Profile: HR at Colonial First State

by 24 Feb 2012

A tour of Colonial First State’s new headquarters (part of the impressive Commonwealth Bank complex at Sydney’s Darling Harbour) reveals not so much the staid environment that is perhaps most associated with the banking and finance world, but rather the fun, open plan office environment more commonly associated with advertising agencies.

It suits Brian Bissaker, CEO of Colonial First State (CFS), to a tee. “I describe myself as a shop floor leader,” he says. “This building adds to that style, but even prior to that I really enjoyed getting in amongst the shop floor and talking to people. I want to test the culture – what’s really going on out there, how are people feeling? I try to adopt a style that is quite down to earth and open, approachable and accessible. That’s purposeful – I want all of my people to feel like they belong.”

To that end, Bissaker attends each and every induction/onboarding session and ensures that all executives have a role to play in welcoming new employees. He also has no set office and no set desk space – instead setting up his laptop every morning in different areas of the business.

Great expectations

Tied with that objective of being considered “one of the troops” is Bissaker’s interest in corporate culture. And for that, he admits he relies on HR to provide a “culture pulse”. “I want HR to tell me what their view of the business is, to tell me how they think the mood is, to provide insights into what the culture is, right down through the ranks. That’s the number one thing – if people are positive and upbeat and there’s a good culture, you can achieve a lot.”

And while Bissaker considers culture measurement the “number one metric” he looks at for HR performance, Kate Rimer, general manager, HR, wealth management business unit, suggests it’s just one of many “touchpoints” the company assesses, considering both qualitative and quantitative metrics.

Rimer cites the quality and cost of the recruitment process as a good example. “What are our attrition rates for people in the first year? We conduct stay interviews with people after the first 90 days to get a sense of the quality of the onboarding, cost to hire, time to hire – those types of things. We’ve bought onboard a new head of recruitment where we’re saving at the moment a million dollars a quarter on recruitment costs. So I can show the business that not only is the quality of the recruiting improving but also the cost is reducing.”

Tied to that, a project Rimer is currently working on is exit interviewing: aligning the questions and analytics from those interviews with culture surveys and stay interviews, so that similar questions are being asked over time. Rimer says that approach allows for “a much better idea of trends”.

Indeed, a major focus at CBA is on talent measurement: assessing how the company is doing around quality of succession plans, internal sourcing of talent to move through, diversity, and other key areas. “There’s a range of metrics, some are more strategic; some are more tactical. I think the business is continually wanting a better quality of analytics from HR,” Rimer says.

Business people first; HR people second

For most business decisions at CFS the HR team is “in the thick of things”, Rimer says. Case in point was the recent announcement that CFS is in the process of buying out another company. A number of issues immediately arose, not least being a change of CEO at that company. “That involved stock exchange announcements, media releases, employee communications, and not least of all organising a board meeting in the space of 45 minutes,” says Rimer.

Bissaker adds: “We’ve been joined at the hip, going down to the new business, doing presentations. It’s fundamental to have HR input at this point in time.”  

Rimer adds that CBA has witnessed a growth and maturing of the HR function over the past couple of years; her team now sits with Brian’s direct reports, and are an integral part of the business – “everything we do is starting with the customer and working our way back. We get noise from the business if we have systems and processes that don’t do that, and we have to improve them”, she says.

She believes it’s a given now that HR are business people first and HR people second. “Sitting with the business, understanding how the business makes money, how the business loses money, who our competitors are, what are the dynamics in the economy – both in Australia and globally. Understanding and being able to speak that language. The business expects that.”

Bissaker adds that people issues are entwined with the business strategy. HR is involved in strategy meetings offsite, brainstorming, and enhancing their knowledge of the business. “That creates a cohesiveness,” he says.

“Always pushing back and saying yes or no; always making sure that people issues are at the forefront of the strategic plan. It is one and the same because our competitive advantage is our culture. We don’t have an asset like a gold mine – that’s the asset of a gold mining company. We don’t have a department store on Market St like David Jones. That’s an asset. For us, our people are our assets. So making sure that our strategic competitive advantage is how we deal with our people, we need to have HR right in amongst the strategy planning.”

 The CEO/HR relationship

It’s quickly apparent from sitting down for a joint interview with Rimer and Bissaker that there is mutual respect between the two. It speaks well of the relationship HR has at the top ranks of CFS.

Bissaker comments that respect comes in two forms: technical respect – the person really knows what they’re doing; and secondly, personal respect – the values the person possesses align well with the business.

It goes both ways; for Rimer it also comes down to trust and values.

