HR Down Under

Name: Joe Horacek
Job title: Director, people and culture
Company: Sydney Opera House
Employees: 720, including 11 in HR

If you think of Sydney, you can’t help but conjure up an image of the Sydney Opera House – an iconic, sail-shaped building on Sydney Harbour that is both a performing arts venue to 1.5 million patrons each year and a tourism and visitor destination for another four million people. It has an annual staff turnover rate of between 10% and 12%.

Joe Horacek has worked at Sydney Opera House for more than 14 years. After completing an honours degree in English and European history, he started his working life as an organisational development consultant for telecoms company OTC, which ran the country’s overseas networks.

His next employer was the Sydney Opera House. After two years in organisational development, he spent the next eight in HR, first as executive officer to the chief executive then as manager corporate strategy a few short management stints in tourism and marketing as they were undergoing change a year as director of customer service and then four years in his current role, as director of people and culture.

“I know this business because I have had both line management and strategic roles, and also sat in board meetings as company secretary,” he says.

“I tell any HR professional that if they have a chance to take a line role, they should snap it up. You understand the pressures managers face when HR, IT and finance are pulling in all directions.”

Getting to see shows is one of the perks of the job at the Sydney Opera House. Horacek has enjoyed being a part of major national and international events, such as the 2000 Olympics (as a performance, hosting and triathlon venue) and New Year’s Eve 1999, where everyone in the organisation pitched in, no matter what their level.

In a typical week, Horacek spends 30% of his time working on broader corporate management issues, including a major renewal of the building, a new tourism strategy, and a brand strategy. His 11-hour day starts in his office reviewing paperwork. He allocates time each day to spend with his staff discussing projects they are working on, talking to his peers and the chief executive, as well as other employees.

“It’s easy to sit in an office and talk to no-one,” he says. “But you don’t find out what is really going on if you do that.”

Horacek reports to the chief executive and is part of the executive team that runs the organisation. He believes that HR people can get unnecessarily paranoid about whether or not they are on the board.

“What you deliver operationally and contribute from a management point of view earns HR credibility,” he explains.

“Having a seat on the board does not. You can’t leap from operational incompetence to strategic value-add. You have to get the basics right first.”

Name: Jill Johnston
Job title: Head of HR
Company: Austereo – Australia’s largest commercial radio network
Employees: 650, including five in HR

If you have ever travelled to Australia, you will probably have listened to 2DAY-FM or TripleM in one of the state capital cities. Jill Johnston, a former HR partner at the BBC in London, emigrated to Australia in 2003 and joined Austereo as HR manager, and now enjoys views of both Sydney harbour and the Pacific ocean from her office. She was promoted to head of HR in 2006.

“I asked myself one cold day, when I was cramming myself onto the Tube, whether I wanted to be doing this for the rest of my working life,” she says. “I love the sun, the ocean and the Australian climate and people. My sister lived in Australia and I had already been there for two working holidays.”

Johnston made the move with her family and took two months to land a senior HR role in the media. She has worked in HR since leaving school, moving into the media sector with a satellite TV company in her second job. Johnston completed a part-time HR degree at the University of Westminster, and then landed a role as HR manager at LWT (now ITV).

From there, she started a long association with the BBC, rising to HR partner at the BBC World Service. In this role, she dealt with 42 different cultures and travelled widely, including Thailand, Indonesia, and India. “It taught me amazing negotiation skills through my dealings with the unions. If you behaved like you were the enemy, they locked horns and you got nothing done,” she says.

In her current role, she loves finding business solutions that work for both management and staff.

“Commercial radio here is fiercely competitive, fast-moving and very reactive,” she enthuses. “Managers want to make changes quickly and don’t want to be held up by HR. I never say ‘you can’t do that’. I suggest options that would have less impact on staff and a better outcome.”

The HR issues in the media sector in Australia include skill shortages, staff retention (Generation Y – those born after 1980 – is a major talking point), and trying to do everything more efficiently while keeping an eye on costs. Austereo is an employer of choice for this age group, so its 33% annual turnover rate means that replacing staff is not difficult, just costly. Staff engagement strategies are being developed across the industry to address turnover rates.

A typical day for Johnston is varied. “While you try to work on strategic issues, day-to-day operational issues can bog you down,” she says.

Strategic HR issues at Austereo include restructuring, policy development and implementation, personal development plans for the senior management team, coaching middle and senior managers, and designing a pay and reward framework.

Johnston says that HR is not as well entrenched in the business in Australia as it is in the UK, with small HR teams, especially in the media. “We don’t have maternity pay, although a lot of companies offer some. Employment legislation – such as bullying and unfair dismissal laws – is not as tight.” But she sees HR becoming more of a priority in Australia, driven in part by international competition for skills.

Name: Jason Smith
Job title: HR manager, Australia
Company: Billabong
Employees: 600, including three in HR

Jason Smith grew up surfing and then followed a career path into business. Graduating with a commerce degree from Australia’s Newcastle University, Smith moved to Sydney and worked for a recruitment company that specialised in accountancy staff.

Because of his study, as well as years of working at McDonald’s as a student, he decided to become an HR generalist.

“As a manager at McDonald’s, I saw what business outcomes could be achieved if you maximised people’s potential,” he says.

With recruitment experience under his belt, he gained further skills in payroll at Westpac, one of Australia’s major banks, eventually moving into HR in its global transactional services area. He then spent four years at global market information company AC Neilsen – first as HR consultant, then as HR manager for Australia.

Eighteen months ago, he decided to make a lifestyle change with his wife and young child, and move near a beach where they could afford to buy a home.

Today, as HR manager at Billabong, a surf­wear and technical board sport company, he lives on Queensland’s Gold Coast, surfs before work, has a short bike ride as his commute and wears the company’s surf­wear every day.

“Billabong is an aspirational company,” he says. “You feel good working here – not just because of the image, but also because of the genuine quality of the people.”

Billabong’s workforce has increased 50% over the past two years, but Smith says that expanding companies in the surf arena run a lean HR model.

“There’s not a lot of wasted resource,” he adds. “Outcomes have to be tangible to the individual and the business. It is a straightforward and fairly accountable culture.”

Smith loves his job and tries to juggle medium- to long-term projects with short-term issues that arise with no warning. “When you are working to finish a long-term piece of work, it is sometimes difficult to manage daily distractions without giving people the impression that you don’t want to talk to them,” he says.

Current strategic issues include building training and performance management frameworks that support both individuals and the business recruiting the right mix of culture and business skills reviewing tax legislation changes and implementing time and attendance systems. Billabong manages its own payroll and recruitment internally, but outsources most of its training.

Smith reports to the business services manager, who in turn reports to the general manager for Australasia. Because of recent growth, he says the profile of people management at Billabong is fairly high.

Smith enjoys the benefits of working for such a lifestyle-orientated company, including participating in the company’s annual surfing competition on the Gold Coast. However, with lots of ex-pro surfers working for Billabong, he does not hold out much hope of ever winning the event.

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