Profile: A change for the better

by Iain Hopkins21 Jan 2009

In between roles at Goldman Sachs JBWere and PKF Australia, Paula Ward took several months out of the office environment to travel throughout South America. It was not just an excuse for her to indulge in her love of discovering new cultures but also an opportunity to work in a volunteer capacity for a group called Global Vision International. Ward undertook scientific field research on a near-endangered species called the Andean condor and ended up trekking, kayaking and ice climbing in remote Patagonia. "It was brilliant," Ward enthuses. "It was physically really tough but it was exciting to be involved. I was actually the only volunteer from a corporate desk-job background but I didn't see that as being different or unusual. I did it because of my personal interest in travel but also because I've started to look for more meaningful ways to give back as well."

Ward knows all about giving back. Prior to her current role as HR director at accountancy and business advisory firm PKF Australia, she worked at Goldman Sachs Australia (prior to it becoming Goldman Sachs JWere) for eight years as director of sustainability and change. Ward's role placed her at the heart of the firm's Environment, Social and Governance portfolio. She managed the firm's environmental activities, concentrating on its carbon audit, its emissions reduction efforts, and building the carbon offset portfolio to become carbon neutral and receive greenhouse friendly accreditation through the Federal Government's Department of Climate Change.

"It was very much an evolving field at that point in time," says Ward. "The answers weren't known yet, but it was really exciting to get involved on the research side and learn more about it. I found I really engaged with it and made changes in my own life to sustain those values as well. It's tough - you've got to learn about it, then educate others, and then sell it. There wasn't a huge buy-in to it initially and that was something we really had to work on."

Although the process duly tested Ward's negotiation and influencing skills, she believes the HR and CSR/sustainability cross-over is critical because the focus is on the reputation of an organisation, and that has direct correlation to the employee proposition. "Yes, you're being green but there are also other benefits and that's what helps to get it across the line for a lot of organisations. From a sustainability point of view your CSR or HR initiatives are as much about process efficiency as the green side of it. Sustainability is critical to our future - in a pragmatic lifestyle sense and a commercial sense. The two should not be viewed as distinct," she says.

Finding a passion
Ward is clearly passionate about the environment and creating a sustainable future, but her initial passion lay in a far-removed area: forensic psychology. She had aspirations to join the legal arena and during her post-grad studies, she focused her thesis on forensic psychology and law. At the same time, she undertook two work placements with the Victoria Police and the Victorian Department of Justice. This work experience helped Ward come to the realisation that the forensic work she was particularly interested in was not in high demand in Australia and was unlikely to sustain a full-time career. She re-directed her career from that point on.

"I secured a two-year internship/trainee role with a consulting firm specialising in the provision of psychological services, outplacement and recruitment. The majority of the firm's clients were in the petrochemical industry, but there were also a handful of financial services institutions," she explains.

Although Ward enjoyed consulting, she found herself motivated to move to an in-house role to really see how the ideas were implemented within an organisation. This led to her first HR role with Pricewaterhouse (prior to it becoming PricewaterhouseCoopers). "The people focus and ability to make a bottom line impact has sustained my interest in HR," she says.

Life at PKF
Her interest in the environment continues, and Ward notes that a lot is riding on the Federal Government's Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme and the financial impact that will have on each industry. Regardless of the outcome, Ward will keep a close eye on sustainability issues - despite the fact that this does not come under her mandate at PKF. The newly created role of HR director has one primary objective it must achieve before looking towards other challenges: unifying the HR function nationally rather than having it dispersed regionally.

PKF Australia has 14 offices spread across Australia in capital cities and major regional centres, and is also part of PKF International Accounting Association, which consists of 400 independent legal entities across 119 countries. In Australia the firm employs 1,000 people and the HR team is geographically dispersed and now report to Ward.

"This is the first time we've thought about the HR function nationally rather than regionally. It's an important step in terms of the firm working towards and building upon their national entity. My primary focus at the moment is aligning people practices and policies across the country so we can build our credentials as an employer of choice and really have a seamless service to the business rather than just the regional focus we've had in the past," she says.

