Taranaki-based Ruth Smithers is used to breaking new ground. In her career, she has switched from nursing to management, public to private sector, and from January 2017, as WorkSafe’s Future Director, she will be the first on the programme to participate on a public sector board.
“I’m thrilled to have been selected – and I couldn’t be in a better board environment. The WorkSafe board is high-pressure and high-profile. I will have a mentor on the board to answer my questions but it is my responsibility to be up to speed with board papers. I don’t see it as a challenge – it’s more of an opportunity for me,” says Ruth.
Offering a window on governance for aspiring directors, the Future Directors programme selects talented potential directors to sit with the board of a New Zealand company or state sector organisation for 12 months. They can observe and participate in discussions but they are not allowed to vote. The owner/director of two small business, Ruth sees the Future Director programme as a vital step towards fulfilling her ambition of being a director of a large public sector organisation or a not-for-profit.
As a business consultant specialising in strategy and change management, particularly in health services, Ruth believes she can bring a fresh voice to the table.
“I can bring the perspective of a small business owner, and that of a woman working and living in the provinces. The boards of many large organisations tend to appoint directors from the main centres.”
Ruth already has experience of reporting to a board in her current role as General Manager, Business Development and Corporate Services, for Taranaki’s community-based health and social services provider, Tui Ora.
“My role there has coincided with a period of high growth for the organisation,” she says.
Her lifelong career in the health sector began with training as a general and obstetric nurse after leaving school. “At that time, teaching or nursing were the encouraged professional choices for women. I became a nurse in the public health system and it was an eye opener. I’d never knock nursing as a career -– it's a fantastic foundation, and you never lose lessons about the importance of empathy and community. It made me quite passionate about the public being able to have their own voice to create better outcomes,” she says.
Feeling that she could do more out of the wards and in a strategic role, Ruth took up a management position leading a small not-for-profit organisation, raising a few eyebrows in the process.
“My family felt that I had taken a step backward – and at first it was. But it was also a step forward in the direction that I wanted to take. Later on that decision gave me the confidence to make other changes. I’m not afraid to jump in to take the lead.”
In what she describes as ‘a very busy few years’, she completed an MBA as well as working full-time.
“I might be the only person on earth to feel sorry about completing my MBA. I really enjoy learning,” she says.
The MBA gave her the tools and the confidence to go out on her own and set up Ruby Consulting, where Ruth offered business development advice, and strategic and change management services to SMEs. With her husband, Ruth is also a director of Sirocco Windsurfer LTD, specialising in fibreglass manufacture.
“I also joined the Institute of Directors and have done as many of their courses as possible. You need to be proactive and upskill if you want to get into governance. It’s important to value your own career and feel confident in the experience you can bring to the table, but you also need to recognise just how much you have to learn.”
Ruth believes that there are still challenges for women in the workplace.
“I’ve often found myself the only woman in meetings with senior executives so there are still barriers to advancement. But I have to say that there are no stronger barriers than the ones we create for ourselves. I’d like my message to other women to be - I can do this, and so can you.”