Thriving Together: Embracing an organic and collaborative leadership style

Reflecting back:

Gretchen Cotter completed her OE rite of passage in the early 2000s before returning to put down roots and work as an in-house legal counsel for the National Bank. The National Bank was later sold to the ANZ and the two legal teams joined forces. She was involved in a key milestone event around 2012 when ANZ and the National Bank became one brand and the black horse was no longer. At that time, Gretchen began work for ANZ’s asset finance business, UDC. She worked part-time, juggling the demands of work with raising two children. Talk began a few years later of ANZ divesting UDC. In 2020, ANZ sold UDC to Shinsei Bank, Limited, a Japanese financial group and Gretchen took the opportunity to take on the general counsel role in the business. UDC remains one of New Zealand’s largest non-bank lending institutions.

“The sale of UDC was a turning point for me. Although I was sitting within ANZ, and was part of their comprehensive and capable legal team, I had been working at UDC on a regular basis and knew the business well. It was a great career opportunity for me to leave ANZ and take on the GC role at UDC under this new ownership although it was a daunting proposition. It was a hugely demanding time working on the sale of the business. Added to that was the knowledge that I would be leaving the predictability and stability of the ‘mother ship’ whilst the purchaser was a relative unknown to us. In terms of highlighting the challenges of balancing work and home life demands, UDC’s former CEO at the time, Wayne Percival, said to me – “Gretchen – you’ll have to be full time you know. We can’t have a part-time GC for this business.” I knew it was now or never, so I took on this new, full-time role.”

Wayne has recently stepped down as CEO after more than 7 years in the role and turned out to be the key enabler for Gretchen and her team to feel supported. “Wayne was a huge support for the UDC lawyers and the value we deliver within UDC. He really trusted us and ensured the business listened to our advice. His legacy for our team is that we were and are valued by the business.”

How does Gretchen create a culture of work/life balance?

Gretchen’s legal team at UDC consists of four women – two full time and two 0.8FTE. They also have a SHIFT lawyer providing flexible legal resourcing. Gretchen is quick to emphasize that they work very much as a team with a flat hierarchy, even if the buck stops with her.

“We all have slightly different strengths which means there is always someone to bounce around those gnarly legal issues. Ultimately, we complement each other with great synergy and balance in the team. We are all hardworking self-starters with incredibly strong values and we give our all to the business.We also have each other’s back and would go above and beyond to help each other out. I have a mantra that family is first. In my view, it’s a no brainer that you prioritise personal commitments when you need to and we’re fortunate that UDC supports that.

In terms of strategies, I guess our team culture has developed organically since UDC was sold. The team has also doubled in size. We have a WhatsApp group chat where we communicate regularly. One of our highlights each day is going to the local hole in the wall to get coffee and a speedy download of any challenges we are facing at work (or home!). We are all trying to achieve work-life balance and our support for each other is how we make it possible.”

Gretchen takes an organic, collaborative and nurturing approach to leadership. This has worked well for her and her team, showcasing how to harness their collective capabilities and a step away from the more traditional hierarchal leadership models seen in private practise.

“I really want to look after the team. We don’t tend to do anything formal in terms of team building (except for an annual offsite) and I guess we could do more of that from time to time. What I think I do bring to my role is authenticity. I want everyone to feel appreciated, connected and supported – and if we get this right, job satisfaction should follow.”

How important are concepts of equity and diversity & inclusion in your working environment now?

“I’ve been tasked with looking into our E.S.G. approach across UDC, so these considerations are particularly important for me now!

I’m conscious that we have an all women team. There are certain pockets of sameness in areas of the business: for example, the commercial sales team are mostly men. However overall, UDC is a very diverse workplace and that’s great. I think there are about 17 different nationalities within the 250 or so people working for UDC.

As the business is relatively lean and efficient, we don’t have enough resource to focus on lots of D&I and other well-being initiatives across the business. Nevertheless, what we do, I believe we do well, including celebrating a number of key events, including International Women’s Day, Diwali and Movember. We also have a number of policies supporting flexible working arrangements.

I do think we strike a good balance here at UDC. Working in-house provides us with a very safe, supportive environment. COVID, while it was hard work for us, it ultimately became a friend for working mothers especially. It proved that flexible working from home is a viable option.”

Looking forward – what would Gretchen like to see more of?

“Our Japanese parent company has shown a great willingness to invest in our infrastructure. Of course, this is welcome news, but it is often challenging for the legal team to be across these fast-paced developments as well as the day job! Attaining a work-life balance is a continuous effort that takes conscious choices.

Working as a GC or in-house lawyer will always be challenging. The pressure – you can’t underestimate it. I sometimes wonder what else I could be doing but I think it would be a struggle to find a job as stimulating as this one and with such amazing team members.

This is where the service SHIFT provides has been an enormous help for me. I would love more people from SHIFT to help manage the balance if I could get that past the CFO! It’s a great service and a comfort to know there is another model available to utilise and tap into.

One area I would like to see more change in is governance and particularly how boards foster more diversity and inclusion. This is an area that I would like to see a greater focus on in all organisations across New Zealand, whether listed or not.

I recently attended SHIFT’s GC Network leadership session which was stimulating and a great change of scene. I really liked the informal nature of the sessions and the chance to talk amongst other GCs sharing their insights across different organisations – it can feel lonely otherwise. I am interested to understand how different in-house teams work and how they are supported. Going forward, I would love to see more collaboration, collegiate support and sharing of ideas across different in-house teams.”

We certainly look forward to continuing to support Gretchen and the fantastic team culture she’s created at UDC. We would also love to see more collaboration and support across in-house teams here in Aotearoa, New Zealand and are passionate about playing our part to foster this.

Gretchen Cotter and team

Gretchen Cotter and team

Left to Right: Kate Jenkinson, Gretchen Cotter, Anna McInness, Dawn Short