Taking a leap of faith to reawaken your career – Anthea’s story

Countdown to launch.

Switching careers at any stage can be daunting: turning away from the glow of your comfort zone into the foggy darkness of the unknown is not for those without courage. But often it is a leap of faith like this, that can reawaken the dormant fever of youth – that promise of adventure, new challenges, new rewards, different faces, personalities and routines.

I was sitting rather smugly in the comfortable swivel chair at the peak of my ten-year plan, as executive director of an organisation with a focus on bettering social and economic outcomes. Not overly ambitious in a world filled with extremely talented professionals, but after fifteen years at the coal face of community and the public sector, I was pretty happy with my trajectory. It wasn’t an easy climb, and my ascension was testament to long hours and hard work, but it provided me an impactful platform that could satisfy my community mindedness while continuing to challenge and hone my skills.

Like many people in roles like this, the natural progression when a position has reached its natural end is to look inward to the sector for your next step; a bit like Mary Poppins, who stays long enough to create calm from the chaos and then takes to the skies via a flamboyant umbrella when the wind changes. I subscribed to multiple recruitment sites who would feed me a stream of similar roles, all carbon copies of the responsibilities I was accustomed to. Different cause. Different office. But, ultimately, a bit of a shimmy to the left or right of where I had settled. Was that enough? Was it time to review my ten-year plan? Was there more for me. Was I worthy of more?

This recent foray into recruitment happened to coincide with two factors that made mid-sized fish like me the target species for recruitment agents. Covid-19 was keeping the borders stubbornly shut for much needed inward migration of skills, and – more relevant for public sector workers – Government had announced a pay freeze on salaries for public sector workers. This meant a tsunami of opportunities for independent contractors with even a hint of public sector experience were flooding the Wellington market, and suddenly this little snapper was a marlin.

Many coffees were had (thank goodness I live in a city of bean-barons) and many sparkly lures were dropped in front of me. Meh. They were all a bit same-same.

Until I came across one particular job listing that struck me for its simplicity, opportunity, and the mystery of a little ambiguity. If you would like to have a private chat, please call me. A call for a business leader. Someone with established connections around the Wellington region. Strong business acumen. Okay, this could be interesting.

Rather than following the standard process of editing my pre-written email, attaching an alluring cover letter and CV, I decided to make the call.

That was my first engagement with Steve Abley.

He apologised profusely for his shortness of breath as he had exactly six minutes to talk as he was walking to his next appointment. I knew Christchurch. It was flat. He would still have enough breath for a chat while he walked.

We each exchanged an elevator pitch that was enough for a speed-date introduction, but really without any productive grunt. Still, in the few minutes I’d nabbed with this urban traverser, I’d managed to intrigue him enough to secure a face to face at his next visit to Wellington over coffee. Ah, coffee. The perfect fuel for a pitch.

In the three weeks between that call and the scheduled ‘coffee meeting’ I did a bit of cyber-stalking. Actually, it was more like twenty minutes on LinkedIn which resulted in identifying one of my most trusted contacts/mentors was connected to Steve.

“He’s a bloody nice guy,” was his first response for my demand for intel, closely followed by “he’s also bloody good at what he does. He’s becoming the go-to for the sector. They all are. That team at Abley know their stuff. You’d like working with them.”

Enough said.

Because I’m a diligent girly-swat, I continued my research and delved into whatever Google could cough up about this company. I was unfamiliar with Abley, but my time in local government gave me enough understanding to appreciate the depth, breadth, and scope of their work. It seemed like their next conquest was Wellington, which is a no-brainer for a company who was constantly working with or for the heavy hitters in transportation and movement systems, design, safety and innovation.

Let’s pause for a moment for complete honesty: It was all very technical. I appreciated the case studies and updates as much as anyone with a non-professional interest may do, so – at this stage – I could kind-of figure out what they were about, but only in a superficial way. And that’s okay.

My coffee with Steve was great. He was warm and engaging and clearly passionate about what he and his team do. It was also immediately apparent that he was confident in his ambitions for his team and he backed them fully. He seemed a little stunned at the beginning of my conversation and made the comment, “You’re not like the people we would usually hire.”

Usually, a statement like this is enough to unnerve even the boldest candidate, when in the midst of making their all-important ‘first impression’. In fact, the vibe I got from Steve was entirely opposite.

Steve was genuinely interested in the person behind the resume, wanting to unpick the personal drive that brought me to each professional crossroad and what I had gained from that experience. You could almost hear his neurotransmitters pinging as he digested my life story, as he visibly lit up each time I discussed various community engagement challenge and how it was undertaken.

My experience as an executive director was of little importance to what his brain was formulating – this is a man of vision, and what he was hearing was a complimentary adjunct to the many services the Abley team were already delivering. I made no apologies for being a novice in his sector, and he didn’t ask for them. The conversation peaked when he asked me what I was looking for.

This was it.  The last few weeks of talking with various recruitment agents about their gilded carrots had reminded me that I could be interviewing the company as much as they were interviewing me.

I laid it bare, my desire for a genuine work-life balance, a team that truly functioned as a work family (warts and all), a company who respected all the moving parts and worked hard to keep them moving.

