- Laurissa Cooney FCA is a chartered member of the Institute of Directors in New Zealand and has held senior manager, auditing and consulting roles with Deloitte. She was also the CFO for Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi. Cooney currently serves as an independent non-executive director for Air New Zealand, Goodman Property and Accordant. She is a chair of The Aotearoa Circle and of the audit and risk committee of the Charitable Investment Trust for Ngāi Tai ki Tāmaki. She is co-chair for the Tourism Industry Transformation Plan (ITP) for the Environment with the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment and a committee member of the Chapter Zero NZ Steering Committee. Cooney is also a mother of four.
Reporting to a board can test the mettle of the most seasoned executives, but Laurissa Cooney FCA has always welcomed the tough questions. Since making the switch from finance to focus on her governance portfolio, she’s helping some of the country’s most high-profile boards face challenging questions of their own and says the issue of climate change demands an urgent response.
“Climate change is posing some really difficult questions for boards and we have an opportunity to reframe our approach to achieve better outcomes on all levels,” says Cooney, whose governance roles include independent non-executive directorships with Air New Zealand and Goodman Property.
“Most directors were not exposed to climate risk and opportunity during their executive careers, because it’s only recently become a front-and-centre issue for business, and attending the odd webinar on the topic won’t provide the depth of knowledge that we need to address it.
“There’s quite a bit of work to be done to really delve in and get our heads around it to ensure resiliency for our organisations, people and planet.”
Pictured: Laurissa Cooney FCA, Air New Zealand, Goodman Property. Image credit: Mark Hamilton.
From finance to governance
Cooney is of Te Āti Haunui-a-Pāpārangi (Whanganui) descent and grew up in Raetihi, a town in the centre of New Zealand’s North Island, with a population of just over 1000 people. She says a career in accounting was an opportunity to experience life beyond her hometown.
“When I was around eight, my dad suggested I think about accounting because he saw that I was good at maths,” she says. “The idea of leaving Raetihi was interesting to me because, as a child, I’d just imagined that everyone stayed in Raetihi. But my aunty Lynley, who lived in Auckland, was an accountant and suddenly I thought, ‘Maybe I could go all the way across the world if I became an accountant.’”
Cooney joined Deloitte as a graduate accountant in 2000 and global experience soon followed. She describes secondments to its Miami and London offices as among the highlights of her early accounting career.
In 2012, she left her senior management role at Deloitte for the CFO position at Indigenous tertiary education provider Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi, based in Whakatāne. She says both experiences provided a strong grounding in governance.
“I got my first governance gig in high school, when I was chair of the Te Puke High School council and I loved being able to craft the student feedback into a way to solve challenges,” she says. “Then, as a senior manager in audit at Deloitte, I developed a deep understanding of policy, procedure, compliance and, of course, the financial regulatory environment. I got to sit in boardrooms and report to audit committees on their year-end audit and I enjoyed hearing the feedback from the directors.”
Working as a CFO broadened Cooney’s governance perspective. “That’s when you realise that everything’s not just black and white, but that there’s a lot of grey in there. It’s important to be able to manoeuvre that grey space, because that’s where innovation happens and that’s where you can create new worlds and have good outcomes for all,” she says.
I was the executive who looked forward to reporting to the board every month,” adds Cooney. “I couldn’t wait to hear what they asked and shared. A lot of executives didn’t really enjoy that experience, but I loved it and I think my colleagues found this surprising.”
Pictured: Laurissa Cooney FCA, Air New Zealand, Goodman Property. Image credit: Mark Hamilton.
Facing the climate challenge
In 2015, Cooney joined the audit and risk committee of one of New Zealand’s largest Māori farms Ātihau-Whanganui Incorporation. Two years later, she received the Institute of Directors’ Bay of Plenty Branch Emerging Director Award and took up the role of emerging director on the Tourism Bay of Plenty Board. Within six months, she was offered a permanent seat at the table. She went on to become chair, before retiring from the board in May 2023.
Cooney was approached to apply for a director role at Air New Zealand in 2019 and shortly after her appointment to the board, she left the finance industry to focus on her governance roles.
“Governance is an area where I know I can have an influence on a number of companies to reach more positive outcomes for society on some really important issues,” she says.
“Governance is an area where I know I can have an influence on a number of companies to reach more positive outcomes for society on some really important issues.”
Climate change is one of those issues, and Cooney’s extensive governance portfolio enables her to bring a depth of knowledge to her directorships.