“If you’re working with a CEO who’s values are not aligned with yours then it’s going to be very difficult to make decisions together and have that trust. It’s in a sense a partnership. As Brian said, working with someone you admire and respect, but also someone you know is going to listen, and someone you can learn from, is important. The best CEOs I’ve worked with have always been willing to take feedback and have often turned to their senior HR person and said, ‘tell me, call it as it is’, because maybe others won’t. So you have that sense of confidentiality in that working relationship, which I think is really the essence of how it can work well.”

Rimer notes that it also helps to walk in the shoes of the CEO, to consider what they might need to know, what they might be concerned about, what their priorities might be. “That would be my mindset,” she says. “Not just looking at things through the people lens. When people turn to you in meetings and say, ‘now the people agenda’, I go no, there’s the people, the shareholders, the customers, we’ve all got to be looking at the business through those lenses.”

Putting a colloquial spin on it, Bissaker adds that building trust is partly about getting runs on the board. But he adds it’s crucial to prove your talk through actions; of doing what you say you will.

“Trust is built up by people delivering on what they say they will, so you can rely upon them, and they don’t let you down.”

He also feels that trust is built if the leader is seen to be sticking their neck out. He cites a term used in Harvard Business Review called benevolent concern, where the leader is able to show that he/she is standing up to the powers that be, is putting his/her career on the line, because they really believe in something.

He also feels it’s about authenticity and consistency. “People shouldn’t see your behaviour waver – whether you’re at the Christmas party or working with people in the office. It’s in the way you treat people in front of others.”

He is also a strong advocate of the personal brand – and is acutely aware that people are forming views and opinions of people they’ve only just met. “Everyone has a brand. And we’re all human, so we’re making up our minds every day about everyone. Everything we do can increase the value of your brand, maintain it, or detract from it. You’ve got to understand that – and once you do it’s very powerful. It’s your own asset that you can control. I talk about personal brand in the induction, and it can freak people out. I say, don’t freak out – it’s fantastic, because you’re in control of it. Everything you do can enhance your brand. But at the same time, if you do bad stuff it can bring your personal brand down.”

And finally, candour is crucial to that CEO/HR relationship. HR should always be willing to be honest and insightful, suggests Rimer. “You should be able to bring insights – whether they be observations or insights from other companies or from studies and reports. Bring all that to the table so the CEO can use it to inform his decisions.”

 HR as mentor

Rimer is often asked for advice and guidance from other members of the executive team. She was also recently approached by an internal candidate applying for a role on the executive, about how to manage the process and put themselves forward in the most effective way. It paid off; the person landed the job. “That’s very common – to be asked to provide an objective third party view on an issue. It’s valuable, and I think in that case the mentoring did help that person get the role,” she comments.

Bissaker also uses Rimer and members of her team for feedback and guidance. He believes it’s “critical” in a senior HR role to be able to provide that support, as it’s “lonely at the top”. “CEOs have got to make a lot of hard decisions and a lot of decisions that may not be popular,” he says. “And if you try to be popular all the time you end up not getting anywhere. You’ve got to be prepared to make those decisions, and you’ve got to be able to bounce decisions off others because you don’t want to be out of line and unreasonable – you want to be hard and fair. So I’ve said to Kate, ‘what do you think, what’s your view? I want your feedback, you’re in there, tell me’.”

Innovation and collaboration

If the HR/CEO relationship is an accurate microcosm of the way business is undertaken at CFS, does this mean that innovation and collaboration are rife in the wider business?

Bissaker believes so, but thinks the word innovation is often given a prohibitively tight definition: “Often companies point to a product as an innovation – we’ve got this new gadget that will drive profit – but we look at innovation across the board. Innovation is everywhere. It’s the way we deal with people at induction. It’s innovative because not many people do it. We try to get the grassroots encouragement through process excellence and other programs and we’re looking at a broader company-wide innovation program, more to do with products and so forth, but I don’t want people thinking innovation as just product, I want them thinking it’s how they deal with each other.”

The trust that was mentioned earlier plays a role in collaboration, Rimer suggests, and this is apparent in the way the executive team operates. She cites a high performing CFS team who deliver services into another part of the wealth management business in Australia. That business is humming at such a high level that they are now taking those services to other parts of the wealth management business around the world.

“In my mind what drives all that is self confidence,” says Bissaker. “At the hiring stage, and when we’re looking to promote people, we’re looking for people who are self confident in their own ability. There’s no insecurity.”

Insecurity, he adds, can drive all kinds of bad behaviours. “If you’re self confident you can trust to be trusted and because you’re technically great at what you do, you’re confident, and you can share information. When you get bad behaviours, if people are insecure or they have chips on their shoulder, or someone riding over them all the time, or there’s a divide and conquer management style you can really see it. Everyone shuts up, they hold information – and information is power. Whereas, in my view, information is to be shared – and the power is how you use information.”



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