Resilient leadership crucial: SIT chief

SIT chief executive Penny Simmonds addresses the Enrich: Celebrating Women in Business event....
SIT chief executive Penny Simmonds addresses the Enrich: Celebrating Women in Business event. PHOTOS: GREGOR RICHARDSON
After 22 years as chief executive of the Southern Institute of Technology - out-lasting 11 Education Ministers - Penny Simmonds quips she thinks she is the most resilient person in the South.

But then, as she told those attending the Otago Southland Employers' Association's event, Enrich: Celebrating Women in Business, in Dunedin this week, she remembered Invercargill Mayor Sir Tim Shadbolt, New Zealand's longest-serving mayor.

"Clearly, resilience is in the South," she said.

Ms Simmonds, who was appointed to the SIT role in 1997, received the Woolf Fisher Fellowship in 2000 and was made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2016. Earlier this year, she was appointed chairwoman of Community Trust South.

Resilience in leadership was the topic of her address to Enrich and it was, she believed, "such an incredibly important thing".

When she took sessions with young managers and asked them what they thought resilience meant, some consistent themes came up, including tenacity - the ability to see through the tough times and bounce back.

Women in business event at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery on Thursday afternoon. PHOTO: Gregor...
Women in business event at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery on Thursday afternoon. PHOTO: Gregor Richardson
It was tough being a leader: there were lots of stresses, challenges and complexity in the relationships that had to be managed.

"We have to have that resilience if we want to do more than just survive it and get through that day," Ms Simmonds said.

Rather than survive, it was about thriving and ensuring organisations and teams thrived as well, she said.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade had identified resilience as a priority for businesses in New Zealand to survive, given the rapidly changing environment, particularly concerning technology.

Many of the things being dealt with now were "uncharted territory": the Global Financial Crisis was uncharted territory for many in leadership roles; there was climate change; rapid technological advances; social media; and dealing with millenial staff.

Leaders had to be resilient to evolve with those "really big changes - because they are not going to stop," Ms Simmonds said.

Research showed the skillsets that characterised a resilient leader included flexibility, the ability to adapt during change, fostering good working relationships, clear communication and strong buy-in at all levels of the institution.

"That dynamic leadership and ability to evolve with change in the modern world is going to be incredibly important for us as leaders," she said.

Ms Simmonds believed a lack of resilience was the biggest threat to successful change.

She cited the Government's recently announced plan to reform vocational education, a major review that was going to result in "really major" changes for SIT.

Most of that was brought on by northern counterparts in serious financial trouble, and what she believed was happening in such organisations was that they were not constantly reviewing what they were doing and not constantly dealing with issues as they occurred.

It was "incredibly destructive" to see major restructuring in an organisation; it was demotivating and put stress on people which permeated to their families and social life. Picking up issues as they happened and reviewing was very important.

Ms Simmonds also believed leadership in the polytechnic sector did not do that because it was "hard".

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