In late September, Susan Freeman-Greene stepped into the role of chief executive for LGNZ. Mary Searle Bell talks to her about her background and the skillset she brings to the association.
Perhaps it was a childhood spent in various countries – from Apia, Samoa, to Bangkok, Thailand – that gave Susan a taste for variety. Certainly, her career has moved significantly from the one her legal degree first set her up for.
Susan’s international childhood was thanks to her father being a diplomat, and those dramatic shifts from one country and culture to another, gave her a broad experience very few children or adults ever encounter.
When time came for her to attend university, Susan says, that for the academically minded, the options pointed towards either law or medicine. She opted for law.
In her legal career she also enjoyed a variety of experience, from general practice to commercial and financial law. And then life intervened, setting her on a different path.
“I was working for one of the big commercial law firms when I had my first child. And while they were great and allowed me to work part time, it wasn’t quite that simple.
“While it looked good on paper, it was hard to feel like I belonged in a world where meetings were held at 7.30 in the morning and I wasn’t able to pull all-nighters.
“I was trying to run two worlds, one as a mother and the other as a lawyer. Not only did it make me ‘opt out’, on reflection, I realised how much this influenced my strong views on inclusiveness in the workplace.”
The arrival of baby number two and a shift from Auckland to Christchurch, galvanised a change. Susan spent a year volunteering part time at a community law centre.
“Not only did I see how important local initiatives were for the community, I also went on a mediation and negotiation course and had an ‘a-ha’ moment.
“I saw the value of looking at what’s under the surface of people’s conflict as a way to resolve it; I did a master’s degree in dispute resolution, trained as a mediator, and threw myself into it whole heartedly.”
She moved to the UK and became really engaged in that sector.
“I trained, wrote, practised, and even helped set up a mediation centre.
“When I returned to New Zealand two years later, I settled in Wellington. There, I became the executive director for LEADR (Lawyers Engaged in Alternate Dispute Resolution, now known as the Resolution Institute), a professional body for dispute resolution.”
During this period Susan also practised as a mediator.
“Twenty years ago, there were very few private mediators, and mediation was a less understood or accepted option for resolving disputes.”
To give her more day-in and day-out experience as mediator, she took a job as a mediator for the Department of Labour’s Employment Relations Service, working on five to eight cases each week.
“It was a fantastic role – I had a full spectrum of people coming in with disputes and then, mostly, leaving with a resolution they could live with. It was very satisfying.”
In 2002, Susan stepped up to become a practice leader for the Employment Relations Service, before moving to the Human Rights Commission.
“I was at the Commission for seven years – the first five as chief mediator, where I was involved with mediation and the following two as strategic policy manager, which utilised a combination of my mediation skills and legal expertise.
“As part of the leadership team responsible for the whole organisation, I realised how much I enjoyed leadership.
“I discovered my experience had given me the key skills necessary to be a leader – mediation is all about influence, advocacy, strategy, negotiation and finding resolution; legal training provides a hard-edged analytical, evidence-based skillset. Together, they strengthen and enable each other.
“As a leader, it’s not just about getting things done, but bringing people along with you on the journey.
“When it came to taking my next career step, there were two obvious options within mediation. One was to find that very rare role as a fulltime mediator within a company, the other was to set up as a private mediator.
“Alternatively, I could pursue leadership roles, and that was the path I chose.”
Susan became the chief executive of the Broadcasting Standards Authority in 2011.
“It was another terrific role. In a small Crown entity environment, I got the full spectrum of the chief executive role – from strategy and operational, to stakeholder relations and risk management, as well as being responsible for the working environment and professionalism of the organisation.”
Three years later, someone suggested she apply for the role of chief executive at Engineering New Zealand (then IPENZ).
“I had two things to consider before putting my hat in the ring; what could I bring to this role, and why would I want to?
“I was an outsider to the industry, and there lay the key.
“One of the challenges of engineering is that while it is so critical and vital to the way our world works, with engineers behind every advance in our modern society, the power of their work is often invisible – until something goes wrong.
“There is a big gap between what people understand that engineers do and how they are stereotyped. Often the massive creative innovative contribution they make goes unrecognised. I see that same challenge in local government.
“As an outsider, I thought there was room to bridge that gap; to help tell their stories.”
The timing of Susan’s tenure was pivotal.
“Following the Canterbury earthquakes, the engineering sector was going through credibility and regulatory change and I was able to step into that space positively.
“I was fortunate to have a brave board that was prepared to embrace change.
“We went from a professional body that only talked to itself, to bringing engineering to life – growing credibility, increasing professionalism and influence, getting more recognition for the contribution engineers make.
“We got the profession behind our new vision and established a whole different approach to the way we looked and set about things.
“We focused on people not technology, transformed the way we dealt with complaints and accountability, and tackled diversity in this very mono-cultural/mono-gendered industry.
“It was a most rewarding and fulfilling job.”
After nearly six years in the role, the CEO role at LGNZ became vacant and someone asked Susan whether she had considered it.
“I had already learnt a lot about local government, including just how critical it was to the country. It seemed a challenging but promising opportunity, and not one to be ignored.
“It’s a very exciting time to be here. Thanks to Covid-19, more than ever, we can all see the positive way local government impacts people, and local government has an important role to play in the recovery from the pandemic and building a dynamic future.
“Our role as leaders within the community is essential, not only in this current climate of uncertainty, but with the rapid change we are seeing in the world and our economic and environmental challenges.
“Local government is critical to a community’s well-being. When local government is strong, communities thrive, and the whole country benefits.”
As she had only been in the role for five weeks when we talked, Susan says she is still very much on a learning curve, but feels less of an outsider coming in, having sat on various bodies that overlap with local government.
“I have more questions than answers at this stage, but I’m getting insights, testing my hypotheses and meeting a lot of people.
“We have a strategy day coming up to discuss priorities – not just what we do but how we do it and how we can make the most impact.
“LGNZ’s advocacy role is very important and I am very interested in how we can access and leverage this best, because, at the end of the day, our legitimacy is grounded in community, and that’s important for everyone.”