Welcome to My Net Worth, our regular column on the lives and motivations of our country’s top business, legal and political people in their own words.

Kirsten Patterson has had extensive governance and leadership experience since she graduated with a law degree. 

Her early roles included national human resources manager for the Stagecoach bus group, HR manager and then corporate services general manager at New Zealand Rugby, and country head of Chartered Accountants Australia and NZ. 

She became the chief executive of the Institute of Directors in May 2017. 

She has also been actively involved in community initiatives, including as a board member of the Plunket Society in Wellington/Wairarapa, chair of the Hutt City Community Facilities Trust and the Wellington Homeless Women’s Trust, a trustee and board member of the Voices of Hope mental health advocacy group and, since 2016, a board member of the NZ Rugby Foundation, which supports seriously injured players. 

A strong advocate of diversity, she was a founding member of Global Women’s “Champions for Change” – a group of senior executives and directors who commit to diversity in the workplace – and a founding member of Women in Sport Aotearoa / Ngā Wāhine Hākinakina o Aotearoa.

I grew up in Whakatāne. We lived in a funeral home because my parents were funeral directors. It was a very unusual living environment, but it was great because I had Mum and Dad around all the time. I used to come home from school and be immersed in that world with them. 

Kirsten Patterson at the age of 12. (Image: Supplied)

I was quite a shy child, although I was really naughty at school. I got suspended on my first day when I was five because I went around telling the other kids that they can't legally make us be here until we’re six and we should go home. I did end up being the head girl at Whakatāne High School, though.

Growing up in a funeral home helped me develop cultural competency and emotional intelligence. Living in a small-business household also developed my business knowledge.

I went to funeral director college and became a qualified funeral director. That’s where I met my husband, Andrew. 

I try to live by being present. I still save for my retirement. I'm still responsible in terms of thinking that there will be a tomorrow, but also just appreciating today. 

I’m very proud of raising good humans. My kids are 15 and 12. My family is, of course, the most important thing to me. In business, I’m proud of helping people develop along the way. I get a lot of personal satisfaction from that; it’s a real motivator for me.

If I look back, one of the big reflection points for me is I've travelled too much. I was away too often when my kids were young. I probably haven't been a great role model in that regard for people on my team.  

I’m not the least bit sporty, so it’s ironic that I ended up working at the NZ Rugby Union. I get listed in all these women-in-sport things and it’s hilarious because I've never played a sport in my life. 

I am a resilient person, but I still have elements of self-doubt, that voice in your head, whether that's impostor syndrome or however it's presented. 

The best advice I’ve been given is from UK economist Sir John Kay. He made a comment that has stuck with me: “Too long have we been in the hands of people who see leadership as a prize and not as a responsibility.” That’s absolutely guided me.

I use servant leadership as a model. I’m not into a command-and-control hierarchy. Your best strategy is to treat your staff like customers. 

My husband’s fantastic. I can go home from work and say I've had an incredibly stressful day in my very important job. He keeps me grounded, because he may have done two or three funerals that day. 

I keep a sticker on my phone which says “Mr Baxter”. He was a man my husband did a funeral for, and it reminds me there are more important things than our corporate world.

I’m actively involved in non-profit volunteering and governance. And that provides me with a change of pace and perspective.

I like a bit of whimsy in my life. I’m addicted to Disney. I have Hong Kong Disney and Shanghai Disney left, to complete the set. I love the escapism, the fun and the history of it.

As told to Jacqui Loates-Haver.

This interview has been edited for clarity.