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Humankind | 28 February 2022

How great leadership translates to great employee experiences

15 Minutes with Brigs Baker

For part four of our series on the case for EX, we’re joined by our Director of People and Culture Brigs Baker to talk about how great leadership translates to great employee experiences.

Tell us a bit about yourself, and your role at Humankind

I’ve recently joined Humankind from a public sector role, but have spent most of my career in the consulting space. My expertise lies in leadership development, plus I also have a passion for helping organisations to build safe and open feedback cultures. I don’t think I’ve met a leader yet who doesn’t feel at least a little challenged by facing tough conversations! My role at Humankind is a nice blend of leading a team of highly capable P&C professionals, alongside delivering great work direct to our clients.

Joining Humankind late in 2021, what did you know about EX? Has your view changed on EX in your time here?

I'm not sure if I had specifically come across the term EX before, but I've always had a strong customer-centric approach. Particularly coming from a consulting background, I’ve spent much of my career focused on the client experience, and I see employee experience as having a similar philosophy.

For me it boils down to placing people at the heart of everything we do. I’ve seen a huge transition over the years from business leaders putting profit and shareholder return before everything else, to a far stronger focus on the needs and wellbeing of the employee. This includes building cultures that create a strong sense of belonging, and growing leaders that can focus on the diverse needs of their teams. Leadership has certainly become a lot more complex! It may sound clichéd, but I fundamentally believe that if you look after your people through great employee experiences, the organisation and the bottom line flourishes. Researchers like Adam Grant and Brené Brown are also now producing great data that shows this to be true.

Why do you think a leader should focus on EX in their organisation?

Our world and our organisational landscapes are becoming more and more complicated. What we now recognise is that people (not machines, systems, or products) are truly our greatest asset. Without them, and without the ability to retain great people, we can’t innovate or create amazing services and products, nor can we generate financial returns. I think EX or people centred cultures are concepts many leaders have paid lip service to in the past, but didn’t really know how to create or embed.

Most organisational design has only recently started to cotton on to something that Humankind has been advocating for and innovating around for a while now. What I love about EX design is the constant reinforcement to keep pace with the changing expectations of the end user – the employee. EX design challenges us as leaders to keep stepping into the shoes of our employees - including designing ‘with’ rather than ‘for’ them. Gone are the days of a group of leaders sitting around a boardroom table creating top-down mission statements!

We know your sweet spot is leadership, what do you think the link between employee experience and leadership looks like?

To me it's embodied by the concept of servant leadership. We as leaders are here to serve our people and equip them to serve the needs of our customers and communities. I believe that if you're constantly engaging with them, asking questions, and being curious about their experience, your leadership will be driven by what's most important. If you invest in your people, play to their strengths, support them in both work and life, plus encourage their growth - they will naturally look after your business. Everyone wins when you create that sort of environment as a leader.

Have you seen a shift in the industry recently around leadership? How do you think this will affect employee experience?

I think there are organisations out there that have been doing what I would call ‘modern leadership’ well for a while now, but they are rare. Many of our organisational cultures in New Zealand have been slow to move from a fairly autocratic top-down leadership style to something that is more employee-centered. That’s why I love our purpose at Humankind - bringing humanity to work – it feels incredibly timely and relevant give the current context.

The fact that we can now peer into each other's living rooms in this brave new world of remote working, that we are dealing with a growing mental health crisis that doesn’t recognise boundaries between home and office life, and that many of the people entering our workforce for the first time are more concerned about the climate than they are about climbing the corporate ladder – all of this plays into the need for leaders to have high emotional intelligence, and a willingness to allow their people to bring their ‘whole selves’ to work.

You recently hosted an interactive roundtable at the Women in Leadership Summit in Wellington, could you tell us a bit more about that?

That was a lot of fun actually. Our CEO and I were privileged to be part of that event, and it was wonderful to be in a physical rather than a virtual space with a group of amazing people passionate about raising the bar around leadership in Aotearoa. I loved getting out the old whiteboard, doing some brainstorming around the challenges of modern leadership, and discussing openly the ways we can meet what was described by one presenter as the ‘looming crisis in leadership'.

What has created this crisis in leadership, and how do you think the ‘traditional’ style of leading affects employee experience?

We’re still not investing in our leaders through the life cycle of their leadership experience. They might get some training or mentoring as emerging leaders and further investment when they start stepping into very senior roles, but the support and professional development needs to be ongoing.

Without a regular refresh, leaders are not learning the skills to adapt to our changing times. The good ones are getting burnt out, and the ‘older style’ leaders often fail to meet the challenges of the modern workplace. This includes creating and maintaining psychological safety for individuals and teams, managing conflict and relationship breakdowns, addressing poor behaviour, creating a sense of purpose, and navigating uncertainty. What I am noticing is that many of today’s leaders are simply not well equipped to meet the needs of their employees.

Wrapping up, what do you think a great leader looks like? How do they treat and interact with their employees?

I personally believe a great leader needs to be real. That means they are willing to drop the armour and show up fully as themselves. That's not about oversharing - it's got to be genuine – and there is always a fine line to walk between being honest, open, upfront, and compassionate with your people, while still providing a sense of stability, reassurance, and inspiration.

How do you achieve this? Understand yourself, do the deep work to gain insight into your history, motivations, triggers, strengths, and weaknesses. Then, trust your people and delegate responsibility for the areas where you know you’re not strong so that they can learn and grow. In my experience, self-awareness and the ability to self-regulate are critical to successfully leading others.

I try not to give a lot of advice anymore - I used to earlier on in my leadership career - and had a strong need to be the expert. It’s still very easy to fall back into that habit! But most of us have learned that the best results and solutions come from our people. I also believe that it’s important to embrace mistakes or missteps as learning opportunities. There is risk with this approach of course – it has the potential to negatively impact our customers, our reputation, and the financial return for our organisations. For most of us it also goes against our cultural conditioning. But if you can train and mentor your people well using coaching methodologies, make it safe to test and iterate, create mechanisms for debriefing and digging into the learnings, I think there are incredible opportunities for growth.

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