This national focus has meant Ward has had to step into a new organisation and learn about the ins and outs of its operations within a short period of time. She believes that knowledge has provided clues as to what sets PKF apart as an employer. "I think it's challenging any time you join a new organisation and need to learn a new structure. One of the unique things about PKF that I've found is that we're separate business entities and it's not the same as being a national role in a firm where everyone automatically has that consistency and alignment. I'm dealing with separate partnerships, separate entities, and yet still aiming to get consistency. The Board has been very supportive of it - otherwise this role obviously wouldn't exist," she explains.

"We're not one of the Big Four [accounting firms]. We're not trying to compete with them - we have a different offering. There's seamless service because we're spread across the country and operating in regional locations as well as capital cities so the opportunity that gives to clients and staff is quite unique. And we're fundamentally different; the culture is different. Highlighting the benefits of the culture will impact on our ability to secure high calibre professionals. Building our brand is a key facet of our people strategy. It's just being able to articulate what those differences are into an employee value proposition rather than trying to be all things to all people," Ward adds.

Strategy and technology
PKF is also investing in technology to bolster its L&D offerings. Accountants need to keep their skills and accreditation up to date, and Ward says the ongoing focus for the firm will be on offering a wider range of online courses for employees. In the past 12 months the firm has developed its Knowledge Learning and Development team independent of the HR team (but still reporting to Ward). "There's a constant need to innovate and think about delivering training in a different way - not only for technical training but soft skills as well," she says.

"We've got a good opportunity to embrace technology in an enhanced way here. HR collaboration with the business has been quite operationally and transactionally focused in the past so the ability to be involved with the strategy is going to be fundamental to our success as a team. The two priorities for the future are strategy and embracing technology."

Challenging times
Ward is only too aware of the volatile economic climate and realises there will be a flow on effect to most HR departments, particularly as they come under closer scrutiny to justify spend. "I think the obvious impact will be cost. We'll find our budgets are probably more restrictive than they've been in past years across the whole industry. Your usual processes of being able to show the value of what you offer and why money should continue to be spent on development is going to come into sharper focus. I don't think it makes you do anything differently, but you will need to articulate it more clearly so value can be seen."

Ward will continue working towards identifying PKF's essential differences - its unique selling points - and ensuring these are translated into the employer brand. She does see some respite from the talent shortage, however. "The market is changing; it's been quite an employee-centric market over the last couple of years and we may start to see the dynamics of that shift as unemployment rises. If you get your employee proposition right you can really leverage your firm for whatever the job market cycle throws at us in the next one to two years," she says.

In her own words...
What has been the biggest challenge you've faced in your career?
The sustainability portfolio and building that to engender executive buy in was certainly a challenge. At that time Australia in general was just starting to accept the science behind climate change as valid. However, that doesn't in turn mean that everyone accepts the proposition. That really came down to educating myself so that I could in turn educate others and then it was about identifying opportunities that were operationally efficient and had cost-effective savings - all of which could eventually be profitable. That green message alone isn't going to convince everyone.

What would you consider to be the greatest career achievement you have made?
There are a number of initiatives around diversity and talent management that I've done where I've gone from inception through to completion and I've been proud of those. If I had to point to a single achievement I'd say overall it's the career and career path I've taken and the contributions I've made along the way - and it's still a work in progress. There is so much more to be done.

Where do you see the future of HR heading?
The fork in the road continues to exist - do you want your HR function to be transactionally focused or do you want to integrate into the strategic delivery plan for overall business performance? Organisations always say people are the most important facet of business - it's a cliché but it's true. I think you need to have the right people in the right place at the right time, executing with impact so you can deliver to shareholders, clients and the community as a whole.

Essentially I think HR is about people development. That to me necessitates our involvement at the exec level. The challenge for each HR team is to be commercially astute and demonstrate they can make a valuable difference - to have CEOs and Boards looking for HR to be at the table rather than HR endeavouring to justify a seat. The future for HR is becoming increasingly tangible and that's exciting.