Karyn Thompson

Chief Human Resources Officer, champion of work-life balance

Achieving optimal work-life balance is key for Colonel Karyn Thompson, who is based in Wellington with her husband and three active kids. As an Officer in the Army she has enjoyed a very diverse career, leading a number of groups over the last 26 years. She’s extremely passionate about ensuring that the Defence Force is a great place for women to work and belong, a place where they can realise their full potential.

What is your role in the NZ Army?

I have two core roles: Chief Human Resources Officer for Army, and Manager Special Human Resources Programmes. Basically, I’m responsible for the people capability side of the Army which includes workforce planning, recruiting, career management and more. 

My special programmes include working towards a Total Defence Work Force, which is about the Defence Force  being more flexible in how it employs its people. Also, I manage a programme that is improving how the Defence Force attracts, recruits and retains its military women, and I’m the Chair of the Woman’s Development Steering Group which was formed in 2012.

Tell me about your background?

I grew up on a high country sheep station in the Manawatu which was a very hard-working life. I was the oldest of five kids, so I suppose leadership came naturally. I was Head Girl at Palmerston North High School and I knew at about the age of 15 that I wanted to become an Army Officer. 

Why did you want to become an Army Officer?

I felt like it would open up a world of opportunity in regards to leadership, and cater to my love of the outdoors. I always loved hunting and tramping. I even spent some of the school holidays at the Outdoor Pursuits Centre and I sailed on the Spirit of New Zealand. 

My parents initially had some reservations as they thought I should go on and study further. Now of course, they can see I’ve gone far in my career and that I have studied – all of which has been paid for.

What qualifications do you have?

I have a Bachelor of Arts in History, Postgraduate Diploma in Arts, and a Masters in Management. All of that was paid for by the Defence Force, and I was also supported in terms of the time required to study and fit this in around my job. The study opportunities haven’t stopped - I have recently completed the Company Directors Course at the NZ Institute of Directors.

When did you realise the environment you work and train in is special?

Early on in my career I was awarded a commendation for saving a little girl’s life. I was out on an Army exercise in the Lake Waikaremoana area, and a group of us had been invited to a BBQ with some of the locals. A little girl hit her head in the pool, people started to panic and they asked if anyone knew CPR so I rushed to help. 

She didn’t regain consciousness right away and some of the Maori Elders feared the worst, they thought she was dying so they started wailing. There was a lot of emotion and although I was young and scared, I knew I had to remain calm. I ended up resuscitating the girl. I’m sure my Army training helped me take charge in this situation, because you learn how to handle yourself and take control of challenging situations.

What myths and barriers would you like to break about women in the Army?

Women think that it’s too physically demanding, but it isn’t really. Anyone that already plays a sport should be fit enough. Young women may also think that you can’t wear make-up or dress like a woman. Or that you can’t have a family. You absolutely can, there is flexibility.