Westland District Council’s Tanya Winter is showing true grit in her first chief executive’s role, writes Ruth Le Pla.
Tanya Winter is a good sort. I know this because she accepts without murmur my bizarre idea of interviewing her in front of the organ pipes on the old Dunedin Town Hall stage. This is my way of keeping her away from the prying ears of other SOLGM Summit delegates while we talk. But it carries the unfortunate side effect of us having to keep squirming round to face each other. And it makes us look like we’re engaged in some sort of schoolgirl tryst.
She’s got part of her risqué costume for tonight’s SOLGM risqué party in a bag. Her mum sent it to her. I’m too polite to ask what it is. And, anyway, I’m still coming to terms with the idea that I’m not invited to local government parties. This has happened several times now and I’m feeling a bit slighted – not at the idea that I can’t be trusted not to report the salacious details but that people may be underestimating my ability to be as raucous and badly behaved as the next person. Private sector people are never so careful about their reputations.
Adding insult to injury, when Tanya sits next to me at a summit session the next day she’s wearing fabulous red shoes and complains her feet are sore from dancing. Given her well-known prowess as an athlete, I suspect she’s suffering a lot less than some other people in the room.
She completed two full Ironman events about 10 years ago while working at Hutt City Council. She did the Iron Maori last year. I’ve seen a stunning photo of her whizzing past snow-capped mountains as she completed the Lake Wanaka Half Ironman this year.
She’s planning to enter the New Plymouth Half Ironman in February 2015. And at weekends in the past she’s been known to get up at five in the morning to do her four hours’ training just so she could have plenty of time left to be with her family. All of which is enough to make me want to have a cup of tea and a lie down.
Yet, even Tanya’s fitness regime took a bit of a back seat last year when just months after her arrival as Westland District Council’s chief executive – its first externally-appointed CE for 60 years and its first ever female one to boot – she figured out things at council were not as they had first seemed.
Her instincts proved right. After four weeks tooth combing through council’s books, an external consultant confirmed the worst.
“He provided me with a 14 page report that basically said we had spent all our reserves,” says Tanya. “We’d spent what council thought was there in their investment fund, we were keeping rates artificially low, we were using debt to fund operating expenditure, we were providing services to the community that we couldn’t afford and if we kept going that way we were heading for the rocks.”
It didn’t make her wish she’d never got the job, she says, but there were two times when she visualised getting in her car, driving away and never coming back.
After four weeks toothcombing through council’s books, an external consultant confirmed the worst.
Now, some 18 months since her first ghastly discovery, she feels the ship is being turned around.
Threaded throughout her career is a belief in the importance of doing a job she loves.
“On one of those occasions my executive assistant − who is the most amazing woman and I don’t think I could do the job without her − came into my office and said, ‘you’re not thinking of leaving us, are you?’ It’s like she’d read my mind. And I said to her ‘no’ but an hour before I’d been in tears because I couldn’t see how we’d fix things.”
Tanya says it’s taking a concerted effort by everyone to start turning things around. “We had to stop our capital works programme. We had to put a halt on all spending. I had to front the council and tell them, and most of them refused to believe it. They were ashen faced and grey.
“Then we embarked on a public consultation round with our annual plan. We called it ‘getting real’ and went to every location in our district which is 440 kilometres long from end to end. We went to every little community that we could and we fronted them.”
Tanya remembers fronting a packed hall at Fox Glacier where she and her team had to tell people all the funds they thought were put away in a reserve for their township development were gone and weren’t coming back.
“There were people shaking their fists at us and calling us thieves.” The only way through it all was to let people have their say, vent their anger and cleanse their emotions.
“After the anger had subsided most people said thank you for at least fronting up and telling them the truth, and also telling them what we were going to do about it.”
What Westland District Council was going to do was cut services all over the place. “We had to reduce library hours, we had to make staff redundant, stop mowing grass… everything was up for grabs,” says Tanya. “We stopped doing lots of things and had a 12.8 percent rates increase.”
It was a similarly huge deal having to tell Westland District Council officers their organisation had been running at an operational deficit for 14 of the past 15 years. Tanya says she doesn’t believe there was anything malicious in the
decisions that were made in the past.
It was a similarly huge deal having to tell Westland District Council officers their organisation had been running at an operational deficit for 14 of the past 15 years.
Tanya says she doesn’t believe there was anything malicious in the decisions that were made in the past. “We know there was no fraud and no misappropriation of funds. The money was spent on things for the community but the service levels were well out of whack with the revenue we were getting in through rates and other sources. It’s as simple as that.”
