How to change the world with HR: tips on taking people management to the next level from the new APS head of profession and her corporate-affairs counterparts

By Stephen Easton

Wednesday October 30, 2019

L-R: Katherine Jones, Justine Greig, Neal Mason, Jacqui Curtis, Peter Woolcott, Jill Charker, Mary Wiley-Smith. Image: Stephen Easton.

Jacqui Curtis hit the ground running on her first day as inaugural head of the human resources profession within the Australian Public Service, offering the benefit of her experience in people management at the strategic level in a speech to about 1100 public servants. The head of corporate affairs at the Australian Taxation Office was followed by her counterparts with similar roles in other agencies, all of whom have been working with the Secretaries Board and the Australian Public Service Commission to develop Canberra’s first formal public service profession.

“It’s you who ultimately have the most skin in the game here, and it’s you that will bring us together as one profession,” Curtis told the HR officers who turned up and tuned in to find out who would be their new role model and representative.

She told them they were part of “one of the most important change initiatives in the APS today” soon after her unveiling as their professional leader by APS commissioner Peter Woolcott at a launch event in Canberra that was live-streamed to 19 other sites on Monday afternoon.

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“The change we want to create in HR across the APS starts with each of us, and in understanding what that change will ask of each of us,” said Curtis, who was formerly head of HR at the ATO before a promotion to chief operating officer in 2016.

She left them with some practical advice on what “strategic HR” can do, assuming the more mundane tasks are all done well first. Curtis said leaders in the field could earn a “seat at the table” and maximise their influence at the highest level by providing strong, evidence-based advice.

Like any executive giving specialist strategic advice, the HR chief needs understand the overall needs and goals of the business. “I don’t mean that you need to be able to run the business or become an operative, although a stint in the business never hurts,” said Curtis.

“At the heart of this, this means you need to know how your strategies and policies will impact on the ground, because if you don’t understand the operating environment of the people on which your policies will impact, even the best HR policies and theories will remain just that — strategies and policies on a page.”

“You also really understand your organisation. You need to understand its culture, what makes its people tick, its priorities and its operating context, including the political context. Everything you do should align with and take this into account.

“Having that deeper understanding of your staff and your business will enable you to be strategic. Think about your HR function from end to end, always keeping your end goals front-of-mind and taking an evidence-based approach to getting where you need to be.”

To be influential with large groups of staff or senior leaders, do your research and have the “hard facts” to back up what you are saying, she advised.

“If you can link back to the priorities of each business area and demonstrate with insightful analysis why your approach works, you will be convincing.

“And here’s one of my favourites: try to tell your story in different ways to different audiences, and avoid the HR jargon.”

Curtis says the jargon is fine for senior executives pitching ideas to their superiors but “the people on the ground” prefer plain English.

She ended her opening address to the HR professionals of the APS with an exhortation to be “bold and confident” in their advice, after a reminder that we have to walk before we run.

“Get the fundamentals of HR right. No one will listen to us and our strategic ideas if we don’t get the basics right. Imagine trying to get someone on board with your strategy if you haven’t been able to pay them accurately.

“So do the basics brilliantly, and be sure you are doing what you ask of others in your own back yard.”

The decision to begin the shift towards public service professions with HR was a mark of the field’s growing importance at the highest levels of management, Curtis said.

“I think that just goes to show the shift in thinking that has occurred about the importance of HR to the success of organisations, and the recognition we as a profession are getting when we are able to demonstrate and measure the effects of strategic HR. So today, I would say that we are launching not so much an exciting new initiative, but perhaps more accurately an opportunity — an opportunity which in my highest hopes will transform our profession in the following three ways.

“First, it will see us working together across our agencies and our silos, to collectively achieve what one person or team could not do alone.

“Second, it will deliver expanded opportunities, to develop and advance in a profession recognised for its expertise and strategic advice rather than, and I am saddened to say this but we are still seen at times as helpful ladies in the back office.

“And third, and perhaps most importantly, the HR workforce will become a profession known for its ability to develop, win support for, and implement people strategies that help the APS jump the curve, and enable the APS to better serve the Australian people.”

Exemplary results, if she does say so herself

For examples of what successful strategic HR leadership looks like, Curtis turned to her own time as head of ATO People before her promotion to COO. Curtis got the job in 2013, having been convinced that tax commissioner Chris Jordan was committed to a “people-led” transformation, and said the HR team soon developed comprehensive strategies that made a big difference to the organisation when implemented.

These results included a reduction in unplanned leave from 16.5 days a year to 13.3 days on average. According to Curtis, this extra time in the office is worth $20m because it equals 48,400 extra days of work over the year or, to put it another way, it’s like the ATO having an extra 210 full-time staff members.

She said employee-engagement scores were now higher than ever and pointed to a cut in the ATO’s annual workers’ compensation premium from $50 million to under $3m.

This last result is part of a trend across the federal public sector and also due in part to the concerted efforts of the insurer, Comcare, to drive down the cost of claims for workplace injuries through a range of means after the government got fed up with the unusually high costs of the scheme.

“Needless to say, this change has been a success, and while there’s still a way to go, when I look back on where we started, I think it’s a testament to what dedicated and professional HR people can do when they have the expertise and the experience,” Curtis said.

“This could not have been possible or have been achieved without the right top-level support, strategic direction and skilled people with the right credentials in the right roles. And here’s the thing: there are stories like this all across the APS, stories about HR delivering great results and driving better outcomes.

“So there’s no reason we can’t all have this same kind of impact across our agencies, especially now with the support for the professional stream program, and the sponsorship of secretaries and agency heads.”

Other APS corporate affairs heads weigh in

After Curtis spoke, HR professionals threw questions at a panel of deputy secretaries who lead corporate affairs in other agencies and sit with the head of profession on a reference group that guided development of the new HR Professional Stream Strategy.

Justine Greig from the Department of Defence says people who aspire to be top HR strategists should think about what they need to be, know, and do.

They must be agile and adaptable so they can work with all the different teams on a wide range of HR-related issues, she said, and they must know a lot about the organisation. “Do” refers to understanding how internal policies can be implemented, and evaluating them during and after roll-out.

“Also, within that, I think, knowing how media and social media communication has changed what we do [is important]; in HR you’ve really got to be a centrepiece in that communication,” Greig added.

Jill Charker from the Department of Jobs and Small Business added problem-solving to the list, because HR is often called on to find and treat the cause when symptoms of workforce malaise appear.

Agency heads also need HR leaders “calling things as they see them” in the view of Neal Mason from the Department of Agriculture; they need to proactively investigate things that seem to be going awry.

Mason acknowledged that specialists can come into executive roles without knowing the organisation inside-out but said the key was not to jump into things instantly. Instead, it would make more sense to spend some time learning and working with the leadership team to work out how best to apply their specialist skills in HR to support the needs and goals of that particular organisation.

Katherine Jones from the Department of Finance pointed out that a lot of government departments and agencies are actually in more than one line of work, and they often have a massive array of groups within groups working in different ways towards a diverse range of goals.

“It’s about being able to acquire an understanding of the department, or the organisation, and all its different responsibilities and deliver for it, as opposed to having a very intricate understanding of particular lines of business in an organisation,” she said.

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