A high achiever by anyone’s standards, Amanda Ellis has held senior roles at Westpac, the World Bank and, most recently, as New Zealand’s Head of Mission and Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva. Here she talks about the value that mentors have made to her career and navigating ‘political’ decisions in the workplace.
I didn’t realise how important mentorship was until I first joined the NZ Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade as a young diplomat in 1988. I was asked to take notes at a precursor to the APEC forum, but a few weeks later, my boss came to me and, rather embarrassed, said: ‘I’m sorry, we have to un-invite you because this meeting is being held at the Wellington Club (New Zealand’s oldest private club) and it’s men only.’ I thought, surely, there will be a change of venue. But my boss said it was an external invitation so there wasn’t.
At the time I didn’t want to rock the boat; I was only a diplomatic trainee and didn’t have a mentor to go to for advice on what to do. I agonised over not speaking out for two months but then plucked up the courage to ask to speak with the head of the NZ Foreign Ministry to put my case. He heard me out. Then he said that he would write to the Wellington Club, telling them that they needed to change their policy and recognise more women were entering the workforce or they would lose revenue. He asked me if that was a satisfactory response. I said it was (It wasn’t!). But it was a pivotal moment in my career, as he taught me the power of the business case and always to think about what is in it for the organisation for whom you are trying to make a change.
It was only when I was headhunted to Westpac as Head of Communication in 1998 that mentors sought me out and generously provided their support. I realise from that time on in my career I had both internal mentors who helped me navigate the organisation, and external mentors who helped connect me to broader networks for greater positive impact.
Ann Sherry was then CEO of the Bank of Melbourne and spent time with me as an internal mentor early on in my Westpac career. Quentin Bryce and Wendy McCarthy kindly connected me to wider networks when I took on the role of National Manager Women in Business and Head of Women’s Markets.
The importance of internal and external networks
Helen Lynch and Eve Mahlab were great role models and generous, too, with their mentoring advice.
I recall an occasion where Helen said to me, “One day the politics will impact you so make sure you have broad external and internal networks.” What she meant is that you may be a casualty of a decision that will need to be made for a political or business reason. I didn’t understand it at the time. But it came to ring in my ears later when a young woman where I was working came to me with just that kind of problem that she didn’t know how to handle. We ensured she had a good external network, so that when she needed to seek a new role, she had support. Part of the role of mentors is to be there with wise words that you may not understand at the time.
In 2003, I moved to the World Bank and the US executive director, Jan Piercy, who had been Hillary Clinton’s roommate in college and is a strong proponent of women’s rights, provided mentorship guidance and was a great advocate as I established the global gender initiative at the International Finance Corporation, the Bank’s private sector arm.
When I was headhunted to go back to the NZ Foreign Ministry as Deputy Secretary International Development and the first woman to be head of the NZ aid program in 2010, I was lucky to have a friend connect me with a very experienced senior public servant, Karen Poutasi, previously director general of health. I had been away from the NZ public service since 1998 and it was so helpful to have such an outstanding mentor and kind person help me face the challenges of my new role in the system.
Mentorship experiences: both men and women have given me guidance
While it has been mainly women who have been mentors to me, there have been men who have acted as sponsors and advocated for my promotion – including helping me see opportunities for more senior roles I would not have believed myself capable of. (Research shows this is a common trait and while men will apply for a role they feel 40-50 per cent prepared for, women wait until 95-100 per cent.)
A great example of powerful mentorship is the former CEO of the foreign ministry, John Allen, who took me aback when he told me he thought I could do his job and be the first woman to take it on. He followed up by proposing me for an international leadership course which only men and only CEOs from NZ had ever participated in prior. Similarly a boss early on at Westpac had supported me in a mentorship capacity; responding positively to a request from Random House to write a book about the incredible women entrepreneurs there are in Australia. I thought the request was so out of my comfort zone and was funny. But he didn’t give me a choice and said ‘I know you can do this. No is not an option’. I was amazed when Women’s business, Women’s wealth became a bestseller.
Mentee to Mentor
As a mentor myself, I am currently mentoring five wonderful young women on an on-going basis as part of a mentorship program and I’ve recently taken part in the Vital Voices/Bank of America global ambassadors mentorship partner program in Sydney.
I was matched with Nguyen Van Anh, a mentee who is a brilliant advocate for victims of domestic violence in Vietnam but had no business plan. Having run the New Zealand aid program, I could help her address the financials. She needed to learn about sources of funding and use that knowledge to outreach further and create a broader funding base. One great outcome is how much we mentors have learnt from the mentees as well as vice versa.
Pictured: Amanda Ellis (right ) and her mentee Nguyen Van Anh. Ellis is Visiting Senior Fellow at the East-West Center and a winner of The International Alliance for Women’s (TIAW) lifetime achievement award for promoting women’s economic empowerment. She currently works with the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on gender equality.
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