Strivin & Thrivin E21. Quila Cervelli

Strivin & Thrivin – Ep.21 – Quila Cervelli

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Today Laura Johnson and co-host, Tim Griffiths, are joined by Quila, Employer Branding Leader at RMIT University. 

Quila is passionate about her career and loves to tell the story of her journey to date. In her own words, that journey  can be summarised by three core principles, asking questions, taking opportunities and saying yes. That, and a true understanding of people. 

“I’m really grateful that I said yes to every opportunity that I’ve been tapped on the shoulder for.”

Quila stepped out of University, straight into a full-time sales job at Xerox. Describing the environment as a “cutthroat boys’ club”, she says she loved it and hesitated to move on from a company influenced by family tradition. 

However, deciding to take life by the horns, Quila transitioned into a sales job at a tech company and, after spotting a blue-haired, converse-wearing guy on her first interview, her idea of the working world was flipped on its head. She realised,  “Oh my God, people can be themselves at work?” Here, she threw herself into different opportunities, discovering a knack for digital marketing and community management. 

Quila’s next step was moving to Australia with her husband and she admits the struggle of the job hunt in a new place wasn’t easy. However, after 26 applications she bagged a job at the Australian Post which proved to be one of her greatest adventures yet. 

Learning on the job, she started out in social media and then transitioned into the group that pulled together the Employee Value Proposition (EVP). This was the start of her journey in Employer Branding. 

Fast forward to today and she has now been with RMIT for two years where she is Employer Branding Leader.

When asked about her key learnings, Quila says you cannot underestimate the importance of treating each person differently and asking the right questions. 

“You end up attracting people for the right reasons instead of it just being for a position description, or key selection criteria.”

And she’s passionate about the importance of authenticity in the way a brand presents itself to candidates online, calling out the “yucky” side of career sites that just include a rainbow of human beings in their header image to show they’re ticking boxes. 

To hear more from Quila, including her admiration for Strivin’ podcast guest, Andrea Kirkby, her mentorships and her past misconception of HR, listen to the latest episode of Strivin and Thrivin now! 

FULL TRANSCRIPT –

Laura: I’m your host, Laura Johnson. Today, I’m lucky enough to have Tim Griffiths as my wonderful co-host. Today, we’re thrilled to be joined by Quila, Employer Branding Leader. 

To get us started, can you tell us a little bit about your career background and your current role?

Quila: Yeah, sure. As you can hear from my accent, I’m from New York City. I graduated college, or Uni as you call it here, in 2010. I was selected to be part of the… I guess what you’d call it now is a grad program at Xerox. It wasn’t really called that then. I had full-time employment right out of college, which was really rare for my friends. I went into sales environment, loved it, felt super cutthroat, a bit of a boys’ club, but I loved work. I think maybe two years into working there, one of my friends was a recruiter at a tech company, and she said, “We’re looking for more salespeople. Would you want to apply?” I thought, “No.” I love Xerox. I worked here every summer in college. I thought that people stayed at the same company forever, because that’s what my mum did.

I just had no idea, but I applied, went for the interview, and at the first interview, this guy came to the water cooler with blue hair, tattoos, wearing jeans, and a t-shirt, converse sneakers, and I thought, “Oh my God, people can be themselves at work? This is crazy. This is insane to me”. Needless to say, I took the job, and actually grew at that company. Raised my hand to take on a few other opportunities there, which turned into Digital Marketing, Community Management. I actually met my husband there when they acquired an Australian company. I met him on his first day, married him, and we came to Australia about seven years ago. I found it really hard to get work. I’m actually really vocal about this. My first year, applied for like 26 jobs. Only was able to interview at two, one of which was Australia Post.

I started on their Social Media team, grew the Consumer Brand Social Media Leadership team, and this woman by the name of Rebecca Houghton, tapped me on the shoulder on my second day and said, “We need to do an audit of our career assets, our career website, our social media. Can you help me do it?” I did this little neat package for them, presented it, and then didn’t hear back for a few months. Then, I got tapped on the shoulder by this lady Rebecca Houghton again, six months in, and she said, “We’re doing this thing called EVP. Would you want to be part of this working group?” I had no idea what any of this was. Still thought she was this crazy HR lady that kept asking me to come to meetings. I’m so happy I said yes, because I was part of the research for the EVP. Six months down the line, she tapped me on the shoulder and says, “Great, we’ve got all this research. We need somebody that knows what to do with it, and how do we put it out into market? Do you know anyone?”

What she was really asking was, “Do you want this role?”. I was really naive, and just had no idea. I said, “Yes”. It turned into a secondment that quickly turned into a full-time role, which quickly turned into growing the team to five. After my first maternity leave, went to RMIT to do the same thing there, build the team. Two years later, I’m still there growing employer brand for RMIT University. That’s 11 years in a few minutes.

Tim: Wow, that’s a whirlwind.

Quila: Yeah.

Laura: I love the employer branding side particularly, because I think it’s such a hot topic right now. It’s something that people are really paying attention to. I think, especially over the last few years with everything that’s happened, before COVID, it was like, “How do we get the right skills?”. Now, it’s like, well, we can’t ship in skills, so what do we do about it?. People are really paying attention to what they’re saying about companies and who they are, and how that comes through. I guess, being so early on at Australia Post, is there any key learnings there that you can share with everybody around it?

