HR in the hot seat: Mathew Paine, director of HR at Sydney International Convention Centre

by Miklos Bolza23 Aug 2016
What is your job title and what brought you into this role?
 
I’m the director of human resources. What brought me into the role when I first saw it was that it would be a legacy for Sydney to open up a new convention, entertainment and exhibition building. From seeing all the renders the sketches of what it would look like – because we were basing everything off plans at that point – it just looked so exciting. That’s what made me apply for it.
 
What motivates or excites you the most about your current position?
 
Being able to build a workforce from scratch to employ 1,800 staff and create all of the HR processes, procedures and systems of how we will do things. It’s also making sure I was responsible with the CEO to create a whole new culture in an organisation – that’s such a rare opportunity to be able to open a building like this. Lastly, it’s the challenge. I am motivated by challenge and to recruit 1,500 casuals in a matter of months is a huge challenge for us.
 
What is unique about HR at the ICC?
 
Because I had a clean slate, I was able to create HR how I wanted it. The HR team is broken down into four key areas: talent acquisition, workforce planning & rostering, learning & development, and employment relations. It’s fantastic to be able to lead such a large team.
 
What’s also unique is that this business covers not just conventions and exhibitions but also entertainment. The old Sydney convention centre didn’t have any entertainment facilities. The Qantas Credit Union Arena in Chinatown has been closed down now and the new arena – which we’re calling the ICC Sydney Theatre – is part of our building. So we’ll have three entertainment precincts in the building. I think that’s really unique from an HR perspective to have buildings for three very different uses in the one HR framework.
 
What will your biggest HR challenges be for the coming year?
 
At this point in time, we’re recruiting at really high volumes. We also have a bold vision to be a true employer of choice and a great place to work by providing long-term careers for all of our employees. For us the culture, the on-boarding and the engagement is going to be the biggest challenge after we’re open. In the pre-opening phase, everybody is very excited. They want to get into the building. We’re about to embark on three months of operational testing and training. Once we’re open, it then moves to business as usual and over the months the focus will change to professional development and making sure our team members are engaged. We monitor that through a monthly pulse survey. That is already a focus now and it will continue to be a focus into the next year.
 
What has been the strangest HR scenario you’ve ever experienced?
 
I was in a role where I had to do a CSI-like investigation into an anonymous letter writer who was writing handwritten notes to other team members. Some of them were nice and some weren’t. After we narrowed it down to a certain department, I set a writing test to obtain handwriting from everybody – they didn’t know that was the reason. I then engaged a handwriting analysis expert to analyse the handwriting. They provided me with a report to tell me they believed it was this one individual. From there, we started performance management. I’ve never been involved in such an in-depth and interesting investigation before. The employee was shocked because I don’t think they knew we were keeping all the letters especially when I pulled out a file of about 20 handwritten letters they’d sent over a couple of years. We never got to the real reason as to why he did it but he was terminated because the content of some of those letters was extremely unsatisfactory.
 
If there’s one piece of HR-related advice you could give, what would it be?
 
What I’ve found is that you’ve really got to be across technology. In this fast-paced world, HR has to keep up-to-date with that. I’ve been able to utilise technologies through our all our HR processes including the application stage, on-boarding, orientation, induction, and the ongoing engagement phase. If we weren’t using technology to help us recruit, train and induct 1,800 staff, it would just be an even larger challenge. There are so many different pieces of software available out there so it’s really about utilising that. The employee lifecycle these days is very different to what it was 10 or 20 years ago. Having regular touchpoints such as monthly pulse surveys or the agile performance management process is definitely something that workers in this generation expect.
 
What hobbies and interests do you have outside of HR?
 
For me I love to travel. It’s my number one hobby and has always been a passion of mine. I’ve lived overseas for ten years. I lived in Japan for two years and then in London for eight. I’ve always got a destination in mind od where’s next. Secondly, I love to eat and drink and I’m out a lot – probably too much – trying out new venues across Sydney. I sometimes fly interstate even to go for dinner. I also love to keep fit. For me exercise, going to the gym, running, and walking my dog is very important. Particularly now in a busy and challenging period, it’s important to keep healthy and fit and make sure you’ve got that balance of eating right when you can, exercising, and having that mental break from work as well.
 
Where’s the best place to go for dinner/drinks in Sydney? Why?
 
What I love is to go to Opera Bar on a Sunday evening in the summer with a group of friends. It just makes you fall back in love with Sydney – just the beauty of this city. Whilst I have travelled a lot and I’ve been to a lot of countries and cities, it reminds me how lucky we are to live in Sydney. I really do think that Sydney’s an amazing city and I’m so happy to live here.

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