She holds a number of climate and nature-focused roles, such as steering committee member for climate governance initiative Chapter Zero NZ (hosted by the Institute of Directors) and co-chair of The Aotearoa Circle, a partnership of public and private sector leaders committed to restoring natural capital for future generations. She is also co-chair for the Tourism Industry Transformation Plan for the Environment with the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.
“In my experience, climate change has become a much bigger topic at the board level in the past years, especially in relation to the regulatory requirements with the climate-related disclosures which are mandatory for most large companies from next year,” says Cooney, adding that Air New Zealand is already undertaking voluntary climate-related disclosures.
“I think most companies have been thinking about climate mitigation, which is important in order to get emissions down as fast as possible, but now climate adaptation and biodiversity considerations are right beside it, and they go hand in hand.”
Cooney adds that nature-based disclosures are also a recent addition to boardroom agendas.
“Boards need to consider solutions that sit across all three platforms: biodiversity care, climate mitigation and climate adaptation,” she says. “Put them all on the table, get as much information as you can, understand your risks and your opportunities and the associated impacts of all three, and then sit back with management and say, ‘OK, what are our solutions that we could benefit from across all three?’.”
“Boards need to consider solutions that sit across all three platforms: biodiversity, climate mitigation and climate adaptation.”
Wearing different hats
Climate change is particularly challenging for hard-to-abate industries like aviation. Air New Zealand’s climate mitigation strategy is dependent on things both within its control, like operational efficiencies, and ones outside of its control, like advancements in aircraft technology and the global scale of cleaner fuels. Continued collaboration with government, industry and innovators will be crucial to deliver the airline’s decarbonisation ambitions.
At The Aotearoa Circle, Cooney is also the co-chair of New Zealand’s Tourism Adaptation Roadmap; authors of The Tourism Sector Climate Change Scenarios and Adaptation Roadmap reports.
“When I think about climate adaptation, it’s about how we live and work in a new emerging climate.”
Cooney says her experience in tourism and climate action allows her the scope to wear “different hats” on boards such as Air New Zealand.
“The environmental challenges that the tourism sector faces are very similar to those that aviation faces,” she says. “The work I do with initiatives like Chapter Zero and The Aotearoa Circle allow me to feel quite informed about what’s happening in relation to climate responses globally,” she says.
“I encourage most directors I come across that if they have an opportunity to be part of an organisation or an initiative that’s responding to climate change, jump at it, because it can help them to really get to the nuts and bolts of the issue and it gives you a better appreciation of what we’re seeing at the board level.
“I have a whakatauki [proverb] from my iwi [Māori tribe] which is one source of inspiration for my work in the environmental space: ‘Ko au te awa, ko te awa ko au’. It translates as ‘I am the river and the river is me’. It is our connection to nature, to each other and our community that can quantum-leap our response to the challenges we face today.”
Pictured: Laurissa Cooney FCA (left), Air New Zealand, Goodman Property. Image credit: Mark Hamilton.
Power of diversity
While climate change is high on boardroom agendas, Cooney says diversity also remains a pressing issue.
“We tend to see the world through our own unique filters, which are determined by our values, belief systems and our conditioning, and so the more you can remain open to different perspectives, the more opportunity you have to solve issues that have been on the table for so long,” she says.
“That’s what I think is the power of diversity. Without it, you end up doing the same thing you’ve always done and hoping for a different result.”
Women now comprise 28.5% of all director positions across the New Zealand Stock Exchange (NZX), with female representation across boards within the S&P/NZX 50 reaching a new high of 36.5% in the first half of 2022.
While Cooney describes her governance success as a “positive pathway for other Indigenous women”, she also recognises the principle of “shared efforts lighten the load” and encourages more diversity in the governance space.
“It could become quite burdensome, so I believe a more constructive approach to navigate this world is to acknowledge that we all stand on equal ground, each with something valuable to offer and that your success ultimately benefits all of us.”
In 2017, Cooney trained as an executive coach, which she says has enabled her to work on her own consciousness levels and growth.
“This meant that when my earlier governance opportunities came about, I felt quite aware of who I was turning up as. If any doubts regarding the significance of my role as a younger Māori woman did surface, I had the ability to confront them internally. This way, they didn’t overshadow my focus, allowing me to approach the table as an equal, free from self-doubt and unnecessary self-talk.
“I have a really strong desire to have a positive influence on society, and that’s part of the motivation for my governance roles,” Cooney says. “I’m a firm believer that the one thing you can really change is your thinking and then how you respond to various situations in order to shift the results that are turning up in your life, and I have found that to be invaluable advice.”