Meet Helen Davidson, ACE New Zealand’s new Chief Executive.

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Helen Davidson is the newly appointed CE of ACE New Zealand. Ross Holden caught up with Helen, who tells us a bit about herself, discusses challenges she’s looking forward to in her role as CE, and the importance of diversity and inclusion and the Diversity Agenda Accord.

Helen, tell us about yourself

After studying law and biomedical ethics at the University of Otago, I worked across health law, professional regulation, patient safety policy and biomedical ethics in New Zealand and Canada for 15 years. I then switched from the health sector to the engineering sector and spent the past five years with Engineering New Zealand.  

I also continue to sit on two health research ethics committees – the New Zealand Health Research Council Ethics Committee and the Central Health and Disability Ethics committee, which provides an ethical review of health and disability research in New Zealand. 

What prompted you to move from health to engineering? 

It was quite by chance. After working in the health area for about 15 years, I was looking for a new challenge, and a recruiter suggested that I may like to apply for a position at Engineering New Zealand. At that time, I had no idea how pivotal the engineering sector is to the world we live in, and I am indebted to the engineers and others in the sector for their time and patience in sharing their passion and energy with me. I’m now a total convert to engineering and have enjoyed the learning journey I’ve been on over the past five years.  

What did your role at Engineering New Zealand involve? 

I was on the leadership team where we delivered on our strategy and ensured the business ran effectively. 

I lead initiatives like our current review of the CPEng scheme or our work to establish an approved panel of engineers to the contract, which kicked off in February. Functionally, I lead our award-winning legal and complaints team, public affairs (including communications, thought-leadership and policy), as well as governance and human resources.  

How would you describe your leadership style? 

So many different attributes and skills combine to define a person’s leadership style. Colleagues have told me that I’m a supportive, kind and compassionate leader, always encouraging people to strive to be better and to grow continually. I build teams where everyone feels valued and enabled, who’s inspired by our work and know why we’re doing it, and we can all trust and support each other to achieve our potential.  

I’m a very people-centred and values-led person, so these outcomes are important to me. I would also like to think that I’m a courageous and innovative leader who is not afraid to face complex problems and try new things.  

WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND – October 09: ENVI Awards October 09, 2019 in Wellington, New Zealand. (Photo by Mark Tantrum/ http://marktantrum.com)

What are your aspirations for ACE and the sector? 

There are some significant challenges that ACE and the consulting and engineering sector need to deal with in the short term. The immediate challenges include keeping our sector healthy in response to COVID-19 while dealing with procurement issues, transfer of risk and the overuse of special conditions on contracts.  

Other challenges include the well-being of our people and ensuring we develop a diverse and inclusive sector.  

We also need to keep our eye on the horizon and ensure we proactively respond to emerging societal challenges in support of our vision of shaping the future of Aotearoa. Things like supporting our members to develop a response to climate change challenges, meeting carbon targets, securing a strong pipeline of work and people and thinking about the profession’s future and the response to emerging technologies and big data.  

My aspiration is that ACE will identify these problems together with our members, creatively develop solutions and be bold by facing the challenges together – and that we will be showcased by others as an exemplar of how to do this well. 

Where does thought-leadership fit into the team environment?  

Thought leadership is about anticipating and understanding emerging problems, knowing your expert and value-added perspective or role in resolving a problem and articulating and sharing their perspective or solution clearly and credibly to generate discussion and movement for change. 

How can strong thought-leadership contribute to the development of a successful business? 

Sharing expert knowledge and introducing new ways of thinking and solving problems is critical in developing successful businesses in several key areas.  

Firstly, within an organisation, it encourages teams to contribute in more meaningful and purposeful ways essential for employee engagement and can lead to innovative business practices. There’s a strong correlation here with diversity and inclusiveness outcomes.  

Secondly, successful businesses understand that cross-pollinating their expertise with others enables growth and innovation. In turn, it builds a more robust sector overall which benefits everybody.  

I would also say that a growing number of clients are looking for value-aligned businesses in terms of the significant issues facing our communities like diversity and sustainability. Companies that anticipate emerging issues for their communities and the sectors they engage with – and know where they stand concerning those issues – will have a competitive edge. 

Has the engineering and consulting sector done enough to embrace diversity and inclusion over the last few years?  

I see a sector that is firmly committed to the mahi of the Diversity Agenda and Accord. I believe the industry generally understands and supports the rationale behind building a diverse and inclusive profession, but I think we would all like to see more action and results.  

Salary data from Engineering New Zealand‘s recent remuneration survey shows, on average, female engineers earn 20 per cent less than their male colleagues across all career stages, and this figure hasn’t decreased from earlier surveys. Māori are still significantly underrepresented in our profession. I think we all agree that there’s an opportunity to do better here.  

I’m excited about working with ACE members and the Diversity Agenda to create workplaces that are more representative of our communities. 

Why is the Accord important and why should our members sign on?

Like any great movement for change, you need commitment and you need action. The Diversity Accord is a critical arm of our movement to change dire diversity stats in the sector, because it puts words into action.

Through the Diversity Accord, signatories make real commitments to change that they will be accountable for. I love how the Accord uses a peer-to-peer based accountability model – this helps us unite around a common purpose and goal, and it helps us learn and grow from each other. Real change needs to be driven by our leaders – and the Accord is a powerful platform for this. 

Joining the Accord also signals to our current teams, our future teams, and clients and our communities that we understand the importance of this work and we are genuinely driven to make a tangible difference. You should sign on because it is the right thing to do, and it is what we need to do to build a healthy and sustainable future for our sector and the people in it. 

What do you like to do for fun?  

I have two young boys aged six and eight, and they keep me very busy!  

I like to run regularly – it helps me clear my head at the beginning or end of the day. I tend to get a clearer view of my biggest problems when I’m out in the fresh air on a trail or in the mountains. Occasionally I’ll put in the extra training so that I can compete in an ultra-distance event. I also have an impressive collection of recipe books and love the art of creating new meals.  


If you’re a Diversity Agenda member with a great story to tell, please get in touch.

This article was originally posted on ACE New Zealand’s website.

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