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Viewing governance up close and personal

Viewing governance up close and personal

  • 14 Mar 2021
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Director of Engineering Consultancy Collective Success and innovative thinker Sina Cotter Tait says Pacific people bring a different and valuable lens to the governance table. 

Pacific people view governance through a lens which is sensitive to under-served communities, because it is personal, and it is close, Sina adds. 

“We have a collective awareness that can comprehend multiple competing priorities – while also understanding that profit, people and planet are all linked.” 

Sina was born in New Zealand, of Samoan/Irish/Scottish ancestry, and growing up she spent time in the Papua New Guinea capital Port Moresby, Waiuku, Raetihi and Brisbane as her father, an Electrical Engineer, moved around for work often. 

After completing high school in Christchurch, she went on to study Civil Engineering at the University of Canterbury (UC), where she met her husband John. 

The couple has largely remained in Christchurch while raising their three children, and during this time, Sina has also studied for a Master of Business Management (MBA) and has almost completed a PhD, all at UC. 

Sina, who wears many hats including governance roles, often describes her career as having three strands, and that a braided rope is stronger than its individual threads. 

Director and Principal Engineer of Collective Success, Sina and her team offers engineering consultancy services to clients whose work matches her values of public interest and collective good. 

“I also serve in a number of governance and advisory group roles, across a range of organisations and I’m an aspiring research scholar with a strong interest in Pasifika participation in engineering and governance and have just started to publish.” 

Sina’s initial governance role was as a parent representative on a primary school board – an eye-opening experience where she learnt a great deal. 

“I have since transitioned into a similar role on a high school board and in 2016, I was fortunate to be selected onto Christchurch City Holdings’ Intern Director scheme – an incredibly progressive initiative to build capacity, diversity and potential into the future pipeline of Directors for the city’s asset holding companies. 

“I spent two years learning from a group of the most experienced Directors I could have hoped for.” 

From there, Sina served two years on the governing board of Engineering New Zealand, a membership body with over 23,000 members globally. 

Since leaving that role, she has been appointed to the Canterbury-Kaikoura Lotteries Committee, and the Christ Church Cathedral Reinstatement Review Panel by Ministers. 

“I also serve on the board of CEAS, an industry association that owns a company providing insurance for many professional Engineers across Aotearoa, and I’m a Trustee on the Engineering New Zealand Foundation. 

“Most recently, I have joined the board of a commercial irrigation company in Otago, and I serve on UC’s Pasifika Advisory Group, and the Centre for Advanced Infrastructure Solutions Advisory Board at UC.” 

Although always interested in leadership, Sina says she has never really aspired to take on a Chief Executive Officer role, as it seemed to demand a fulltime dedication to an organisation and prioritising the company and its values above all else. 

“The first time I learned about this thing called governance, I was studying for my MBA – and when I learned a board sets the direction, culture, and values of a company, appoints the CEO, and is not a fulltime role, that is when I realised it might be a good fit for my skillset and my range of interests.   

“I have always been values-led, too idealistic when younger, but I’ve always had a strong moral compass and courage to match. 

“Combined with some of the technical skills I have learnt as an Engineer, I have found it is a useful lens to bring to the board table.” 

Sina has declined offers of roles where she did not feel she could make a useful difference to the organisation, and the ones she has accepted, reflect a personal area of interest, whether it is advocating for better Science and Mathematics education in schools, or increased equity for Māori and Pacific in professional membership operations. 

With a belief change really starts at the top, and those who are awake to this have an obligation to advocate for it, Sina is always looking for board opportunities for underrepresented groups – including Pacific women.  

“I am fortunate to be comfortable with the western tradition, through my upbringing in New Zealand, but I’ve also been fortunate to experience life as a woman of colour, and the challenges that come with that.  

“I am used to often being the only person of colour and sometimes the only woman in a room, because this is typical for professional engineering and governance – but it doesn’t mean it has to always be that way.” 

Her experience has been Pacific people, particularly those from a Pacific tradition, have a way of compassionate listening that allows space for people to feel heard, and for difficult discussions to be held with dignity, she says. 

“The boardroom can be a place of loud voices, strong opinions, and careless speech… but I can see only upside to boardooms where we respect the va, disagree with each other without trampling on mana, and allow thoughtful space to think about collective impact and responsibility. 

“I can see only upside to a boardroom where we all regard ourselves as servant-leaders.” 

There are many reasons to have more Pacific involved in governance, depending on the organisation. 

For a public health agency with a high number of Pacific clients, it makes total sense to have a worldview at the boardroom that reflects those most impacted by its decisions, while for an organisation whose workforce is likely to change in the next 10 years to include more Pasifika people, the most effective leadership will be informed by a board with Pasifika voices, Sina says. 

“There is something in here too around equity – the reality is governance positions are roles of privilege, power and opportunity. 

“Access to these positions should be equitable for both Pasifika and non-Pasifika like, but it isn’t currently. 

“Our communities have a lot of high-calibre people with capability in spades, who would be naturally suited to governance yet what we often lack is confidence, and knowledge of the pathways to get to the table.” 

It is up to those at the table to share knowledge, not just to even the playing field, but also to ensure our board tables are able served by people drawn from the deepest, widest pool, she says. 

“How can we be sure we have the best minds for the job if we’re only talking to some of the candidates?”    

Are you interested in contributing your governance skills and serving on boards? 

The Ministry for Pacific Peoples encourages you to join its Nominations Service that maintains a database of skilled Pacific people who are available for appointment to state sector boards and committees.