A full circle career, the joys of being Chair and keeping it close to the heart - with Patricia McKenzie

@ November 2020

Patricia McKenzie has had a unique full circle career. When she left law school in 1978, she landed her first job with AGL as Corporate Counsel, where she remained for 10 years. Her time with the leading energy company igniteClick to view as PDFd a deep passion for the energy industry and its infrastructure.  It also opened many doors to aligned companies in the sector. Fast track 40 years, and Patricia now sits on the Board of AGL as a Director, helping to transform how Australians produce, share and consume energy.

“My term as Director for APA Group, a major ASX-listed energy transmission company in Australia, had come to an end and the opportunity to join AGL’s board became available in 2019… I thought how fantastic it would be to be part of AGL again, especially during its transition to the new energy future where we hope to be carbon neutral,” Patricia said. “It’s obviously not the company I first started working for, but it’s still recognisable… It’s exciting and there are a lot of challenges as we forge this transition… It’s so critical that we get this right.”

The journey

While Patricia brings extensive experience from the energy field, it is her skill in strategy and critical thinking, her understanding of complex issues, and her willingness to listen and engage constructively with boards and management teams that have set her apart. A quick glance at her portfolio and you can see why. She has previously been the CEO for Gas Market Company, a Member of NSW Premier’s Council for Women, Director for Australian Energy Market Operator and Sunnyfield, Chair for Gas Market Leaders Group, IEC, Diabetes Australia Ltd, Chromehurst Foundation, Healthdirect Australia, and Essential Energy, and Non-Executive Director for Macquarie Generation and Transgrid.

Her foray into boards started in 2008. “I had been participating in the Gas Market Leaders Group, which had been established to revise the market for gas and electricity in Australia. We decided in that group that we would form the Australia Energy Operator and that my company, Gas Market Company of which I was CEO, would be rolled into that organisation. It was then that I decided I wouldn’t seek another CEO role and would move into a Non-Executive Director role. That’s when I became the Director of Australian Energy Market Operator… It was a great opportunity to begin a commercial Non-Executive Director career.” 

Switching from the C Suite to NED

Like many others, Patricia found the switch of roles and responsibilities as a CEO to director challenging, to say the least. “You are so used to making a decision, nursing it though the board and then picking up the ball and running with it. But as a director, you never make a decision. You can influence other people’s decisions and you can advocate for a position, but the decision must be the Board's” she shared. “Once it’s made, you have to let management pick up the ball and run with it.” For this reason, it took Patricia some time to find her voice in the boardroom. “It helped to watch some fantastic directors that I could emulate. Their voice was supportive, but nonetheless challenging, sought necessary assurance and asked the right questions.” 

Current board roles

Reflecting on her career, without hesitation, Patricia said her most enjoyable board experience has been the opportunity to be a Chair. “The role suits me well. I really enjoy that extra input you can have with the company, the relationship with the CEO and management team, and the different relationship you have with the directors… I find it really satisfying that together as a team you can achieve those strategic objectives.” For this reason, when the opportunity arose to be Chair for NSW Ports — which holds long term leases to manage Port Botany and Port Kembla — and Sydney Desalination Plant — which provides reliable and sustainable drinking water to Sydney — she couldn’t say no. “These opportunities came up back-to-back and I was delighted to be in a new industry and to be in a chair role again… Both boards are privatised assets for the NSW government and because of my background, they were a really good fit for me.” 

Close to her heart

Close to Patricia’s heart is her fourth board position as Director for The Housing Connection, a not-for-profit organisation that works with people who have an intellectual or other disability to live as independently as possible. “I have an intellectually disabled daughter, Kate, and they have helped her tremendously with her independent living. With the introduction of NDIS, this was a major transformation for the organisation and they had to pivot and change the way they were operating. They asked me to join and it’s been my great pleasure to do that.”

Personal meets professional

Patricia shared how her personal life has been reflected in her professional life. “I thought one of the obstacles I had to overcome was that my CV had gaps in the lineage so to speak, because my children had some serious issues. My first child, Kate, was born with Down Syndrome and my third, Tom, had leukaemia, so I had some pretty serious outages you could say. I thought the perception of that would be that I would not be fit for a director role, but what has been demonstrated to me is that times have changed and the business world is far more accepting; they understand that women often have interrupted careers. What I thought was an obstacle actually turned out not to be at all.”

WOB’s influence

“They were going to climb a mountain” is the way Patricia described WOB’s feat to get women on ASX boards. “But they did it. Now there are very few boards that don’t have at least one female board member. The atmosphere has changed substantially,” she commented. “In fact, I think WOB has contributed to the overall dynamic of accepting women’s credibility on boards and have made it the norm. They have changed the landscape for all of us… They make the statements that we might like to make, but probably don’t because it might stop us from getting the next board!” With WOB’s guidance and leadership, Patricia emphasised the importance of helping each other and the role we all have to play in making and maintaining change for women.

Be confident

A chair recently shared with Patricia an observation he had witnessed many times before. He said: “Women will look at a position description and see one or two criterion they can’t do and won’t apply. Men on the other hand, will see one or two they can do and will apply.” That’s the difference she pointed out. “It’s about being confident,” Patricia added. “

My feminist daughter who studied law like me and then gender studies, helped me change the way I look at opportunities… I was writing a speech for one of my groups and I said to her that I was so lucky that someone called me and offered me the role. She said to me if I was a man I would say I had made such a great impression and made so many good contacts that people reached out to me to bring me back into the workforce.”

“We do it all the time. We’re very self-deprecating as women… I’ve changed my language now. I say: “I did it. I made it happen.” I’m still uncomfortable doing it, but I do it anyway! I hope the next generation finds it easier.”

Further Information

LinkedIn Profile Patricia McKenzie

Portfolio Snapshot
Chair, Desalination Plant (2020-current)
Director, AGL Energy (2019-current)
Chair, NSW Ports (2020-current)
Chair, Essential Energy (2016-2019)
NED Transgrid (2015)
Chair Healthdirect Australia (2012-2018)
NED Macquarie Generation (2012-2015)
Director APA Group (ASX:APA) (2011-2019)
Chair, Diabetes Australia Ltd (2010-2013)
NED, Australian Energy Market Operator (2008-2011)
Member NSW Premier’s Council for Women (2008-2010)
Chair, Sunnyfield (2007-2010)
Chair, Gas Market Leaders Group (2005-2010)
Chair, IEC, (2005-2010)
CEO, Gas Market Company (2001-2007)
Chair, Chromehurst Foundation (1999-2014)
Corporate Counsel, AGL (1978-1988)