Ember Korowai Takitini's HR leader on how to be successful in HR

'Whether or not you think you're quirky or a bit different and don't fit the mould, be you'

Ember Korowai Takitini's HR leader on how to be successful in HR

When Gil Sewell, chief people and culture officer at Ember Korowai Takitini (Ember), was asked whether she always knew she wanted to work in HR, she recalled a particular experience from her youth.

Originally from the UK, Sewell had been working at retail store Marks & Spencer during her university holidays when she had a conversation with her HR manager who provided a different perspective on HR.  

“I was just about to graduate and the HR manager of the store I was working in said to me, ‘Have you thought of joining our graduate program for… personnel?’” Sewell told HRD New Zealand.

“So I said, ‘No, I haven't’. And she said, ‘I think you’d be really good at it. But just know that if you want to go into HR, don't go into HR because you love people, go into HR because you love process’.”

Joining Ember as chief people and culture officer

In 2023, Sewell was appointed as chief people and culture officer at Ember, an organisation that offers services and support for people with mental health, addiction or intellectual disability needs.

She explained that she has worked in various parts of Ember for more than 10 years, bringing her experience in establishing functions and initiatives at hadn’t happened before to the organisation.

“There's still sadly quite a few organisations who focus on transactional hire, fire, and train in New Zealand,” she said. “But a big part of my work is to go in and do transformation into a much more contemporary approach to people and culture.”

And by contemporary approach, Sewell meant moving “from the bums-on-seats mentality, to realising that with every pair of hands you hire, you get a free brain.”

“It’s not harking back necessarily to the olden days of a career and a job for life,” she said. “But to help people on their pathway through their lives. I think there's no development that any organisation does that doesn't hold value in their personal lives as well.

“And so I think it's incumbent on organisations these days – and that's what I've been trying to do – to try and provide a more fulfilling and branded employee experience that holds value for them in their personal lives, as well as supporting the organisation deliver its business results.”

Initiatives at Ember

Sewell went on to describe how her new chief people and culture officer role coincided with the time when Ember set up different groups including Ember Services; Ember Systems, a data management system for clients; and Ember Innovations, where the organisation matches entrepreneurs who want to invest in mental health, with people who have ideas for how to change and challenge the system.  

“And then our fourth, which is possibly the most exciting, we broke ground last month on our first community housing development,” Sewell said. “People who want council-provided or state-provided homes often face terrible stigma if they have mental health histories or addiction histories, and they find it very difficult to find secure tenancies.

“So what we are planning to do – and this is our first go – is in an area of Auckland called Pukekohe, we're building 14 two and one bedroom units. With a remit that people who come, they must be on the local State Housing Register but they must be users of mental health services – not ours necessarily, any services.

“So we can provide a secure tenancy for those individuals. We're hoping that our first lot will be done by early next year and then we'll start to move on. We're hoping to have six or seven sites across Auckland and the Waikato around Hamilton in the next five to 10 years.”

Advice for HR teams

For those wishing to be successful in the HR industry, Sewell emphasised the idea of being yourself.

“Just be you,” she said. “For a long time in my career I was very much an outlier in terms of my contribution to senior HR, leadership teams and so on.

“I'd be the one in the corner going ‘the people’ and everyone else would be going, ‘the vision, the structure’. So I think I could have easily decided to focus on the process. But actually standing up for what I thought was the right thing has helped me in really good stead. So whether or not you think you're quirky or a bit different and don't fit the mould, be you.”

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