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Michelle van Gaalen - Alumna 2008

Written by Kimberly Rees, Alumna 2013

Michelle van Gaalen attended the Leadership NZ Programme in 2008 which was at a pivotal point in her long and successful executive management career.


At the time, she was Group Manager Retail at New Zealand (NZ) Post Group Ltd with full accountability across the retail business, as well as being a member of the NZ Post Group Executive Team.

“Without doubt, it was a volatile and challenging time of my career – the Leadership NZ Programme gave me fresh perspectives throughout this period” Michelle says.

On reflection, she clarifies “The Leadership NZ Programme took me out of the corporate world I was in at the time, and gave me a broader perspective in terms of the social and community issues facing New Zealand. Plus, it was wonderful to have a couple of days away from the work demands each month that year, where I could reflect on the work I was doing and recalibrate myself amongst professional peers!”

She refers to the popular quote by Albert Einstein “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them”.

Never stop learning and challenging yourself, and always strive to get diverse perspectives in order to help with your thinking.

Michelle says that Leadership NZ provided her with access to a range of different perspectives from a cross spectrum of New Zealand society, and that the Programme came at a critical point in her career. She says that what was most beneficial was the fresh external perspective when assessing the impact of proposed business changes in her daily work environment. Her efforts were recognised, even on a global scale through the NZ Post Group winning the 2010 World Mail People Management Award for its workforce management strategy.

Michelle states that “the value of diversity in strategic planning and corporate business analysis/problem solving, was the key learning for me from the Leadership NZ Programme. It gave me that “big picture” focus, built my confidence and pointed me in the right direction in developing my career path."

It has been an onward and upward career for Michelle. In 2011 she left the NZ Post Group Ltd to re-develop her own consulting business (originally established in 2005) providing specialist strategy and business change support to CEOs and Executive Teams, collaborating on a number of high profile corporate projects both in New Zealand and overseas. In 2013 Michelle joined the executive team at Bank of New Zealand (BNZ) as Director of Strategy and Business Performance. In this role she’s been the business sponsor of a pilot community finance scheme aiming to improve access to mainstream credit for those previously excluded. Most recently, Michelle will be making another career move in November, leaving BNZ to be the CEO of Pinnacle Life. This will be a big change for her, going from a large corporation to a small family owned business but says she is looking forward to working with the company to “disrupt the life insurance industry in New Zealand.”

Michelle states; “Building on what I learned in the Leadership NZ Programme, I now understand that business growth in New Zealand is inclusive (of all or the majority of people) and not exclusive (at the expense of others) like it is in some other countries. Yes, you could say I am a capitalist, but a “capitalist with heart” which is a quote I heard once that, I think, defines those leaders looking to help transform New Zealand through business.” When asked of her opinion on New Zealand’s future, she reflects on her recent trip to Vietnam and her feelings when she arrived back in the country, saying “New Zealand is a small country but with a high level of sophistication, and has heaps of potential to make our impact more powerful on, and for, the rest of the world.”

Michelle’s practical advice to a future leader is, “Never stop learning and challenging yourself, and always strive to get diverse perspectives in order to help with your thinking. I am fortunate to have learned this from Leadership NZ and benefit from this every day in my career as well as in my personal life.”

For Michelle, listening to other perspectives and having a strong community “heart” within the corporate sector seems to have served her well.