Alison Gibb is the first woman to head Jersey New Zealand. The former secondary school teacher says her recent appointment to the 114-year-old industry body brings together her background in dairy farming, her science knowledge, her years of service in the voluntary sector and her broad governance experience.
“It feels like all the hard work I’ve done over the years is finally being acknowledged,” she says. “I’m looking forward to working with the board to propel Jersey New Zealand to the next level.”
1. Where did your career path begin?
“I did a Bachelor of Arts in English and Maths and became a secondary school teacher. Teaching was always something that I was interested in, as a little girl I used to line my dolls up and play schools. I’ve always had a bent for leadership. I don’t mean that in an arrogant way, I just find myself naturally stepping in when leadership is needed. Teaching was a way to fulfil that.
“My connection to farming came because I married a dairy farmer. For quite a number of years, Russell was the farmer and I was the school teacher. We had three children and it was me who did all the running around after them because he was in the cowshed. I also did a lot of voluntary work. But by about 2000, I felt I needed to do something for myself. I ended up doing a Bachelor of Applied Science, with an agricultural focus. It took me 11 years doing it part-time, and I eventually graduated in 2011.”
2. What makes a good leader?
“Leadership is a funny old word; it conjures up images of people out the front, beating the drum. My leadership style is more involved, I try to be more of a leader who pulls a team together, who gets alongside them and encourages them to bring their strengths to the table. Having said that a leader also needs to be able to say, ‘this is the decision we’re going to take’.”
3. Why should women consider careers in the primary industries?
“Why shouldn’t they? I don’t think people understand the width and breadth of the primary industries – there’s so much more to it than just milking cows. The farmers who are successful are the ones who use their brains. As a farmer, you need to be good with finances, you need to run a business from a strategic point of view, and you need to have an understanding of breeding and nutrition. Compliance is a big issue, and if you are on a big farm, so is HR.
“There’s a huge industry that sits behind farming, like genetics and food tech. Dairy farming is often described as backbone of New Zealand, butits bigger than that as in the end we are feeding the world. There are so many opportunities.”
4. What have you found difficult, in navigating your own career?
“At the end of 2008 I decided I had had enough of teaching after 28 years and that I wanted to move into other areas. That wasn’t easy. People thought I’d retired, and I had to keep telling them that I hadn’t, that I still wanted to contribute. I battled with questions like, ‘who am I?’ and ‘where to from here?’ It took me a few years to get my head around it. I believe that’s a problem for a lot of people, especially in the rural community particularly with our men in terms of farm succession. They move over to let the young ones come through and suddenly they feel redundant.”
5. What’s the most valuable piece of advice you’ve ever received?
“My mother always said, ‘this above all to thine own self be true’. When I think, ‘am I doing the right thing?’ or ‘is this right for me?’ I go back to her advice. When I was teaching, I used to say to the kids, ‘is this what you want? Is this the direction you want to go in?’ There is so much choice out there for young people; they need to learn to trust their instincts.
“I have always said to my three children, ‘follow your passion and set goals, but make sure they’re big goals because even if you only get halfway, you will have achieved something’.”
6. What are the biggest challenges facing women today?
“It does concern me that we still see inequalities of pay and negative attitudes to women. Now, in the farming world, couples are partners, but reps often come to the door and ask to speak to the man because they assume he’s the farmer. Our daughter is a variable order sharemilker and she’s constantly battling the perception that a man must be in charge of what she does. I think that’s always going to be an issue until we stop putting people in boxes and embrace diversity. Male or female, we have jobs to do. Gender shouldn’t come into it.”
7. How did you get started in governance?
“Like a lot of people, I started with the school board of trustees, which I was part of for 11 years. Then I was encouraged to apply as a trustee when they were starting up Arts Waikato. I was part of this organisation for another 11 years, eight of those as chair. I’m very proud to be a trustee of the Dairy Women’s Network. Through them I have learned a lot about myself in terms of leadership."
8. How do you deal with setbacks?
“I think it’s always important to have someone you trust to talk to, whether that’s a mentor, a sponsor or a coach, or a friend. There are times when you need to make hard decisions, but it’s good to remember that it’s not who’s right, but what’s right.”
9. Who’s a woman you admire?
My mum is my mentor. She’s 93 and she still lives on her own. She’s very sensible and is full of very sound ideas. I have a lot of time for Jenny Shipley. She paved the way for women in leadership, although I felt she never quite got a look-in she deserved. She’s done a huge amount for women. I also admire Jo Finer, general manager of industry affairs at Fonterra. She’s made a conscious decision to follow her career and yet manages that with a family as well."
10. How can women help themselves get ahead?
“I have rubbed shoulders with many successful women and the key message always is that women need to back themselves more, to ‘lean in’ and contribute to the decision making process. Women offer a different dynamic around the board table - it's not that we are better, we think differently and hence add diversity of thought in the decision making process.
“Women need to bite the bullet and back themselves. When I found out about the Jersey New Zealand role I thought, ‘come on then, it’s time to put your money where your mouth is’.”