It’s been a difficult time, says Tanya, and council has got through it by being very future-focused. “We’ve had to explain to people what we see has happened but we’ve been quite careful not to dwell on the past… I wasn’t there and I firmly believe people in these roles are there for the good of the community and make their decisions with the best information they’ve got at the time.”
She prefers not to fight her battles via the letters to the editor pages in the local paper. “There’s no win… you’re on a very dangerous spiral if you start replying.” Instead she rings people direct.
“I’ll pick up the phone and say, ‘Hi, I see you’ve got a letter in today’s paper. It’s your opinion but there are a couple of facts that… I just want to put you right on a couple of things…’ And most people really appreciate that.”
Now, some 18 months since her first ghastly discovery, she feels the ship is being turned around. “We’re not going to hit the iceberg any more and we’re now on a positive path. We really are. There’s a future for Westland District Council whereas I was wondering about that in the first six months.”
In its next long-term plan council will look at some of the services it cut to see whether it will be possible to bring any of them back.
In many ways, Tanya’s current role is simply the culmination of an awful lot of experience being put to very good use. She cut her teeth in the local government sector without even realising that’s what she was doing when, back in her
student days, she took a holiday job as a lifeguard at the Wainuiomata pool.
To this day, she finds many local government employees still identify themselves as providing a particular service – such as libraries or sports facilities – rather than being part of the local government sector.
Her career from there on is a long story winding its way through, among other organisations, the Hillary Commission, Hutt City Council, Waitaki and Hastings District Councils until the latest big leap to her first role as a CE at Westland.
Threaded throughout her career is a belief in the importance of doing a job she loves − “if you’ve got the right attitude, the job will follow” – and a passion for community engagement. “Local government isn’t always the one with the money,” she says, “but in a funding advisor’s role − which is essentially where I’ve been in my career – you’re in that lovely role of helping people realise their dreams for their communities by putting them in touch with the right people.”
She concedes the leap up from her last job as a Hastings District Council group manager to Westland’s CE is huge. “But you could look at my Hastings role where at the peak of the summer season with Splash Planet open I had about 180 staff in my group. I’ve got 37.38 FTEs now which translates to about 43 warm bodies at Westland.
We’re tiny. I had 70 staff in my libraries alone at Hastings.” That said, the levels of responsibility and the different style of decision making needed in a CE role, mean there’s no one to give the monkey to so a CE’s role can be quite lonely.
In any case, Tanya thinks she’s changed the way she manages since moving to Westland District Council. The pressure-cooker environment has meant she’s often had to make more decisions alone and more quickly than she’d ordinarily be comfortable with.
She’s just got the results of a 360 degree feedback survey saying some staff really like her direct approach but others have sometimes been surprised by it. “If all that does is make me think before I respond then that’s a fabulous thing.”
Tanya doesn’t over-egg the significance of being Westland’s first female CE. She says she was asked in her interview for the job how she’d cope with an all-male executive team and male councillors. “I said, ‘I actually like men’. That probably came out wrong but they took it in the spirit it was intended. I work well with men. I never feel at a disadvantage.”
In a similar vein, Tanya says she’s never felt she’s been pushing through the “so-called glass ceiling” to get to a CE role “and before that a GM role”. “I never felt that was because I’m a woman. It was about skills, experience or wrong fit. I interview people too. Sometimes you can have the most technically-competent person come to you and the fit just isn’t right for whatever reason.”
And, anyway, she’s working with her community and that, despite all the tough decisions, is a job that she just loves. LG
ON THE WAY UP
Tanya Winter, now chief executive of Westland District Council, started articulating she wanted to be a chief executive back when she was a third-tier manager at Hutt City Council.
What did you do about it?
I was very clear on that goal with my managers, and with people I trusted and felt could support me to get there.
In what ways would they help?
With advice. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. When I was being interviewed for CE roles and missing out, I’d ask the consultant, the mayor, the deputy mayor, sometimes, for feedback on why I was unsuccessful. This helped
me focus on what I needed to work on.
Did you focus on any particular aspects?
I could see I needed more commercial acumen and a greater understanding of the financials of a complex organisation. So I actively sought out a role that would give me that and I went from Waitaki to Hastings District Council. I had my own accountant attached to the group and he spent a lot of time with me at my request. I sat down with him weekly to go through the finances of the different activities. I asked him every dumb question that I needed to and he offered his advice and feedback. Over my years in local government I’ve also gathered around me a group of people that I trust. And I’ve been lucky to work for two fabulous CEs, both with very different leadership styles: Michael Ross at Waitaki and Ross McLeod at Hastings District Council.
What is it you like about being a CE?
Setting that vision and direction, and being that conduit between the community, the elected members and the team that I’ve got working with me. It’s a lovely place to be in.