How to be an effective leader, with Mary Cranston

Rebecca Armour With Mary Cranston
Rebecca Armour with Mary Cranston


Kate Davies
Kate Davies

Law News recently attended a lunchtime briefing session jointly hosted by Kensington Swan and the Corporate Mothers’ Network (CMN), featuring renowned lawyer, leader and director Mary Cranston who has been visiting New Zealand from the United States. 

Mary Cranston is a retired Senior Partner of Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP, an international law firm based in the USA where she was the Chair and Chief Executive Officer. Ms Cranston also serves as a director on a number of international companies including GrafTech International, Ltd., Juniper Networks, Inc. and VISA. She is a sought after speaker on, among other things, unconscious gender bias in the workplace, governance and leadership. 

Ms Cranston really is a woman who has done it all – career, family, leadership, success – in an era when few women had gone before her. She has managed to carve a life path which balanced these different demands by doing what she loved and making considered choices about what challenges she took on and which to answer with a strategic “no”.

She was an ideal speaker therefore to an audience comprised largely of “corporate mothers”, who are part of a network established by Rebecca Armour and Kate Davies to support working mothers in corporate roles (more on the CMN at the end of this article).

Attendees not only heard about Ms Cranston’s own experiences as a pioneering female leader in law and the boardroom, but also had the chance to ask her questions about breaking through glass ceilings, raising a family, and making a legal career work in harmony with the rest of life’s challenges.

Combining work with family life

According to Ms Cranston, working women still carry about 80% of the load in terms of family/home duties. She dismissed a myth that working mothers are replenished by time spent at home as “complete rubbish” (actually she used another word!), and readily acknowledged that the hardest times in her legal career were when she had young children.

By way of advice to women returning to their careers after an absence to start a family, Ms Cranston said to think of it as a “networking exercise, like any kind of career change – look at what you have done and re-package it – you have to be creative in helping people understand your potential”. She considers that this kind of self-promotion is something that women are not as good at as men – women need to learn to “negotiate more for themselves”.

Doing what energises you and being “in the moment”

All of us face a myriad of (often conflicting) tasks, responsibilities and challenges in work and life, which are only compounded by having a family. Ms Cranston’s mantra to assist in this balancing act is to make active choices and only engage in activities that “energise” you. There will always be trade-offs to be made, we just need to get clearer about them and “use ‘no’ strategically”.

For “pioneering women” like herself, the job had to “really mean something to them” – otherwise it would be a drain rather than a source of energy and reward. She soon discovered that if she only took on the responsibilities at work that inspired her, others with different interests would pick up the other areas. The realisation that she could choose what to do was very liberating – the “antidote to endless multi-tasking”.

Another key lesson gleaned along the way is the ability to be “in the moment”. When she was at work, Ms Cranston trained her brain not to think about the “other stuff” which she knew was going on elsewhere but which she could not do anything about at a particular moment, and vice versa. This helped make her more effective at whatever she was doing at the time, and much less stressed.

Breaking through the glass ceiling

Women have comprised 50% of the workforce as a whole for many years now, but not in the upper eschelons – there the proportional representation of women is still comparatively low.

Ms Cranston has mixed feelings about quota systems which would require companies or law firms to promote a certain number of women to senior positions to redress this imbalance. On the one hand, she described quotas as a “ham-fisted way” of forcing the issue, noting that you cannot just promote someone to serve on the board of a big company without the requisite skill set.

However, on the evidence she has seen, women (by and large) shine when promoted, often displaying an inclusive leadership style which works particularly well when companies are in trouble. Women on boards are often also very good at asking the key questions that need to be asked, rather than simply “pontificating”. She would like to see at least three women on any given board: “Three women on a board are a force of nature!”

So despite quotas being a less than ideal method of achieving the desired gender re-balance, if the current lack of proportionality at senior levels is still as “stuck” in five years’ time as it seems to be now, she would “go for quotas in a nanosecond”.

More flexible working arrangements for men and women

According to Ms Cranston, the way law firms have been run over the last 20 years is out of touch with young people today. She worries that bright youngsters are moving into business rather than pursuing the law because of negative perceptions about its demanding nature and incompatibility with having a life.

While Ms Cranston thinks an element of flexibility in working arrangements is critical for both men and women, she noted that when first trialled in the USA, a stigma quickly attached. She describes this as the “maternal wall bias”, which, in combination with the “hours based” working model of the legal profession, puts working mothers at a disadvantage – rather unfairly given that women with children are often very efficient workers.

Now, there are more concerted attempts to make flexible systems work, and, by applying them to both men and women, the stigma of working flexibly is diminishing. Ms Cranston cited the example of Deloitte (from which law firms could learn a lesson), which has instituted “mass career customisation” – meaning anyone in the organisation from the CEO down could, if they wished to, choose to work flexible hours, or four days a week.

About the Corporate Mothers’ Network

Rebecca Armour (Director, Tax KPMG Auckland) and Kate Davies (Corporate Lawyer, BNZ) launched the CMN in August 2013 to meet a gap in the market and support working mothers trying to network and re-establish themselves in their careers.

The network is particularly aimed at lawyers, accountants, entrepreneurs and women in corporate roles who are also mothers and who have returned to work (either full- or part-time), who are on maternity leave, or who have taken a break from their careers to focus on family but wish to stay “in touch”.

CMN aims to hold an event each month, alternating between a mid-morning “suburbs” event (complete with creche facilities) and a lunchtime “city” event downtown. Speakers since CMN’s inception have included Dominick Stephens (NZ Chief Economist at Westpac), Andy Hamilton (The Icehouse), Galia Barhava-Monteith (Professionelle), Jayne Muller (Altris), Cecilia Robinson (My Food Bag and AuPair Link) and Jon Randles (Mosh Social Media Marketing).

Ms Armour and Ms Davies say that women can face challenges in re-entering the workplace, whether it is feeling “out of the loop” after a period of maternity leave, or a reduced ability to network outside of office hours. CMN is designed to keep women up to date with corporate and business developments and facilitate business relationships.

Readers interested in the CMN and upcoming events can visit its Facebook page ( for more information.

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