Women of Meridian – Tania Palmer

Don’t let a setback define you.  

That’s what Meridian’s GM of Generation tells colleagues who miss out on roles they had their hearts set on. 

It’s a piece of advice, born of experience. 

Following a successful career that included spells in the Airforce, banking industry, HR contracting and implementing some groundbreaking health and safety initiatives in the energy sector, Tania applied for the head of generation role at Contact Energy. 

She knew she was ready for the role – and her hopes were high, only to be dashed when she missed out. 

“I was absolutely devastated,” recalls Tania.  

“So now when I talk to people who have missed out on roles I say ‘I know exactly how you feel – I‘ve been in your shoes and it is really hard. But I am here because I didn’t give up’. 

“Don’t think that the door is closed forever.” 

An inspection of Tania’s CV suggests an image of uninterrupted success. 

But life is seldom like that. 

For Tania, an early setback came when her plan to join the Airforce as a pilot lasted as long as the initial medical. Having specialised in maths and science at university, she had the brain of a pilot – but not the eyesight. 

She joined the officer training programme anyway, moving quickly from the administration to education branch, where she found a niche teaching theory to technicians and tradespeople. 

That career stint culminated in leading the avionics school at the Woodbourne base in Blenheim. 

While she enjoyed the job, the town was a little too small for her liking. So, her next step was a move to the capital to become a recruiting officer. 

Despite being significantly removed from her science and maths background, Tania found she loved working in HR, and was enjoying the change of scene. 

“Then the Airforce told me they were going to move me back to Blenheim and I was like ‘thanks but no thanks.’ I decided to get out of the Airforce.” 

She took a job at Westpac, specialising in remuneration after a spell as a generalist. 

The role suited her “maths geek” side, and her experience managing people meant she was also able to factor in the human side of transactions.  

Her broad experience set her up nicely to become a consultant, working out of Nelson enjoying a “small town lifestyle with a big city job” and raising her two children with her husband. 

Life was great – until it wasn’t. 

“My marriage imploded, which was pretty awful. My daughter had just turned five and my son was six. 

“It has not been easy. For 12 years I was basically raising the kids on my own as my ex-husband was living overseas. Juggling being a single mum with a pretty big job can be pretty hard – but you can do it. It’s not impossible. 

She employed a nanny to look after the kids when she needed to put her work first and, despite the pangs of parental guilt, managed to keep her career on track. 

She had been contracting in the energy sector for a few years – a move that would become permanent in 2009 when she moved back to Wellington and accepted a senior HR role at Contact Energy. She later successfully applied for the role of GM Health, Safety and Environment in 2013. 

“I love the energy sector. I love the complexity of it, I love the asset side of it, the people are great, and it is really interesting. 

“As someone said recently at a conference I attended, it’s the most exciting time to be in the most boring industry in the world. There’s change and innovation happening in every part of the business.” 

The move into health and safety allowed Tania to tap into her passion for driving positive change. 

Contact’s change from a rules-led to people-led approach to health and safety was revolutionary at the time. 

“Safety is really important but if you lead safety from a fear-based position you limit what is possible,” she says. 

“We were talking about safety differently well before anyone else was. 

“A big part of it was understanding that people will make mistakes - and that is okay. What’s important is reducing the impact of those errors on our people, our assets and the environment, she said at the time when the company’s Start Small, Think Big programme picked up a top award at the 2016 Deloitte Energy Excellence Awards. 

And while she would miss out on the chance to lead Contact’s generation arm, that opportunity would come soon enough, following her jump to Meridian. 

“I really clicked with [chief executive] Neal Barclay,” she says of the switch. “I liked how he talked about safety and how he talked about people. He’s very purpose-driven and very values driven, and very caring. 

“As a friend said to me recently, when you come to Meridian it’s like moving into this warm hug. They are really welcoming, lovely friendly people.” 

While it might not seem a natural crossover, her health and safety background provided a solid bridge to the generation side of the business, says Tania. 

“You are across the critical risks, work procedures, all of the technical operations and how they fit together. You can’t just focus on the fluffy health and safety culture, you’ve got to understand the tactical and technical side as well.” 

While it has been traditional to have an engineer in the top generation role, that thinking has changed. 

“It’s such an outdated model to think that the person at the top of a business group has to have all of the knowledge and expertise in their head that everybody underneath them has. That’s a very patriarchal model of leadership. 

“Actually, I need to understand enough to ask the right questions and know when I am out of my depth and ask for help. We’ve got all of these amazing technical specialists in the business and that is who I need to leverage for help. 

“There’s a really great bunch of people in our business. It’s about giving them the opportunity to shine and bring their expertise to bear on these challenges. 

“I get really energised by the complexity and the depth of challenge- and I’m also passionate about change. 

“We have gone through quite a significant transformation in generation and a lot of that is focused around how we make decisions and how we are leveraging data and information. And how we lead in this business – how we lead in a less hierarchical way.” 

Meridian is an equal opportunity employer with Advanced GenderTick accreditation. To learn more about working at Meridian, check out our careers homepage.

Women of Meridian is a series profiling some of the amazing women working across our company, with a focus on those in roles traditionally held by men. It’s about raising the visibility of these women, and the opportunities that exist here and across our industry. As the saying goes: if you can see it, you can be it.