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A young leader to watch

Tararua District Council risk manager, Sandy Lowe, has achieved a lot since graduating about a decade ago. Last year she was named as SOLGM Brookfield’s emerging leader, marking her firmly as someone to watch. By Mary Searle Bell.

Back in 2009, Sandy Lowe completed a Bachelor of Arts in sociology and media. Not, perhaps, what you would consider the obvious education for someone who is responsible for a local body’s strategic risk management policy; overseeing the processes and procedures to mitigate and deal with risks and emergencies.

However, Sandy says sociology, which is the study of the development and functioning of society, helped develop the way she thinks and has proved a useful background to her role.

“I can take what I have learnt and apply it to most things,” she says.

She moved from Wellington to Dannevirke seven years ago and joined the council as a customer service representative but soon moved on to become a land information officer. After three years she moved again, this time to the position of health and safety coordinator.

Here, she was responsible for implementing changes to business process to ensure safety was a priority for the council, along with providing advice, education and support. It also provided her first leadership experience, heading the health and safety committee.

After three and a half years, she was asked to apply for the position of risk manager.

“I was ready to move on; ready for a new challenge,” she says.

“My health and safety role had a significant risk management element, which can be applied to other areas without too much of a jump. I guess it’s why I was asked to consider the job.

“That being said, it was a very steep learning curve.”

Sandy says this was largely due to it being a newly created position – she didn’t take over from anyone, instead she was expected to set up the processes and procedures to make things flow.

“Nearly all my roles at council have been brand new positions – it’s nice to start from scratch.

“There’s still a lot to do, it’s an ongoing process,” she says of her work. “I’m currently working on risk appetite with our councillors – it may be old hat to many, but it’s new to us.

“Fortunately, there are so many people willing to help out, and answer questions. Also, the local government community is very supportive. It’s a bit like one big company, with each council being a different branch.”

Sandy is part of the MWLASS (Manawatu-Wanganui Local Authority Shared Services) health and safety group. Here she can share ideas and get feedback and advice from her contemporaries in neighbouring councils.

“SOLGM groups are also very supportive. There is a lot of experience and expertise to call on,” she says.

Sandy says the biggest challenge she’s faced in her career so far has been building confidence in her leadership skills.

“I was very fortunate to be able to complete a leadership programme with the Institute of Strategic Leadership in 2016. I was sent by our CEO Blair King not long after I started in the land information role.

“This was the starting point for me to grow my confidence and realise I can do anything I set my mind to.

“Blair is a very supportive leader and promotes a flat structure within council – everyone has a voice. This has really impacted my leadership style and how I work.”

Sandy says that being nominated for the SOLGM Brookfield’s emerging leader award was an acknowledgement of her work, and winning was both wonderful and “a bit scary”.

“It was really nice to hear all the positive things the judges had to say about me but it did make me a bit uncomfortable too.”

As a prize, she attended the ICMA (International City/County Management Association) conference in Nashville.

“The award also gave me two new mentors: Linda O’Reilly from Brookfield Lawyers, who has shown a lot of interest in my career and who regularly stays in touch by email, and Karen Thomas at SOLGM who was at the Nashville conference with me and who I would have really struggled without – there were so many different things happening at once.”

She’s headed off to the conference again later this year; this time it is in Toronto.

“At Karen’s suggestion, I applied for the John Garvey Scholarship, which is offered by ICMA to allow young professionals to have an international experience by attending events abroad. Only one scholarship is given to a non-US citizen each year and I was thrilled and amazed to win it.

“I am choosing to go to the ICMA conference as I really enjoyed the Nashville one – I got a lot out of it and met a lot of good people.”

While she admits she “fell into local government”, she soon realised the breadth of the work it undertakes and is keen to stay.

“It’s 10 businesses rolled into one. My job has given me exposure to most areas – from the elections to planning to rates and more. There are so many different facets you could move into.”

Sandy has yet to make plans as to where she will end up in local government. It’ll be a leadership role for sure, however, before then she has things to do.

First up is a move to England, accompanying her cricketer partner who has a season’s contract with the local club in Didcot, Oxfordshire.

“I’ve never lived in the UK before, so this is a really exciting opportunity for me. There are so many amazing travel destinations so close by and so much going on,” she enthuses. “We already have tickets to see Pearl Jam.

“Career-wise, I’m hoping to be able to make the most of my year overseas. Britain has a very mature risk management culture that I could learn a lot from.”

Tararua District Council is holding her job open for her for one year, keen for her to return and to continue growing and contributing.

“Dannevirke has an easy pace of life, cheap housing, no traffic and no queues,” Sandy says with a laugh. “The council here is small but being in a more sparsely resourced organisation means you get to do the really big things and the really small things – there’s lots of opportunities and good variety.

“What I love about local government is the focus on doing the best you can with the funding you get rather than the focus on profit.

“Our drive is to do the right thing for the community – taking everyone’s views into account. We’re tackling key issues such as the environment and economy, and future-proofing the region.

“Working in local government gives us the opportunity to have a huge impact on the community.”

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