Can you give us an overview of the Te Taurapa Tūhono | New Zealand Trade & Enterprise legal team and how you support the work of the agency?

We are a small, geographically spread out team operating under a shared leadership model. Emma Matson who is based in Wellington, Beth Mulock who is based in Nelson and me, Kate, living in Blenheim. We also have another lawyer (Hester Steevens) who is currently seconded to another team within NZTE,  based in Christchurch.

Emma and I share the role of Director Legal and Property on a rotating basis – 8 months on, 8 months off. This arrangement was thought up when the previous Director moved into another role at NZTE. Emma and I were both ready to take the next step up in our careers, so we presented a shared role model to our GM. We’ve worked together for a number of years and are good friends, so we knew that we could make it work. Currently, I’m in the Director role, and in November, Emma will step into the role. It's a new process and new structure, but we're finding that it's working well, and everyone's really excited by it. And we love the fact that it's supporting two females who are both juggling being working parents while continuing to progress our careers.

We haven't faced any challenges with the shared role as yet and we are really conscious of making sure that the handover at the eight-month mark goes as smoothly as possible. We are working together closely to ensure that the arrangement doesn’t have a negative impact on our own team or the rest of NZTE. Conversation between the two of us is key and we make sure we keep the other in the loop on things that will have a long-term impact, for example, budgeting. It's about bringing each other along for the ride.

With only three of us in the team, we’re obviously a very small team, as is the case with many in-house legal teams. We have over 50 offices around the world and 700 people across NZTE so the workload is heavy. We pride ourselves on being very fast, very quick and without bias - which is sometimes to our detriment. People are used to us turning things around in a day or two, as opposed to a week or two. We try not to say no, we enable the conversations and we're very pragmatic. We look for solutions rather than barriers. We have a very good reputation in NZTE and place a large focus on keeping this reputation.

How do you find the workflow from all those offices to you and what's the communication line?

There are a few different communication lines. Emma and I both have long-standing relationships with people throughout the organisation, whether that's in New Zealand or offshore. We've often got continuous paths coming into us so those people might come to us and say, “Look, we've got this issue, should I talk to you, or should I talk to someone else on the team?” We'll then direct it to where it needs to be depending on people's capacity at that particular time. We work really hard to keep those relationships up.

Depending on what is happening throughout NZTE at any particular time, we can have quite substantial ebbs and flows. We're in different time zones from clients so often we might log in in the morning and if you've got a big piece of work that's going on offshore, it’s not uncommon for you to have a number of pieces sitting in your inbox that have come out from that. We're obviously not experts in each jurisdiction so where we need to, we will touch base, feed into or seek advice from external lawyers. We're not operating completely in our own little bubble; we do seek help when we need to.

How do you manage risk and enable the goals of the agency?

Emma and I have both been with NZTE for a number of years so we understand well what risk the organisation is prepared to accept. We understand the strategic goals of NZTE and work hard to engage early with our internal customers where and when we can. This enables us to identify any areas of possible risk, and we’re then able to get to work finding ways to manage that risk. Of course, there are always going to be areas where we just can't proceed if it's going to be breaching the law, but if we can make it work, then we'll work hard to do that.

We’re very conscious of putting up barriers and we are proud of the fact that we’re are often able to offer pragmatic solutions to what can be high risk matters. A lot of that skill comes from knowing the organisation really well and understanding what NZTE are prepared to accept and what we aren't, and addressing that, which comes with experience.

What are the issues that keep the team awake at night and how do you plan to address these?

We’re a very small team, servicing a large number of internal customers. Because of this, we’ve learnt how to operate in an extremely efficient manner, which works 90% of the time. However if for some reason, our workload increases severely, it can get tricky to keep up the level of service our customers have come to expect, and we worry that we’re not dedicating the amount of time we’d like to on particular matters. It can be hard for the team to operate in these conditions, especially when we want to provide our customers with the best possible service. We’re looking for ways to reduce repeatable enquiries and implementing automative solutions across the board with the aim of reducing a lot of that “noise” so that we’re able to focus on the high risk, high importance matters.

For me personally while I’ve been in the role, I've also been really conscious of the people in our team. Given the workload and the size of the team, I’m often thinking about whether I'm providing enough support to our team – how are we ensuring their mental wellbeing is good, and not just at a base level but that they're enjoying their role, that they're engaged and enthusiastic about their role, what they're doing, and what they're contributing to.

How do you make sure that your team are engaged and enthusiastic?

When we were all based in Wellington it was much easier to stay connected. It was easier to have ad hoc conversations asking 'what's going on today?', 'what's your calendar looking like?' And 'what's your workload looking like?', ‘how did that meeting go?’ You could pick up on non-verbal cues and know that someone wasn’t in a great frame of mind without necessarily having a conversation with them.

Obviously it’s not that easy anymore, so we need to be really conscious of having those conversations. We need to schedule Zoom calls or spot when someone is available and call them then. You need to work really hard to develop good relationships with your team over Zoom – it’s a skill, and requires really intentional steps to be taken by everyone, especially leaders. Of course, we also have regular formal performance and development conversations and our intention is for those conversations to be had in person.

I think there's a case for making sure you've got regular connection points with your people and that can be done via Zoom, but this is still a work in progress. It’s about finding a way of having ad hoc conversations virtually, that aren’t formal, and keeping those pathways open. I'm not necessarily sure I'm doing it right, but I’m conscious of it.