Sandra Matthews – Leadership Scholar

Undertaking the Institute of Directors’ (IoD) Company Directors Course, with the help of an AGMARDT Leadership Scholarship has supported Sandra Matthews to take the next step in her governance career – standing for a role on the board of a major rural organisation.

I recommend the IoD course for anyone working towards governance positions because it puts a lot more tools in your toolbox and makes you think outside the square,” says Sandra, who completed the one-week programme during May this year.

“It was a really valuable and rewarding experience. The programme was intensive and in-depth and I learnt a great deal about best practice governance, and about myself. I was in a group of great people and we looked at issues such as building culture, board dynamics, law and finance and risk governance.”

Sandra began her career in banking and finance, in her native Australia and in London, but her introduction to farming came in partnership with her husband Ian at Te Kopae Station, his family’s Century farm in the small community of Rere, 50km north west of Gisborne.

For a long time her main focus was on their farm and raising their children, while always being involved in volunteering in the local community, from school trustee to water quality programmes and Rural Civil Defence. Then, in 2014 she completed the Agri-Women’s Development Trust (AWDT) Understanding Your Farm Business (UYFB) programme.

“That is a brilliant programme and it opened my world to possibilities for isolated rural women around what we could do to contribute to our businesses and our personal development,” she says. “AWDT founder Lindy Nelson was facilitating and she saw something in me and mentored me.”

Sandra went on to join AWDT as a facilitator and leadership coach, which she still does, as well as continuing on to further development programmes, including formally training in leadership and business coaching, and starting her own SM Coaching and Consulting business. She now also contracts to The Icehouse, the national organisation providing capability development solutions and business experts for Kiwi businesses.

In 2015 she co-founded Farming Women Tairawhiti Incorporated, a charitable organisation to provide opportunities for learning growth through education, advocacy and social events for the rural community of Tairāwhiti. Its mission is to enable pan-sector agri-women to connect and thrive. She built a highly-effective executive committee and chaired the organisation until 2021.

Her interest in governance was piqued by a further AWDT programme in 2017, when she completed Escalator the organisation’s governance and leadership one year programme.

“I was very privileged to be selected as one of 14 women to do that,” says Sandra. “Until then governance had not been majorly on my radar. But IoD was involved with the programme and that piqued my interest. I recognised it would be very important to me that any board I applied to would share my own values set, so that is what I looked for. I did a lot of due diligence into boards I was interested in and it took a couple of years to apply for my first board role.”

In April 2021 she became a trustee of the Rural Communities Trust; in September she was elected to the board of Rural Women New Zealand which she now chairs, and in October 2021 to the board of Endometriosis New Zealand.

She is also the deputy chair of the Beef+Lamb NZ North Island Farmer Council and a member of the National Farmer Council. She is currently preparing to apply for the exam and report-writing process required to become a chartered member of IoD. She is also preparing to stand for election as the Eastern North Island Director on the Beef+Lamb New Zealand board – the position is due to become vacant in March next year.

She is aiming to also further enhance her governance skills through completing IoD’s Chairing the Board programme, also with AGMARDT Leadership Scholarship support, in October this year.

Sandra says the AGMARDT scholarship has proved invaluable as, due to the impact of COVID-19 on her contracting income and two years of drought affecting their farm business, she would otherwise have struggled to personally fund her governance goals. She had also put her own development goals on hold to help support their rural community through the dual challenges of the pandemic and drought.

“Rather than missing out on giving back to a community I feel I have so much to give to, I reached out to AGMARDT for support to continue valuable governance training and build additional networks to grow my influence to create real change in our sector. This scholarship will enable me to continue on the pathway I embarked upon in 2014 when I initially started my leadership development and governance journey. It will enable my goal of standing from a base of good governance development and experience for larger primary industry boards, that meet my values-based governance philosophy.”

Sandra sees bringing people with a wealth of diverse experience and knowledge into leadership roles, as well as young leaders, is critical to create growth opportunities in the sector. She is keen to encourage other rural women to consider taking their first step onto the governance journey too.

“One of my goals is to champion rurally based grass roots food producers, not corporate based governors, to recognise where and how they can contribute to influence in our sector and have courage to apply for and step into our sector board roles.

“I see so much wealth of knowledge and experience being missed out on at board level due to women over 55 not being recognised for the expertise and diversity of thought they can offer. Many in this category, like myself, are future focused and bring innovative ideas to the table with the expertise and experience to provide strategic vision.”