Lessons in Leadership: Ruth Currie

Sheffield's Lessons in Leadership series interviews high profile executives about their leadership style and journey. 

In this episode, Sheffield North Island Wellington Director Katy Anquetil speaks to Ruth Currie, Deputy Chief Executive: Corporate Operations for New Zealand Police. She is responsible for leading People, Finance, ICT, Legal, Fleet Management, Procurement and Infrastructure operations.  

Katy Anquetil: What have been the most important influences in shaping your leadership style? 

Ruth Currie: Everyone you work with, every course you attend, or every interaction influences you. There have been many significant leaders that I worked with. By observing those individuals throughout my career, I have been able to be a little magpie and collect bits as I go along.  

Having a family has made a big difference. For those that don't have kids, that could be a case of having significant family member connections. I recall a situation when I was a Company Commander in Defense, and I was about to go on exercise with a Senior NCO. The exercise was scheduled over the school holidays, and the Senior NCO was a single parent. He came to me on the Friday, we were deploying on the Monday, and said that he didn’t have anyone to look after his kids and couldn’t go. It took all my effort not to be angry at this man as he was important part of the activity. I had no understanding, no empathy, at all, for his situation.  

In hindsight, I look back, and think if only I knew then what I know now around the importance of family and flexibility. Even just bringing your whole self to work, so that people understand who you are, and how significant it is as a solo parent when your childcare falls over. He was passionate about his role. He wanted to do the right thing, but he couldn't, and I didn't understand it.  

Incidents like that have certainly made me reflect and change who I am as a leader, how I interact with others, and my understanding of others. Just giving them the time and space to be themselves and to bring themselves to work. I demonstrate that in my leadership style as well, you know, people certainly know when I turn up to work and something crazy has happened at home, they hear about it, right? Because that's just life. At the end of the day, I am just a mum, who is a single parent, full time carer of two kids, and I have the same challenges as everybody else.  

Leadership Courses 

There are two courses that have resonated with me for many years. One was by the Institute of Strategic Leadership, and the feedback I received was quite significant. Whilst I'd done a lot of leadership training, this was the first time I really had a 360 and got direct feedback. As part of the course, you receive and give feedback daily. That’s quite an experience, getting direct feedback from your course members. Understanding more about my leadership style, how I work and operate has been quite significant. I still reflect on that now. 

The other course was the Global Woman's Breakthrough Leader's Program. The key learning from that was really the network we created. I did the course in 2017, and we still have a WhatsApp group. We still chat almost daily. If one of us has a need, we reach out. Has anyone got any ideas about this challenge? Has anybody struck this before? Or, you know what team, I had a really bad day today and I just need some pickup. It's a really, really, supportive network. And it's outside of my existing network day to day business. I would say between the leaders that I worked with, particularly in Defense, and my family, those significant courses have probably been some key influences on who I am today. 


Katy Anquetil: You have taken exact words that I've had come out of my mouth, which is you don't stop being a mum at work, and you don't stop being a professional. One of the things when I work with women that can be most challenging is the transition, when they feel an expectation to leave one behind in either place, that transition becomes difficult. When I'm working with women, or coaching them, it's about how they bring their whole self into both places to ease in transition. 

What are the five key principles that define your approach to the challenges and opportunities presented by leadership? 

Ruth Currie:
1. See every challenge as an opportunity 

I laughed when I read this, because my first principle is: I see every challenge as an opportunity. I'm an optimist. I think that yes, it's a challenge, but, what's the good thing that could come out of this? Or how are we going to grow and develop. I think having that mindset makes it a little bit easier to approach challenges. Doesn't always work, but it certainly helps to approach a challenge with that positive mindset.  
2. Never stop learning 
Every role is a growth opportunity, never stop learning. I had a great conversation with the boss the other day. He talked about my growth mindset and being prepared to listen and grow. It doesn't matter that I've had a professional career for 30 something years, I can still learn, and every role is different. If you're not prepared to adapt, learn and grow, I think it would become very difficult to succeed. 
3. Change should be continuous 

Change should be continuous, like waves, not tsunamis. When we have challenges or opportunities, we've got to figure out how we can make them become a continuous wave and focus on continuous improvement. How can we make this as part of business as usual, and that continuous improvement mindset and culture becomes the norm. So, it's not necessarily a big challenge. It's just day to day. Business, as usual. If we can normalise that, and minimise those big tsunamis into waves of change, then you're going to succeed. 

4. Culture change takes a generation 

The fourth principle is that culture change takes a generation. I've been challenged on this. Some people say you can change the culture in a few years. I personally think it takes longer than that. It depends how long that generation is. In Defence, it's long, Police, it's long, but in the private sector, and some other organisations where you're potentially turning over staff, it might happen faster. But in service organisations like Police and Defence, I think that it does take a generation because people stay for so long, their careers are 40-50 years in one organisation. It's something you always have to work at, I believe.  

