5 Questions with Theresa Gattung

What accomplishment are you most proud of?
This is hard, I don’t just have one!  I’m really proud that I became the CEO of Telecom, New Zealand’s biggest listed company, at the age of 37.  My parents were immigrants, they came from very working class backgrounds, and so being the first child to go to university and going on to that role was a huge achievement.  To do it at that time – and it’s still hard for women today, but it was much harder then.  I’m very proud of that.  Outside of business,  I’m proud that through each phase of my life I’ve made lifelong friends.  I had a struggle at my 50th to keep the invite list to the fifty people who were closest to me, and since then I’ve made other great friends, like you two!  So, I’m proud that I’ve remained close to my family of birth, and I’m very proud of the loving, long-term nature of therelationships with my family and friends.  I’m also proud that I was able to reinvent myself and accidentally become an entrepreneur alongside you and Nadia!

What was the most challenging time of your career or life?
Well, the most challenging time in my career was actually the year after I left Telecom.  I hadn’t set up any kind of transition, so suddenly things went from you saying, “jump!” and everyone around you asking, “how high?” to, “… Theresa, who?”.  It really was a question of identity.  The final year I was working [at Telecom] was difficult as well, but I had a lot of support around me, lots of action and things going on, so it was really the year after.  The phone wasn’t ringing, and I was still quite young, so it was like, “well, what are you going to do?  What’s next?”.

It all happened really quickly –  I had no clear plan or idea of what to do.  One minute, you’re too busy, and then the next minute you don’t have enough on!  It was really like my life had stopped and everyone else’s had just carried on.  A lot of my friendships were tied up with the work scene, and I wouldn’t necessarily see them so often.  A dear friend of mine, Margaret, suggested I get more deeply involved in the SPCA and so that’s what I did; but yes, the year after Telecom was definitely the question where I was asking myself, “is this it?  Am I done by 45?”.

In terms of the biggest challenge of my life?  In 2018, when I collapsed was probably the most difficult and challenging year of my life.  It took me a year to recover; there were so many investigations, and my whole health journey, working with doctors, specialists, alternative health practitioners; learning to listen to listen to my body and rest more; changing my eating patterns.  I was forced to shift from a fast-paced, jam-packed life where I was ‘fitting everything in’ and that was hard, because it was the only way I knew how to live – and the only way my friends were living!  It really took a year of listening to my body saying, “enough!”; not having the energy to drive, dizzy spells, being unable to walk, it took all of that to realise that yes, there is another way living.  I realise that, actually, you don’t really enjoy anything as much when you’re living ‘fitting things in’.  I remember one person said to me, “mind over matter” and I thought, “well, I’m the queen of mind over matter, that might be the problem, not the solution!”

What is your top life lesson?

My top life lesson is – what’s in you will come through again.  That means, whatever it is about you that has made you successful in your life will always be in you; you can mine that again, do it and be it again.  I think we live in a world where curiosity is very important, because we don’t know what the next chapter is, and in relation to our own innate strengths, we need to respond to what the world needs and wants at any particular point in time.  Not having too fixed an idea about what you’re going to do, or when, or how.  All of that is a co-creation when you’ve decided, or when you intuit, that you should go in a certain direction.  It’s good to have goals, but its also good to explore what might look like a by-way.  If you’re too goal driven, you might miss a more magical path.  So, learning that you can’t control as much as you might’ve thought you could control, and knowing that how to make the best of every situation that you find yourself in. 

And, of course, my second life lesson would be the importance of enjoying the moment, enjoy the day, because you only have it once.  Even the periods that you think back on as very difficult, with time you can look back and go, “wow, good things were happening during that period.”  For example, you realised who your true friends were, you learnt to trust that you were resilient.  Even simple things like the year when I hardly left my bedroom, learning the seemingly simple joy of animal companionship, and the importance of pacing myself, and not taking back-on some of the things I’d shed once I felt well again. 

What daily rituals or routines do you have?
Ah, yes!  This is an easy question to answer.  First of all, the daily ritual starts with a good sleep.  I love going to spas and retreats, and interestingly, I’ve observed over the last 15-20 years, that health used to be all about waking up at 6am so you could go to boot camp.  A sort of “no pain, no gain” approach.  Ten years ago, it started to be about listening to your body.  If you feel like doing something quiet and gentle in the morning, do that.  But now, it’s all about sleep – sleep hygiene; don’t have your phone in your bedroom; don’t watch TV in your bedroom; your bedroom is only for sleep and sex; keep it a nice cocoon; go to bed at the same time every night.  I’ve always known about this, so I have a very definite sleep ritual.  I leave my phone downstairs, I don’t have a TV in my room.  I have a nice chair so that if I want to sit, I’m in a comfy environment.  I make sure that I get 8 hours sleep a night, I’m really religious about that.  Then, swimming in the morning – which is a nice mixture of exercise and meditation.  It sets me up for the day, and on a practical level, the summer days are so hot, and winter nights are miserable all you want to do is go home, the morning is the best time to just get it done.  So, if I have a good sleep and swim in the morning, that really sets me up well.  Because I’m self-employed and my schedule is so fluid, I book-end my rituals so that I can still do what I need to during the day.  Oh, and feeding the cats!

Finish the sentence, “The world needs to…”
Hmm.  The world needs to connect more.  Somehow, and I hate to see this happening in New Zealand, and I hope it doesn’t increase, but what seems to be being emphasised now are the differences between us.  Overseas, it’s, “I’m a Republican, you’re a Democrat,” or “I’m a Brexiter, you want to stay”.  Even with coronavirus, there’s been this sort of divisive reaction.  That’s a real worry to me.  It’s why I love things like SheEO, the whole idea of connecting women; women who want to support women succeed in business. 

The internet promises much in terms of connectedness, but the paradox is that we’ve been enabled to live in our own cocoons; listen to our own music, do our own thing in our own time, and not necessarily connect with the real people around us.  Let me give you a really small example:  My favourite place in the world is my place at Waihi Beach, that’s my tūrangawaewae, I grew up in the Bay of Plenty and I really love it.  Opposite my house, at my neighbour’s place, there’s a lovely big pokutakawa tree that I love to look at.  This is going back 10 years now, but one day I looked over and saw these workmen cutting it down.  I was so distraught that I plead with them to stop, which they did.  Then, the neighbour came over and took me over to his house, to show me from his view how that tree was blocking the light, blocking the sun, putting crap in his gutter, and causing him a general nuisance.  So, what we agreed to do was to trim it, but not kill it.

That’s a really small of example of what I mean by connecting more.  From my view, all I could see was a complete lack of respect for a tree, which really hurt me because trees are part of life, and yet when I went over to his house, I could see where he was coming from.  It really goes back to the old saying, until you’ve walked a mile in someone elses’s shoes, you won’t understand them.  But its true, until you have a conversation, look at it from the other person’s perspective, you won’t.  New Zealand stands for so much in the world because we’ve found a way to – at least – start the reparation process, from being a colonising power to now, we’ve become an example of people who choose to live in a place because it is like this, co-existing, valuing and celebrating our differences, and we don’t want that to change.  So, yes, the world needs to connect more.