Ten* After Ten: Helen Robinson on the next 10 years and what keeps her awake at night

Digital dinosaurs, old-school boards, scary climate change, and how lack of sales expertise is holding New Zealand back.

Helen Robinson got her first job at 11, set up her own tech business at 22, and 20 years later was managing director of Microsoft NZ. These days she is a professional director, chair of Network for Learning and Cloud M, and on the boards of ATEED and the Open Polytechnic. In her copious free time she is co-founder and executive chair of Organic Initiative, a company making biodegradable, organic, fair trade, women’s hygiene products. She gave Idealog her top five predictions for New Zealand’s place in the creative economy over the next 10 years, and the five things that keep her awake at night.

Predictions

Auckland:  Our biggest city will continue to go from strength to strength. It will (and must) lead change and economic growth to ensure continued stability for all of New Zealand. Auckland's focus on attracting international businesses and investment will help this exponential economic performance.

Commercialisation: New Zealanders will continue to innovate strongly, but must understand and learn how to commercialise, how to be lean, flexible but rapid in our approach. New Zealanders have always had masses of ideas but struggle to get these into market successfully. I would like to think that over the coming years more innovation will be more successfully commercialised. 

Climate change:  The environment will play a far more impactful role in the next decade. New Zealand will need to think and act quickly on how to mitigate emissions. This will be increasingly apparent as people better understand the enormous impact that how we live now has on our future survival.

Helen Robinson at the launch of Organic Initiative

Role of women: Women will become more confident - my belief is the reason there are not more women in senior leadership roles has less to do about company policies or men, but is more about women's lack of confidence at an early age to stand up, and be more demanding about what is right.

The next generation of women will be more confident, says Helen Robinson

Digital: There is no doubt digital will be at the forefront of continued transformation in everything we do, how we live, how we work, how we play. We are well into our exponential technology disruption with robotics, wearable devices, the internet of things. The coming decade will see an even greater advancement in all things digital.

What keeps me awake at night?

Old-school governance: There is still too much old-school governance, rather than agile, fast-paced, market-focused boards which remain highly accountable and who balance risks with forward thinking. These old-school boards struggle with understanding, appreciating and acting on the need to invest in the right approach to leveraging technologies to be more effective, more responsive, more agile and therefore high-performing.

Digital dinosaurs: Whilst digital embeddedness is normal in some areas, there remain too many sectors where lack of innovation and digitisation is holding them back. Most government departments and too many commercial entities do not seem to get this yet. At the age of 50 I am forever telling people that you ignore new technology at your peril. I plan on living at least another 40 years and if I don’t keep up with technologies – for example social media – what am I going to be like in 30-40 years?

Helen Robinson with her mother

Sales expertise: New Zealand’s lack of sales acumen, and huge lack of appreciation of fabulous sales people, continues to trouble me. In the US, sales is recognised as a true profession; in New Zealand it is as if all sales people are car sales people. This has to change if we want to advance our economy.

Funding: For many young companies, finding investment is difficult, especially post seed, into Series A or Series B. Even Callaghan Innovation appears to be very schizophrenic in the way it dishes out funds.

Branding: One of my biggest business priorities or concerns (as all my fellow board members and executives will attest) is “brand”, and NZ's lack of brand expertise. Even most marketing people do not understand what brand is and the absolute critical role brand plays. Brand, brand essence, company values – all these underpin and drive business success. Get brand right and the rest will have a chance of success. Imagine if New Zealand had an overarching brand strategy too...

*Helen Robinson’s comments are part of “10 after 10”, an Idealog editorial series inspired by our tenth birthday and a challenge from PledgeMe CEO Anna Guenther. We ask New Zealand business leaders to comment on what has changed over the last 10 years, and what still needs to.