5. Live by example, work by example

The fifth is, live by example, work by example. Be the person that I want others to be and demonstrate that, which comes back to the influences that I talked about previously as bringing my whole self to work. If I think that we're doing something wrong, then I need to lead by example, and change the way I operate, and it's easier said than done.  

Katy Anquetil: Especially given we talked about change in the context of continuous improvement, we've had quite a lot of disruption and rapid change, particularly in the last couple of years.  

How has your approach to leadership adapted specifically in that context? 

Ruth Currie:
Empathetic leadership 
What we've learned in the last couple of years, and from people working at home, is that we've had greater insight into what's happening at home. You never truly know what's going on in someone else's life. Having a greater appreciation for whether it's the solo parent, or someone who's got elderly folk that they're looking for.  
Rely on experts 

I also think, in the last few years, you know, we've learned to take risks more. We don't have all the facts. We're operating in the dark a little bit. I rely quite heavily on subject matter experts, and in particular, my executive advisor, and principal advisors in the organisation. I cannot know everything. Collectively, we get a greater picture so that we're not working in the dark anymore and having reliance on those individuals.  


Katy Anquetil: From a strategic perspective, which of the current global trends interest or concern you the most and why? 


Ruth Currie:
Societal unrest 

The societal unrest at the moment is quite interesting, particularly working here. The political environment feels like it's changing quite quickly. Within society, people are very quick to voice their opinions, their concerns, and I don't. I don't think the answers are really clear or obvious. As a society that previously was quite structured, it feels very fluid. For me, as someone who likes a lot of structure and governance, when you see the political environment being challenged, potentially undermined, it's quite unsettling, interesting, but unsettling.  

Mental health 

Secondly, mental health, well-being, technology and the environment that we're in. I think it's enhancing the challenges that we've got around mental health. We see it at work from an operational perspective and having to respond to operational matters that are generated out of mental health. It's also in our own people. There's a whole lot more going on in people's lives that we don't necessarily know about. I feel that as a society, we don't know how to deal with it. There's so much of an unknown, it's not like a broken leg that you can just see and fix. Mental health care - there's just not enough of it. 

The labour market 

The other one is around the labour market at the moment. You see increasing salaries, a lack of the right people with the right skills, and people moving on so quickly. So, what does that mean for us as an organisation? How do we retain people? How do we potentially offer benefits that aren't necessarily remuneration focused? It's getting harder to do that. I think globally, this is an issue.  


Katy Anquetil:  What personal strategies do you employ to keep focus on what is critical for business success?  

Ruth Currie:
Get yourself out of the weeds 

It's so easy to get dragged into the detail. Part of that is who I am as a detailed person. As a strategic leader, you've got to try and get yourself out of the weeds. When things are changing and there's disruption, as soon as you get into the weeds, it's quite hard to pull yourself out.  
Have clear focal points 

Have good, clear focal points. I'm a firm believer of the plan on a page. I don't need a 30-page strategy, I need a one pager. I think Police have a very good strategy. ‘Our Business’ is the focal point for anyone in this organisation. Across the organisation you hear people talking about key words and phrases in that document and it just brings everybody back to this one thing. I think that's really important.  
Clear your desk 

If I get too much clutter or complexity, I can end up in a bit of a downward spiral. Every now and then I stop, and I literally clear my desk. I personally work better with a clear mind and a clear desk. Clearing the desk brings me back to focusing on what's going to meet the outcomes of the business. Otherwise, you get dragged down into the detail.  


Katy Anquetil: What would be one piece of advice that you would give yourself at the early stages of your leadership career?  

Ruth Currie:
Demonstrate empathy  

The first one is definitely empathy. Coming back to the example that I shared with you earlier, as a company commander, that has stayed in my mind for so many years. It's something that we talk about a lot here at work: having empathy in every interaction. Take the time to ask people, how are you? How's the family? How's that bike that you bought last week? It takes 10 seconds. It is powerful and gives people space to be who they need to be.  

Nurture relationships 

Relationships are so important, nurture them. I don't think I've necessarily nailed this, because I do get very focused on work. The boss has said to me a couple of times, just stop, go and have that coffee with someone and maintain that relationship. I was able to do it a lot in my last role, because I had time and space. In my current role, I've prioritised emails and meetings. Every now and then I remind myself, actually, I need to stop and connect with someone from justice or a different organisation. The power of relationships and networks is so strong. I often hear the phrase: it's not what you know, it's who you know. I'm a firm believer of that. If I ever get stuck, often it's not what I know, it's who do I reach out to. Who's going be there to support me and who can I support in return? 

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