Case study: Wendy Neilson

Wendy Neilson has significant experience in disability advocacy and support. She has been a lay member of the Podiatrists Board, President of the National Assembly of People with Disabilities, President of the Workbridge Council, Chair of the Sport New Zealand Advisory Group for Disability and Chair of the Gracelands Trust.

Currently Wendy is on the BOP Parafed Board, the Ministry of Health advisory group for the new model in the Bay of Plenty, and the Tauranga City Council Age Friendly City Project.

I thoroughly enjoyed serving on the Podiatrists Board because it is unlike anything else that I have been involved with. Although I'm an academic rather than a podiatrist, and I filled one of the two lay positions on the board, I live with a disability and I'm heavily involved with disability issues so I feel I can talk with some experience about issues in this area.

That enabled me to bring relevant knowledge and experience to the board that someone who is a trained podiatrist might not normally have. I used my professional life at the university and the challenges in my normal day-to-day life and transferred them to the board.

I developed working relationships with the other board members. When we met there was an unmistakable collegiality and we were all there to do a job. We could work at a level of dignity and respect. The group was lovely, we had lots of laughs and I found the work very satisfying. It is important to learn about the people you are working with.

The work can be very serious and quite challenging at times though. I liked to see us working well as a team so I tried to bring a little humour to the board, but I also felt very strongly about leading a committee or a board, so I didn't hesitate to make a choice when faced with a difficult decision. I find being part of a team and working toward good outcomes, no matter what they are, is very positive.

At times I get presented with complex technical issues which are hard to understand. At those times I asked for more explanation and say that I’m coming at it from a layperson’s perspective. I'm always prepared to ask questions if I don't understand something. You need to remember, you are there to lead and govern and it is not always going to go through smoothly. You won't always have the easy answers but you can come out with dignity and respect.

I started out as a primary and then secondary school teacher. After I had my children I did relief teaching and part time work at the local polytechnic. My first real leadership experience was when I joined the New Zealand Federation of Business and Professional Women and subsequently was voted onto the local executive committee. It was quite daunting to start with and I remember thinking, “Why me?” But I accepted, because if you don't try, you will never know what you can do.

I'm so glad I did because I enjoyed it immensely. I realised that I could do things that I never expected and I gained a lot of confidence. I think you realise you can do far more when you take something on and feel the fear, but do it anyway. Women shouldn't underestimate their ability to contribute, because I think sometimes women put themselves down.

Remember you have to start somewhere - but try starting small. By starting with a local business, professional women's organisation or a community group, you can get a very good grounding. I think you get far more out of working at the executive level of an organisation than you do simply being a member. You are definitely going to enjoy it and understand it much more, and it's a real lead-in to governance.

I actually didn't set out to do any of this – I just fell into it accident. Prior to my appointment with the Federation of Business and Professional Women, I only vaguely knew that governance and board positions were available. The younger you are when you start, the better because as you get older, your skills grow and you can become more relevant and useful. I've found it a very worthwhile experience and I've gained a lot of knowledge from working with different people who are all working toward a common goal. 

What advice would I give someone starting out? Get involved! Find out as much as you can about your organisation – read all the minutes, policy, and board papers you can get your hands on. If you do a lot of listening, especially in your first meeting, you'll come out really being able to contribute.

Women bring balance to a board and a stronger governance structure than men working by themselves. Women just need to be encouraged to see that they can contribute and feel valued for their ability, rather than patronised or held up as a token. Women are such amazing people with so much power, but we underestimate ourselves in so many respects.