Regulator, referee and head coach

It doesn’t take long to work out that Anna Rawlings is the right person, in the right role, at the right time, as the recently appointed Chair of the Commerce Commission – a role that is about ensuring a level playing field for competitors so that consumers and businesses are confident, in a game where rules are known and players are monitored.

Anna Rawlings has spent much of her career working with New Zealand businesses including in electricity, gas, telecommunications, and dairy sectors. Now as the Chair of one of the country’s most important regulatory agencies, Anna has the role of regulator, referee and head coach when it comes to governing national competition and competitive behaviour to support greater productivity and economic growth.

MEttle spoke to Anna about her journey from practising law to being appointed as a Commissioner and now Chair, and other questions about career planning, gender equality and one very close to her heart, having a balanced life.

MEttle: The role you’ve taken would be considered by many as a high-point in a career. Can you tell us about your early working years?

ANNA RAWLINGS: I took a fairly typical path after studying law at the University of Auckland and went to work at a top tier law firm. But I then decided to go to Canada to study for a thesis based Master’s degree at the University of Toronto. My focus was on law and economics and the interplay between the two in the protection of trade secrets.

After I completed my Master’s I took a year out to travel like many do at that age. My study and travel was incredibly beneficial personally and professionally. I really enjoyed the thinking space provided by an extended break from paid work. I moved to Canada on my own and I travelled alone much of the year following so I learned a lot about independence and resilience. I also gained some great perspective about our own place in a global economy by spending time in a diverse range of communities–from large international cities to small off grid communities.

MEttle: Did your time abroad give you a new perspective?

ANNA RAWLINGS: I definitely returned with a new focus on practising law and using my Master’s. I joined MinterEllisonRuddWatts’ dispute resolution team, specialising in competition, regulation and consumer law and became a Partner in 2007.

Practising law during these years was hugely rewarding with great opportunities for developing a broad understanding of business practices across a range of industry sectors – this experience has put me in a good position with my current role. I was primarily a litigation lawyer with work focused on a range of regulatory contexts. I think having some practical perspective from both sides of the table is immensely valuable as a regulator.

I also maintained a strong advisory practice, working with clients on consumer protection issues arising from advertising and marketing and, with other partners, advising on M&A work, in financial services and intellectual property.

MEttle: When you were practising did you ever think you may become a Commissioner and then Chair at the Commerce Commission? Did you structure your career to reach this point?

ANNA RAWLINGS: I am not much of a career planner so this hasn’t been a mapped trajectory.

From a personal perspective, my number one priority has always been to make sure I am interested in my work. If it’s enjoyable it makes it easier to make the best contribution. There will always be harder times but work shouldn’t feel like a chore – perhaps a simple view, but it’s been very important to me.

Law provided that enjoyment for me but at the same time, my University education had a strong social policy dimension.

I’ve also always had a strong interest in aspects of legal and regulatory policy and its contribution to the general well-being of all New Zealanders. So, it seemed obvious to me, when the role at the Commission presented itself in 2014, that it would provide a great opportunity to draw on all those aspects of my background and interests.

MEttle: What is your advice to those who are planning their own careers within law, or thinking about a move from law to governance?

ANNA RAWLINGS: You don’t necessarily have to have it all planned and laid out.

If it’s your style to organise, then that’s fine, but you also need resilience so you can deal with not achieving your goals, when things don’t go to plan. You need to have the flexibility to recognise different opportunities, even if you thought you were on a path to something else, otherwise you may miss something worthwhile.

My primary focus has always been on building and maintaining relationships of integrity, applying myself as best as I can to whatever is in front of me at the time, and letting my performance speak for itself. I have tried to remain open to all and any opportunities but I’ve also taken the time to make informed choices – it’s proved to be a ‘no regrets’ approach.

MEttle: You worked part time at MinterEllisonRuddWatts and the Commerce Commission before being appointed as Chair, in a full-time position. What does that pathway say about work/life balance, particularly for women seeking senior legal or business roles?

“Like a head coach and a referee we are here to make sure the playing field, or the market, works well so everyone can benefit.”

ANNA RAWLINGS: I have been lucky to work with some very supportive people throughout my career, but I am also no stranger to the difficulties that many women describe about progressing in the legal profession and into senior business roles generally.

Of course, I am proud to have been a partner in a commercial law firm for a lengthy period of time, and to have beena Commissioner and now the Chair of an organisation with a nationally significant role. If that provides a reference point for others to feel like their career aspirations are achievable, then that is a great side benefit.

Decisions about balancing career with family and lifestyle are very personal. We should acknowledge that achieving the right balance can be challenging and we should talk openly and seriously about this if we want more people to manage them more successfully.

I think the most important thing I have learned about balance is that nothing needs necessarily to be forever, and if your work can allow it, flexibility doesn’t necessarily mean a certain number of hours per day or week. It can also mean working hard for a period of time and then having a lighter load for a while.

The Commission is an organisation with a strong representation of women at senior levels and presently our Chair, Deputy Chair, and CEO are all women. Initiatives relating to flexible working and diversity are front of mind for us at the moment and it’s great to be a part of that. Creating an environment where everyone can be their best self at work every day has to be good not just for women, or for working mothers, but for everyone.

MEttle: How have the first six months been in the role of Chair?

ANNA RAWLINGS: My appointment is a real privilege. The Commission is an organisation in excellent shape. It’s staffed by very capable people who share a real commitment. Combined with the diversity and depth of what we do every day, this makes it a stimulating and appealing place to work.

In many ways the transition from Commissioner to Chair has been straightforward but this year has been significant. The organisation is facing changing and increased demands in terms of the work we are asked to perform, the outcomes we pursue and the New Zealanders we support. Almost all of the legislation we work with is currently under review or has had proposed change which has created an interesting and dynamic environment to work within.

MEttle: Can you provide a few examples of current projects and programmes?

ANNA RAWLINGS: This year we have conducted our first market study into retail fuel.

Our telecommunications team is finalising decisions on new up-front regulatory rules for fibre broadband services, which will affect the price and quality of services for homes and businesses across New Zealand. It has also been working on new statutory functions focused on retail service quality for consumers.

We are preparing to implement extensive proposed changes to consumer credit law.

We have a significant number of enforcement cases before the courts involving important questions of law under the Commerce Act, the Fair Trading Act and the Credit Contracts and Consumer Finance Act. Also, this year our regulation branch has been working on resetting five-year revenue limits and quality standards for many electricity networks, which will affect the cost and quality of electricity for New Zealand consumers from April 2020.

Other priority areas include focussing on compliance with consumer credit laws related to motor-vehicle finance, ensuring claims about the environmental impact of products are accurate and reliable, and identifying potential harm to consumers from online retail, and educating and taking enforcement action if appropriate.

To make sure we are equipped as an organisation to tackle this busy and expanding mandate we have been working on a project called Fit for the Future. It looks at how well we are positioned to deliver on our vision and objectives, and how we will meet future challenges. We are looking forward to converting the consultancy project into tangible initiatives in 2020.

A massively important part of our work is connecting with our stakeholders to develop our understanding and effectiveness. We are here to make sure the playing field, or the market, works well so everyone can benefit.

It’s an exciting – and busy – time to be at the Commerce Commission. Every change presents opportunities for us to rethink what we do and how we do it, and to test whether there is anything that we could do better.

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