In the Spotlight: Deb Blackett, Z Energy

In the Spotlight: Deb Blackett, Z Energy

Deb Blackett, General Counsel, Z Energy shares her thoughts on her new role, the dynamic culture at Z and why all of us can benefit from learning Te Reo.

What are you enjoying about your new role and what are you most looking forward to?

Over the past couple of years, Z Energy has moved from an asset based strategy to a capability based strategy. Added to this is the increasing digitisation of our processes and our products – we just launched “FastLane” which uses automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) to charge our customer’s credit card for their fuel purchase -  if you use a forecourt concierge, you don’t even need to get out of  your car – great for anyone in a hurry and/or with small children in the car or who have physical challenges. We also have a pre-order coffee app and will launch other digital products over the coming months. The legal task shifts from wharfline and pipeline agreements to the very important task of caring for personal information such as ANPR data both in terms of privacy and security. 

At Z, as in many other businesses, we have some teams who have moved to Agile ways of working. At this stage, Z will not move the entire business to Agile but will do so on a fit for purpose manner in selected parts of the business. Accordingly, as well as advising on different assets (data as well as pipelines), the legal team needs to be able to flex in the way we advise and support a range of ways of working. We are learning to move away from written advice and to do visual “advice on a page” where this fits. We have learned to advise on some marketing collateral by taking a mobile phone photo of the proposed collateral, printing a page and marking it up in pen, photographing and sending it back!!  This would have been unthinkable when I started in a law firm and was taught to use half my time thinking and the other half on perfecting the written end-product – we have found that in the VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world we are working in, the beautiful written product does not carry the value it used to. These changes as well as industry changes which came to the fore last year around the New Zealand legal sector and #metoo issues and the position of women in the legal sector means that I have the privilege of working in an era of enormous change and development.

The role of General Counsel looks very different than it did ten years ago and I am really excited about leading the Z team to be one of the best teams in the NZ business community and to add to our own skill base by absorbing ourselves in new ways of working, thinking, enabling, partnering, and advising.

How do you balance working in the legal team with working on the legal team?

When I transitioned from my previous role into this role, I interviewed twenty of the key users of the legal team at Z (including the team itself) to gather feedback and thoughts on Z’s future legal team.  This allowed me to look at the historical, current, and future context. We then got together as a team and had a facilitated away-day to figure out what the 2020 legal team would look like and how we are going to get there.  I also have a performance contract that is focused on the development and performance of the team which is part of my coaching relationship with my boss, so this helps ensure ongoing focus. 

Do you think the culture of an organisation impacts the delivery of legal services to that organisation and if so, how does the culture at Z influence the Z legal team?

Hugely! At its worst, an inhouse legal function is avoided/ feared/ ignored. At its best, the legal function looks into the future for upcoming challenges (Z is thinking about the impact of Zero Carbon legislation for example), partners with the business to achieve its strategic objectives (all of Z’s major initiatives involve someone from Z legal) and demonstrably adds value and diversity of thought to the business.  Z has a culture of inclusion, including valuing diversity of thought. We have business values that guide our conduct and our day to day decision making – an example of this is a relatively flat structure and devolved decision making (“freedom in a framework”), making that Z people are empowered to make decisions they need to make and are not slowed down by process – as we get bigger, this is something we need to keep revisiting. We have an explicit risk appetite framework in Z which helps inform the legal team’s ability to have risk based discussions with the business, noting that it is unlikely to ever eliminate all legal risk.

While at Z we have an aspiration to do things differently, we also need to be conscious of our heritage as a business carrying significant operational risk and responsibility for issues such as climate change.  The legal team needs to carry all of these aspects of Zs reality and the alignment of values and culture is a big part of this.

What was behind your decision to learn Te Reo and do you think it is an important skill for all lawyers to develop?

I have two daughters who are 12 years apart in age. Both went to the same high school. When my older daughter started high school, the year 9s and their whanau were welcomed to the school by a powhiri, which was delivered in te reo and also translated into English.  Last year, my youngest daughter started at the same school only this time, they didn’t translate the powhiri and it was in te reo only. My oldest daughter was sitting with me and had done some te reo at university – sufficient to translate some of the proceedings.  I decided that I would never again attend a function where one of New Zealand’s official languages was spoken and I didn’t understand it. I actually honour the school for taking this stand as it is too easy to put learning te reo off for another day and yet we have an obligation in this country to keep this taonga alive and despite the numbers of people who are learning the language, it is not regularly spoken as part of daily life and remains an officially endangered language.  I am proud to be part of Z’s Diversity and Inclusion team which last year ran a Te Ao Maori stream which included signage helping customers to order their kawhe in te reo during Maori language week.

I feel strongly that te reo should be taught in schools to a level of every day competency. This is the only way I believe te reo will survive and thrive. Even for people who may not support the same “why” as I do will see the benefits in children who speak more than one language and tend to be higher achievers in a number of areas as a result.  My experience is that it is impossible to learn te reo (possibly any language) without learning about the concepts and the culture that the language speaks for. I should also add I have only done three terms at night school and am still at “intro” level but I plan to keep going until I am competent – at current rates, this will take a while though I can say “the ball is on/ beside/ under the box”!.  My family can attest to the big bits of butchers’ paper stuck up around the house to remind me/ us to use everyday phrases when we talk to each other. The Treaty of Waitangi is unique to New Zealand’s constitutional arrangements and learning te reo and some of the basic underpinning concepts to do with land and family go a long way to understanding this.  The Treaty continues to inform a huge range of NZ issues from resource management to social and income inequality and I believe most of us are better lawyers for understanding that.

What is the one piece of technology (either current or yet to be created) that would make your day job easier?

AI for legal is an exciting prospect.  Z is starting to look at contract automation processes that would free a lot of time up to work on the bigger strategic projects but also to ensure we have good quality, plain English contracts in place for our customers.  I would love a legal “Siri” or “Allegra” who could do legal research for me and give the answer back straight away!