As a contractor for the past four years, I had worked in a very isolated bubble. Not even the Covid enforced one; but a bubble that had me based from my little office at home with some regular, meetings with stakeholders around the region (often with questionable coffee quality on offer). Sure, that’s fine if the guy in the cubicle next to you in a previous life used to spend all day playing solitaire on his computer while consuming vast quantities of re-heated fish dinners at his desk at every opportunity. But for me – a person who feeds off the energy of others – I wanted to be part of something bigger. I wanted like-minded people to bounce ideas off. To share triumphs and tragedy with – both work and personal. I missed being part of a team. And I was also a Mum again, after sending my eldest off to university my husband and I decided to have one more go and Zara joined our little unit. And I loved being a Mum, as much as I loved being Anthea. So being in a team that appreciated both parts of me was important. I could almost put up with the second-hand fish again (almost).

Culture underpins Abley’s success. It lubricates all of its moving parts enabling the various cogs to effortlessly engage, making the Ably engine swift, nimble, and a pleasure to operate. Many organisations in their sector have equally talented technicians but, but due to the nature of their scale and evolution, there is somewhat of a conveyor-belt when it comes to work and professional outcomes. Steve described it as a utopia, where the sum was as important as the whole, and the commitment of self which is expected to maintain their quality outputs was acknowledged through nurturing the other half, with a strong focus on wellbeing, personal engagement, team building, personal and professional development, and social activities. And these even include the kids.

It seems the backbone of Abley’s workforce are not simply highly talented, qualified, experienced professionals, but they are also parents – and that isn’t an aspect of one’s life at Abley that needs to be sacrificed in any way.

My meeting with Steve concluded with a promise of a follow up conversation, which resulted in lunch with a Group Manager who was in Wellington. Paul Durdin offered the same warmth and interest as Steve. He explained the inner workings of Abley, its journey to its current position, and some of the work they hoped to undertake in Wellington. Paul very generously kept things simple – even when delving into the intricacies of their projects, at no time were my eyes tempted to glaze over. These guys are genuinely passionate about what they do, and that energy is quite infectious.

Further conversations reiterated the messaging that diversity in people means diversity in thinking, and this was seen as valuable to Abley.

After little negotiation, I was made an offer I couldn’t refuse – I took the bait.

Less than two weeks’ later I was arriving from a quick, masked flight to the Christchurch office, base camp for Abley.

The fish was officially out of water.

Hour 1: The arrival

Walking up the steps to the office you could be forgiven for expecting the typical entry experience into any similar office – open the door, bland reception, administrator sitting on an unforgiving chair for an unforgivable amount of time until someone decides you’re important enough to see.

But no. You open the door to Abley and are struck by the openness. The natural light bathing fresh-faced humans industriously at their work yet animated and…happy. Yes, it’s open plan – with desks adjacent to each other, each with a name tag announcing its resident. The first name you see is…. Steve Abley. No, he’s not the receptionist, but the anchor desk nearest the entrance, clearly setting the tone for each visitor – that their presence is important.

The office opens up with greater depth than you first realise – the team is actually quite big. I understand that only twelve years ago there were only a couple of faces, and now there are over seventy. At least thirty were in the Christchurch office that day, warmly smiling at me as I am introduced to the team. Even more surprising was the high number of women occupying the office. For a ‘male- dominated sector’ Abley is definitely bucking the trend! 

My first day is a constant (but gentle) flow of the usual information and processes you’d expect of an organisation of this maturity and complexity, yet it was punctuated by so many human interactions – coffee, chats, walks, lunch, and a genuine desire from my new working family to know the person behind the role who was starting that day. 

There is much excitement around the expansion of Abley into Wellington, so my appointment as the Wellington Regional Lead was welcomed. The fact that I was adding another feather to their cap by introducing a dedicated consultation and engagement resource was also appreciated, and many were keen to hear about various projects I had delivered. 

Hour 17: My new ‘home’

My “baptism by fire” (or water if you’ve been picking up on my metaphors) continued into the next day. Wednesday was my first day in the Wellington office. A shared space (until the all-important critical mass justified acquisition of a local ‘base camp’), which I approached with some trepidation given my previous experience in such ‘human experiments’. But – lo and behold! – Abley found a unicorn, and I have been comfortably settled in a prime location with outstanding views.

Well-appointed with a host of tech and tools enabling me to get the job done, and regular contact with those who had shown me so much hospitality in Christchurch, I not only feel supported and enabled, but energised, confident, and motivated to dive into the spectacular ocean that is the Abley ecosystem and share its incredible capability with the community that I love here in Wellington.

Hour 33: The end of the first week

As I write this it is now Friday, and the energy of the week has taken its toll and I will admit I’ll be enjoying a day off to decompress tomorrow. That said, I feel caught up in the momentum and am already looking days/weeks/months in advance to the many and varied tasks I have ahead of me. That rush of excitement is still there. In the coming week I’ll being training to achieve certification that will endorse the work I do on behalf of Abley – they really do make all provisions to enable the success of their team. I will also be back in the air, this time heading north to meet the team at the Auckland office. Quite excitingly, I’ve been invited to attend a weekend away with my new working family, with the invitation extending to my family – a lovely surprise, and more evidence that I’ve found a new role that really meets my wish list.

Long story short

This little blog evolved into an essay. Long story short: Abley is an organisation of great people, doing things to make lives easier, safer, and more sustainable for people, and continues to look for good people who share in this philosophy.

If you have been swimming in your tank for a bit too long and want to try the open sea, from what I’ve experienced so far you can’t go wrong with Abley. Give Steve a call – he might only have six minutes to talk while he’s walking to his next appointment, but he will always take your call.

And just keep swimming.