Christine Parker’s career has benefitted from mentorship, and she believes women in executive roles have an obligation to bring other women through. As Westpac Bank’s Group Executive Human Resources, she also believes you should only work for companies that reflect your values. Here, she explains why, while sharing her leadership journey and lessons learned.
Early on in her career, Christine Parker found herself working for a man she describes as a misogynist, racist, and a bully.
Rather than walk away, she challenged herself to prove his views wrong, and spent almost a year trying. “It nearly broke me,” she says. “What I saw him do to other people, what he did to me, it was never going to change.”
What’s more, when Parker escalated the issue to senior management, they refused to act on it because the manager in question was delivering the profitability they needed.
The experience was a watershed career moment for Parker. She left the company, having learned that you cannot work for a person or organisation that doesn’t mirror your own values.
“It’s okay to try and change people’s conduct, but not to the detriment of your own self-worth and mental health,” she said. “And you can’t tolerate bullying or bad behaviour.”
Finding her career passion
Having grown up as the daughter of a single mother who worked two jobs to support her family Parker, now Westpac Bank’s Group Executive Human Resources, recognises the value of education and upbringing in influencing a woman’s self-esteem. Parker’s mother was a compelling role model who encouraged her to pursue an education and a career, and to see herself as equal to her brother – and any man.
Parker’s initial career aspirations centred around a youthful desire to see the world. “I wanted to be an air hostess, so I could travel…but I was too short,” Parker laughs.
Instead, she listened to her mother, who wanted her to become an accountant, believing it would hold her in good stead. Parker completed her accounting studies, and while it gave her a good grounding in business, it was not a job she was excited about. “I was competent, but I didn’t love it,” she said.
Some years later, while working as an accountant for one of New Zealand’s largest companies, Fletcher Building, Parker began to consider changing direction.
“I was thinking about what I could be passionate about, how I could use the business skills that I’d developed through accountancy to make a difference to the people and the organisation,” she said.
Fletcher’s then CEO Peter Springford recognised her instinct for people coupled with her commercial ability, and proposed that she stretch herself and consider a senior human resources role.
After some deliberation and research, Parker pushed herself to do it, and stepped into the new position. Parker went on to gain HR qualifications to support her career change; to this day, Springford remains a friend and mentor.
Many women won’t pursue a role without feeling confident that they have the skills and experience to succeed. Parker says that when it comes to your career, don’t just rely on others to encourage you to pursue opportunities. “Challenge yourself, have the confidence that you can do it and take calculated risks.”
New career, new role models
After Fletchers, Parker worked in HR roles for large organisations in the service industry, fast food and heavy manufacturing industries. When a role opened at Westpac New Zealand, Parker welcomed the opportunity to move into the financial sector, but the biggest drawcard was the chance to work with then CEO Ann Sherry.
In the past, Parker had experienced some examples of Queen Bee Syndrome, where senior women were more critical of the women who worked below them than their male counterparts. “They believe: ‘I did it the hard way so the rest of you need to as well’,” Parker said. “Which was why it was so amazing to meet someone like Ann Sherry, who showed that it doesn’t have to be like that.”
Sherry’s values also aligned with Parker’s, in that both believed strongly in serving the community and supporting disadvantaged people. As a business role model, Sherry demonstrated the importance of showing resilience and having a go. She also believes that senior women have an obligation to support and bring younger women through.
Put your game face on
After several years at Westpac New Zealand, Westpac’s then CEO Gail Kelly invited Parker to step into a role in Sydney, Australia that would ultimately result in her becoming group executive. Parker feels fortunate to have worked with two of Australia’s most high profile and successful female CEOs.
“Gail was an incredibly able, strategic business leader; another person who absolutely challenged and pushed you but supported and backed you,” Parker said. Kelly encouraged her team to lead by example, working collaboratively to deliver on their obligations to customers.
“She often spoke about ‘putting your game face on’, being present and being passionate about delivering for your customers. ‘Even if you’re having a bad day, your team is watching you, so put your game face on, shoulders back; we have to deliver this and we’ll do it as a team’.”
The value of mentoring
Parker has been fortunate in having a number of amazing leaders and mentors and acknowledges the positive influence of the likes of Peter Springford, Ann Sherry and Gail Kelly have had on her career, especially their mentoring.
“Mentoring has helped me be willing to take calculated risks, to have confidence, to actually reach out and ask for help and to think differently,” she said.
Parker pays it forward. At any given time she is mentoring six or seven people, both men and women, and takes great pleasure in seeing people succeed in their roles. As a female leader, she also believes women in executive roles have an obligation to help the next generation of women to move through. This includes smoothing the pathway for women returning from maternity leave.
Women returning to work from maternity leave often feel guilty about leaving work early to pick up their children, judging themselves more harshly than their male colleagues. Parker’s advice? If you’re getting the job done, don’t feel guilty.
As CEO, Kelly set Parker, and Westpac, a target of increasing the number of women in leadership roles – from the C-suite through to assistant bank managers – from 35% to 50% within five years. Parker was proud when the bank achieved this in 2017, the year of its 200th anniversary.
“We’ve fallen back one or two percent at the moment however we are very proud of this achievement as we have an absolute focus in driving equality and diversity across the organisation,” she says.
Using her skills to support others
In line with her values-based philosophy, Parker is passionate about using her skills and experience to help others in need, in particular not-for-profit institutions that support young people with mental health problems. This challenge is very close to her heart; Parker’s brother suffered from serious mental health issues that led to his untimely death.
So in addition to her full time role, Parker is a Chair of the St. George Foundation, which helps disadvantaged children at a grassroots level, and a Director of Orygen Youth Mental Health Foundation. She is also executive sponsor of Westpac’s LGBTI program. This is in addition to numerous roles she’s held with Australian and New Zealand charities in the past.
“It’s something I feel so strongly about. I work in a pretty frenetic role and I’m always busy, but doing this allows me to give something back…and it gives something back to me as well. It’s very rewarding,” she said.
Christine Parker’s Leadership Lessons Learned
This article is by Laini Bennett, MBA