Introducing Z’s new Chief Financial Officer
Diversity and inclusion March 8, 2023
It’s a rare move for a woman in business to be able to assert the importance of family over work. But Nicola Law, the newly appointed CFO of Z Energy (Z), says that’s a non-negotiable, and her most important role will always be that of a mum to her three children. Now she’s working to help others see that it’s okay to put your family first and still have a successful career. It's not an either/or.
Canterbury-born Nicola always knew she wanted children and she and her partner wanted their children to grow up in Aotearoa. At 28, from a Melbourne posting for BP she made a decision to become a generalist rather than continue specialising with international postings in the same discipline, giving her the best chance of a general management position back in Wellington one day. She took some years to learn more about many aspects of that supply business. Then, in 2013, when their first child was eight weeks old, she and her partner moved home to New Zealand.
At the end of a year-long period of maternity leave, Nicola had intended to continue working for the same company in Wellington. But when she got back, the company was in the process of moving its headquarters to Auckland. It’s challenging at any time to look at an established career and say ‘No’. But Nicola stuck to her decision to shape her career path around her growing family, and turned instead to Z.
Her meeting with then-CEO Mike Bennetts profoundly impacted her career trajectory; that morning, she discovered she was pregnant again.
“I clearly remember talking to Mike. [I said] ‘Look, here’s what I’ve done. I don't want a job in that field. I want to be a generalist. Please give me a job doing something else, to help me develop and diversify over the next few years. And by the way, I have a 1 year old and I'm planning to have another couple of kids if I can, in the next five years. I want to work part-time, and I'll take a year off with each of them. And I'm actually in the early stages of pregnancy now’.”
Mike responded brilliantly. He said “Okay.”
“If it wasn’t for his openness in that initial conversation, I never would have come to Z,” she says.
“That was my test for him: Are you actually going to support me through my childbearing years? Because, yes, I still want a career, and I'm really happy to diversify and do lots of different things over these years. But ultimately, I put my home life first. My career is important. But it's not more important than my family, and it never will be. I need my employer to respect that.”
The directness of this messaging with a future employer is something she acknowledges is a rare move for women in business, who often stay silent about what they really want in the workplace.
In 2021, Nicola took on her first executive level role, and whilst it was something she had always been working towards her perceptions of family trade-offs held her back from even applying for an executive role for a few years. “I sat there thinking: ‘I can't have a role of that level’, or ‘I can't do that because I don’t see anyone who's doing it my way, or anyone with a family as young as mine’. Part of what I used to think was ‘You can't be what you can't see’.”
That’s not the case today. As Nicola assumes the role of CFO for Z, she’s consciously bringing that spirit of generosity and flexibility with her. As one of only few women occupying such an important role in the corporate sphere, Nicola is in a unique position to model what a work and life balance looks like, thriving as much in the workplace as she is within her family whilst acknowledging its imperfections.
She is supported by Z’s Diversity and Inclusion Stand and progressive internal policies. For instance, Z offers paid parental leave to any parent in a primary care role to take 26 weeks paid leave, plus an entire year of parental leave. Z also recently updated its parental leave policy, so that KiwiSaver contributions are made during any unpaid parental leave period in an effort to reduce the retirements savings gap that overwhelmingly disadvantages women.
Nicola says the juggle of home and work life is real. “It's impossible to understand, I think, unless you've actually been through it.”
Nor is it just women or parents that Nicola is focusing on. The Diversity and Inclusion Stand focuses on empowering all Z employees to bring who they are to the workplace.
“Our Stand is that our workforce will represent the communities in which we operate. For us, that means our workforce should be representative of Aotearoa.”
Right now, it isn’t. Nicola says they have made progress but there is “room for improvement”.
For Nicola it has always been about bringing all the parts of yourself together. Avoiding compartmentalising your life into work and home, representing who you are in your workplace: these are the tenets Nicola lives by and wants to encourage fellow Z employees to embrace.
“From my perspective, I would always say: sort out home first, and also sort out what you want at work. But these things are not mutually exclusive, so you don't need to think about them in isolation,” she says.
“Think about them together. How do you set up your life across home and work such that you can achieve those outcomes, and not consider them as two completely separate paths? How do you bring your whole self to work?”
For the first time in her career, Nicola now sits on a leadership team of peers that has a 50/50 gender balance. She says the tangible shift is a wonderful thing, and she feels more able to be herself.
Nicola also says being a mother has taught her to be a better businesswoman and employee.
“I learnt to be ruthless and critical with respect to time management,” she says. “I had a much greater understanding of my limits in terms of resilience. I learnt a lot about myself whilst on periods of maternity leave, and it has made me a better leader.”
Nicola took up her role as CFO in last month, and says she’s excited to further the work of the Diversity and Inclusion Stand, pushing for continued trajectory of what is going well, and improving measures in areas like the gender pay gap, on which Z reports annually.
“Once you start measuring it, you really pay attention to closing it. We put it up in lights all the time.”
Nicola acknowledges the change in diversity and representation is incrementally slow across the industry, and there is still a massive road to travel. She believes that if companies are forced to report on issues such as pay gaps, and if the market and shareholders demand it, change and equity is possible.
“The more society decides that it matters, the more pressure there becomes on companies to actually do the right thing,” she says.