Human Resource Management is commonly viewed in simplified terms, people outside the industry often do not truly understand the complex details and career prospects. With the current rapidly changing work environment, this area of expertise is more important than ever.
Melanie is currently a Non-Executive Director and Executive Coach, having spent the majority of her career in senior HR roles across multiple industries including Mining, Media, Manufacturing, Retail and FMCG. She was a Telstra Business Woman of the Year finalist and is an active member of Chief Executive Women and International Women’s Forum.
Most students when you talk to them about HR perceive the field to be solely about fixing internal conflict within an organisation and planning recruitment processes. Would you care to break some of these preconceptions some of us may have about the function, and also share the more technical sides that the HR department may have to deal with?
In broad terms HR is about having the right people in the right roles at the right time, but this is really simplifying the complexity of the function that is responsible for people in the organisation. This means being responsible for their wellbeing, the culture they work within, their training and leadership development, their remuneration, their legal rights, their work environment.
It is also a major responsibility to ensure that the organisation is right sized for the complexity and scale of the organisation and that communication methods are employed to ensure staff are engaged, consulted with and have a voice. The HR function is tasked with ensuring policies are in place and adhered to, and for ensuring robust dispute resolution practices for the occasions when they aren’t.
When I commenced my career HR was known as Personnel, then it became HR, today it is more commonly referred to as People and Culture.
I would suggest thinking of the P&C function in large buckets:
Learning and Development
Policy and Procedures
Each of these are specialisations, with clear experts. Those in the more senior roles have probably worked in most of the sub-sections at some stage of their career, before becoming generalists.
Through your experience in the multiple industries that you have worked with, was this the path you were working towards? If not, how did you end up with your current experience portfolio?
I was incredibly lucky to join BHP straight out of university as the development that they gave their graduates was first class. It was instilled in me very early that with the right attitude, hard work and inquisitive nature I could work anywhere, across any sector, any industry and in any location. As I grew in my career I realised that people and their needs are very similar across any industry and thus it is a function that lends itself to industry hop, thus every time I changed companies I also changed industry.
I was probably in my early thirties when I started to think about sitting on boards, and the skills and experiences that would be required to do that. It was at this stage that I became more strategic in both the roles and the organisations that I took on.
The most valuable role, in terms of a board career, was with Seven Group, where I was fortunate to gain experience on internal company boards crossing mining and construction equipment, oil and gas.
As a function People and Culture executives are still under proportioned on boards, however this is changing as boards realise the importance of having deep remuneration, culture and leadership capabilities at the board level.
For anyone who aspires to be a non-executive director there are also many opportunities internally to gain board experience, such as sitting on superannuation boards as the employer representative, or gaining not for profit board experience with organisations linked to your company.
From your personal experience, what would you say would be the benefits and of course, the challenges of working across multiple industries, especially with most of them being male dominated?
The benefits, at this stage of my career, are of course that I can sit on multiple boards across organisations in different industries. Those who have worked in one industry are less able to do this due to the competitive nature and the information that directors are privy to.
I am someone who is innately curious, so have found working in diverse industries, and cultures has helped me continue to grow. I think working in different cultures has probably been a bigger challenge than the industry sector, as ultimately people in all sectors have the same basic HR requirements, whereas different cultures have different ways of working.
When working in male dominated environments, I have found the best course of action is to be authentic, understand what your values are, and what contribution you can make. As a minority you stand out, for the good and the bad, and so if delivering senior management will notice you, thus by doing a good job opportunities presented themselves, possibly more quickly than they would for others.
The challenges for me have been mainly travel related, as the industries I have worked in are geographically dispersed which has meant considerable time away from home, and juggling both career and personal life.
Are there any female role models that have inspired you throughout your career?
Early in my career there weren’t many senior women in the companies that I worked to look up to, and thus I looked at women in politics, Margaret Thatcher was probably my biggest inspiration, and more recently I have been inspired by Jacinda Ardern and Julie Bishop.
As my career evolved I have been blessed to work with some amazing women, and have found that inspiration can come from those who work for you, just as much as it can from more senior leaders.
Through networking, and specifically Chief Executive Women and International Women’s Forum I am surrounded by the best women in Australian business, academia, medicine, the arts and politics. These women challenge my thinking whilst simultaneously offering counsel, friendship and support. These organisations are focused on women helping to develop and grow other women, and that, to me is very inspiring.
Through CEW I have just participated on an interview panel offering scholarships to women early in their careers to go to Stanford, Harvard and INSEAD. I would have loved opportunities like that!
What would be your one piece of advice for the young women out there wanting to reach where you are today in the business community?
Gosh, only one...that is impossible.
Work hard, be resilient, learn to deal with ambiguity and trust your values.
Take opportunities when they present themselves, even if you’re not quite ready, as you can learn and grow when you need to. Back yourself!
We all have times of self-doubt, and it is critical to have people around you who truly believe in you, who will push you, encourage you and support you.
I will leave you with a quote, from Zig Zigler, which resonates well for me: “a lot of people have gone further than they thought they could, because someone else thought they could.”
If you have any questions for Melanie, please:
1. Leave a comment under our Woman of the Week FB post, or
2. Email us at exec@WCPunimelb.com