Getting to know Anita Balakrishnan

Image of Anita Balakrishnan

We welcomed our new Director, Anita Balakrishnan, to the Office of Ethnic Communities on 3 December 2018.

To get to know Anita better, we asked her a few questions:

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I was born in Australia and moved to New Zealand when I was quite young. I remember how my parents, newly arrived from India, tried to integrate successfully into a society that was welcoming yet suspicious and so different to their familiar and small South Indian village. Even at a young age, I started noticing how a society includes and accepts an increasingly diverse population, and the impact of unconscious bias. Today I am a mother to three boys, Ben (13), Josh (12), and Sam (10). My outlet for relaxation is my piano. I am working towards a higher diploma when time permits. I'm very close to my family, with my parents living near me, and I regularly visit my sister in Sydney.

What’s your career background?

I've tended to follow the exciting opportunity of the moment, rather than having a single career path. For the most part, I have honed my skill as a public policy practitioner and people leader. I started in freight and logistics at New Zealand Post, with a stint representing New Zealand at the Universal Postal Union (a UN agency). I've worked in policy and leadership roles at Customs, Department of Internal Affairs (including at the Office of Ethnic Affairs), Land Information New Zealand, Ministry of Transport, the Electoral Commission, and the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development.

What’s the biggest obstacle you’ve faced and how did you conquer it?

As I’ve grown into my roles, my kids get older and the household gets busier, my biggest obstacle is my perception of time and success. The tension between wanting to be fully present at work and fully present for my children is strong. When I returned to the workforce after having children, and unexpectedly having to find my way as a solo mother, I put a lot of pressure on myself for not being able to give 100% to everything. As a consequence, I was constantly anxious and self critical. Quite by chance I came across a poster for a cheap and cheerful mindfulness course with the perceptive quote “do you feel like you’re failing at everything?” The course, and an ongoing commitment to living a mindful life, taught me how to refocus my thoughts and simply enjoy or grow from the moment, without harsh judgement. These days, I feel more resilient, my relationships are stronger, I have more energy, and a calm smile is never far away.

Can you outline your leadership philosophy for us?

My philosophy has grown organically over time through my experiences. Simply, it would be “mindful leadership” – being present, empowering, empathetic, self aware, curious, and honest, with people at the core. I am driven by a sense of fairness and achievement, and get immense pleasure from working among colleagues who treat each other with respect and compassion, and work collectively to turn a strategy into reality.

What's something you're working on about yourself?

My fitness. I enjoy walking, and I adore Wellington’s dramatic geography. It’s the perfect city to get my dose of shinrin-yoku (forest bathing).

Who's the person that has influenced you most?

I'm going to slightly alter the question and say it's 3 people. My children have shown me the impact I can have on others, and how to manage myself. It is an evolving, multi-disciplinary relationship with 3 different personalities, endless probing, honest and sometimes really tough conversations, and ongoing learning. They continue to teach me the value of engaging, watching and listening, of involving others in my decisions, and creating an environment for open, safe, and honest relationships.

What interested you in the role of Director at the Office of Ethnic Communities?

I have always had a personal interest in how a society derives value from a diverse community. There is so much opportunity and potential for ethnic communities to create immense value for New Zealand. In an era where there is disturbing rhetoric and tension in other countries, New Zealand can have a powerful global presence by demonstrating how to create a society that thrives because of the diversity of its people. We are a small country where positive social inclusion can and should come easily. I am inspired by the motivation, drive, and enthusiasm of the people who make up the Office of Ethnic Communities and the passion of the leaders of our diverse communities. I feel privileged and excited to be a part of this energy.

Thank you, Anita, for your thoughtful and open answers! We wish you all the best in your role and look forward to working with you.