at all the potential hurdles and making sure everything is where it needs to be, so your orders get to their destination. But it was a really exciting job, because the company went from strength to strength and brought other companies along the way, so I ended up working across New Zealand.

Leeann Watson, new Chamber of Commerce CEO. Picture Martin Hunter

It’s becoming unusual these days to work in the same company for 20 years – what’s kept you there so long?

I ask myself the same question sometimes. But it’s a very unique environment to work in, there is never a dull moment here. We can host some amazing people here: Rod Drury from Xero, we had Hillary Clinton over a few years ago, and we’ve hosted the prime minister, so you get to have some amazing conversations.

But it’s also being able to really see a difference when you’re helping a local businesses. In my role as general manager I haven’t had as many of the day-to-day interactions with businesses, but I do spend a lot of time making connections for people, introducing them to people who can help them. That’s what makes it satisfying, when you know you’ve done good, and you’ve really helped these people.

Other thing is that there is a very empowering environment here. My job has been what I’ve wanted to make it, and if I want to make something happen we don’t have to write a whole lot of reports, I just duck in and have a chat to Peter and he says: ‘Yeah, let’s make it happen.’

You’ll be the first female chief executive in the history of the chamber. How significant is that to you?

I’m really proud of that, but I’m more proud of being the right person for the role regardless of gender. The numbers clearly show women are under-represented in leadership, so I do hope this will send a signal to other women that if you work hard and take the opportunities you get, you can reach the top.

There are fundamental differences in the way men and women tend to operate in life and in business, and as women I think we tend to hold ourselves back. We won’t apply for a position if we have only 80 per cent of the qualification.

So I’d like to see more women encouraged to aspire to leadership and governance positions. But I think playing up the whole women in business thing can work against women, too – it’s not about making it a women’s club, because then you’re doing the very thing you’ve been fighting against.

What’s the most important piece of advice you’d give to someone starting out in business?

The key thing is to seek out opportunities. Don’t sit back and wait to be asked to do something, put your hand up when you see something. It’s become a bit of a cliché, but I still see it on a regular basis. People don’t put themselves forward, sometimes because they aren’t self-confident, really for lots of different reasons. But don’t hold back. Believe in yourself, and brings a lot of opportunities.

Tell me about what you keep on your desk – is there anything important you’ll be bringing to the new office?

That’s funny because when we moved into our new building I was renowned for having the messiest desk in the whole office, and I have done for years. So when we moved we changed to a more open system, so I have a desk, not an office, and I have to keep it relatively structured.

So I don’t have much on my desk now, and to be honest I don’t spend a huge amount of time at my desk – it’s one of the best things about the job. But I do have a photo of my children, because it’s nice to glance over at them.

CONVERSATION: Leeaan Watson hosted Prince William and Kate Middleton during their visit to Christchurch in 2014, and said they just wanted to talk “about life stuff”.

What was your childhood ambition, and what would your child-self think of what you do now?

I certainly wouldn’t have thought I would be doing what I’m doing! I can’t actually remember really thinking I wanted to do anything specific as a young kid. In the last year of high school I thought I was going to be either a kindergarten teacher or a chef – and I suppose I do now have three kids, two sons and a daughter, and I cook every night.

But my daughter is in the last year of high school right now and doesn’t really know what
she wants to do, so I’ve been having this conversation with her a lot.

What has your advice to her been?

Well, in this day and age with the way jobs are changing, half the jobs of the future we haven’t even invented yet. So the first thing is it’s okay not to know. Unfortunately the first question she’s asked by everyone is what do you want to be, what do you want to do. But I’ve told her to go out and try different things, and put yourself in a position where you’re not limiting your choices, and where you are continuing to learn.

You looked pretty deep in conversation with Catherine, Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Cambridge, when she visited. When you were hosting her and Hillary Clinton, what did you talk about?

Just life. A few years ago Peter was overseas so I had to host the prime minister at the head table at a dinner. A few of my friends and colleagues said you must be so nervous what are you going to talk about? But at the dinner we chatted so much, someone said to me afterward I couldn’t get a word in. Of course, I use those opportunities to talk about Christchurch and what’s happening here and what’s needed, but usually people don’t want to spend an hour talking about the heavy stuff, they just want to talk about life stuff. So I just try to be me.