How this mother-daughter duo is shaping great leaders in New Zealand

by North & South / 07 March, 2019

Business partners Ali (left) and Sarah Tocker.

Leadership consultancy, Tocker Associates talk industry game changers and the knock-on effect of inclusion and diversity for business success.

What is great leadership? Not the jargon, the mantras or the clichés, but real, honest leadership that drives and impacts and changes the world. The kind of leadership that enables employees to be better and businesses to thrive.

This question has been around for ages, and the wide consensus is that it is bold, takes calculated, but spirited risks, has reasoned judgment, assertiveness and honesty. What do the people following the leaders expect? They want trust, confidence and humility, and much more. The truth is that a one currency foundation strengthens and drives all others: courage.

Ali and Sarah Tocker are a mother-daughter team who truly understand this. Their leadership development skills and knowledge span over 20 years and their reputation in both the public and private sectors back this up. Sitting opposite these two women, it’s easy to see how they have been such a great influence in helping shape leadership in New Zealand.

The ease of their relationship comes from strong family values and a mutual respect built on integrity and years of listening and learning from everything around them.

Ali is a veteran in the leadership arena, her passion for development born during her years within the professional education sector. During her tenure as a highly regarded educational leader, it became clear to her that there was a need for practical leadership development that could yield real, tangible results for growth and success.

In 1997, she founded Tocker Associates, a boutique consultancy focused on bespoke leadership development and strategic planning by developing leaders, coaching executives and managers, facilitating workshops and managing conflict.

Their secret? Learning. All the time. Mostly, it’s to stay ahead of the times and up-to-date on the latest trends, to be always one step ahead and able to set the standard and the direction within the leadership development sector. Being first to market, with things that work in real businesses, is important to them.

It is their agility to adapt and grow teams and individuals that last year caught the attention of The Skills Organisation, one of New Zealand’s largest Industry Training Organisations, providing work-based qualifications and consultation – a partnership that now enables Tocker Associates to expand their footprint across the country.

Tockers’ reputation is built on experience and strong values, which underpin their ability to teach businesses the reality of leadership to navigate the disruptive times we live in. Tocker Associates’ no-nonsense, straightforward talk sets the team apart. Telling a client the truth, even an uncomfortable truth, to help them step out of their comfort zone – that takes courage.

This learning is now one of their flagship success stories in the form of the professional programmes they’ve helped develop and run in partnership with Outward Bound. A custom-built programme where participants swap the boardroom for the outdoors, it’s all about perspective and learning to navigate the challenges of courage and diversity.

“The intense 360-degree feedback we include helps participants to understand how to respond courageously to leadership opportunities,” says Ali, adding that in her opinion, “a little bit of discomfort is good”. She firmly believes that an attitude of taking the stairs and not the lift is the underlying principle when it comes to learning about yourself and the hard yards needed to succeed.

Many CEOs afterwards managed to effectively drive significant change. But the best result by far, it seems, benefits all: the ability to limit meetings and boost efficient information-sharing across their businesses.

Inspirational quotes from innovative leaders and business people adorn the walls at Tocker Associates’ business space.

Inspirational quotes from innovative leaders and business people adorn the walls at Tocker Associates’ business space.

Sarah adds that it’s the difficult conversations and being able to put often-unpopular opinions on the table that truly boosts growth. To do that, you need a degree of courage and vulnerability, she says. Courageous leaders step forward. They take some risks and they lead change when times are tough.

“These are the leaders who have the real strategic advantage,” says Sarah. “They are regarded as trustworthy and they are able to lead by example. People have amazing bullshit detectors, and they know real when they see it. Great leaders are the ones who show up and tell the truth about themselves, as well as about the business.”

Times of transition, change and uncertainty call for bold, confident and courageous leadership. Sarah believes failure is a great teacher, and good leaders need courage to be able to fail early AND to learn from the experience. Owning your failings, she says, carries a lot of weight.

Celebrating 20+ years of successful leadership development, Tocker Associates is venturing into the greater New Zealand landscape. For Ali, New Zealand is in a fantastic position to get back to the world leading practices it once boasted and help businesses to truly understand and embrace the growing change and diversity of what New Zealand has become.

The biggest change-factor? A far more diverse and globalised marketplace and business must learn to understand the challenges of this. The first step? Understanding that diversity and inclusion are two different things. Employing people from different backgrounds, with different perspectives, does not mean they will have a voice.

Diversity focuses on the differences, while inclusion seeks to get the best from the people who bring those differences. Sometimes diversity in organisations looks like you invited your vegetarian friend to dinner and served them meat and three veg. Employing people who look different is one thing; including their thinking and their perspectives, however, will ensure growth and real inclusion. What meal options are going to work? You might even need to learn a few new recipes.

“Leaders need to realise that diversity doesn’t work without inclusion,” says Ali. “Make space at the table and find out what inclusion actually means to them, not to you. Encourage participation. Let them feel welcome and listen to their ideas. Not everyone will agree. That will be a good thing sometimes.”

Without courage, you cannot make a difference. Without courage you have symptomatic conversations – the ones that go around and around. Ali and Sarah’s goal is to have tough conversations well and once.

To find out more, visit


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