Quila: Yeah. I think what we learned at Australia Post was, what a truck driver wants out of work is very different than top digital talent, and you need to treat people in a very segmented and personalised way, just like you would with any type of marketing. I come from consumer world, where you treat everyone very differently. I think what I’ve learned at RMIT is to not just treat people by their job family or their chosen profession, because as we know, that’s changed so much just in the last 14, 15 months. People are just skipping and hopping into different career moves. You need to treat them based on who they are, whether that’s their demographic, which communities they belong to, and really speak to their personal motivations, not just about what gets them out of bed to go to work every day.

Laura: On that, for a company that’s just looking at employee branding and hearing that, and being like, “Where do you even start? That’s so much”. Where would you start? What would you say to that?

Quila: The way that I train the talent team is to just ask better questions in the Hiring Manager brief. What I’m loving is that in the last four months, there’s been so many employer branding roles out in market, whether it’s at the specialist level or manager level, and you end up saving a ton of money having somebody in-house managing it. For businesses that can’t do that right now, just getting your recruiters to ask the hiring manager, “Why do you choose to work here every day? If you thought about leaving, why? If you’ve thought about looking at other jobs, which websites are you using? If somebody were to join, what would you say to them? Why should they come here?”

 It’s just asking those kinds of personal questions, but you end up attracting people for the right reasons instead of it just being for a position description, or key selection criteria.

Laura: Love that. That’s great advice. Just make so much sense, just asking questions about who someone is.

Quila: That’s EVP research. Everyone tries to overcook it, but it’s asking, “Why”.

Tim: Is it like EVP 101?

Quila: Sorry?

Tim: EVP 101. Ask questions.

Quila: Exactly. Why did you join? Why do you stay? If you’re thinking of leaving, where are you thinking of going to, and how are you getting there? That’s it? I probably just undersold myself a lot.

Laura: No, I think you’re right. I think anything like that is, it always comes down to something basic, but it’s what you do with it after that, right? You’ve got this really basic thing, which is just understand people. Understand what then motivates them, but then it’s what you actually do with that, which becomes a difficult. I don’t think it is under cooking it. It’s just being honest, what it is.

Tim: Anyone can do the research to a degree. The secret sauce is actually what you do with the research. That’s where the secret sauce is, and what you do.

Quila: Yeah, the implementation. I think there’s nothing yuckier than when you go on a career site, and it’s just a rainbow of human beings at the top. That would make sure that they hit every diverse group, and they’ve attracted their women, and their people of colour, and this, and that, and blah, blah, blah. You’re just like, “That is so obvious. Where’s the authenticity?” The implementation I think, that’s the difficult part, is making it real.

Laura: Yeah.

Tim: Authentic is the word, is it? That’s making it an authentic experience for someone?

Quila: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. I want to see people that look like me, I want to know that people that are in similar circumstances to my family makeup are already thriving in the workplace that I’m looking to join.

Laura: Makes a lot of sense. Yeah. Just everyone’s over cooking it.

Quila: Yeah.

Laura: I guess going back to your career then, rather than if not, we’ll end up on employee branding rant for the next half hour. It sounds like you’ve just kind of taken opportunities as they’ve presented themself. What was the thought process, I guess, from your point of view behind it? Then, how have you kind of made the most of taking on those new opportunities, and learning, growing into these new roles?

Quila: I’m really grateful that I said yes to every opportunity that I’ve been tapped on the shoulder for. I don’t know if it’s an innate personality trait for me to just overextend myself a little bit, but I guess historically, that has been me. I think that might’ve changed just a little bit since having a kid. My priority is getting on that train home, so I could pick her up from childcare. Yeah. I think I’m just a yes person, probably to my detriment. I’ve always worked for organisations, too, that have really believed in internal mobility, had believed in developing their own, versus just going into market, and bringing new people in. They see the value in the IP that an employee has.

For example, the tech company that I was talking about is LivePerson. Still one of the best cultural experiences that, even now when I’m building employee experiences, I think back to working at LivePerson, and I always use them as an example. That’s significant, because that’s an eight-year-old experience that I still call on. That’s how far forward thinking they were at the time, and they realised that I had two years of working with our customers under my belt. I knew what they needed, so it was easy for them to give me some of the skills that I needed to get up to spec with being Community Manager, and working in Digital Marketing. I already had the heart of it, which is knowing who our customers are. Yeah, I think it’s just as much as me being a lunatic and saying yes, as it was working for the right companies that saw something in us.

Laura: I think you’re the second person today that’s just like, “I just said yes, and then it worked out afterwards”.

Quila: Yeah. I was also working on a global team. The company was an Israeli company, so we had a team in Tel Aviv. I was used to working weird hours, so I was maybe starting a little bit earlier, ending a little bit later, logging on, but they were my friends. It was easy to want to do that. I think that attitude just stayed with me when I moved to Australia. I was so desperate to build that relationship again that I loved so much in my previous company. Immigrant in a new country, my only friends were my then boyfriend who’s now my husband, his friends. I was desperate to make my own way, and I think that probably played a role in saying yes to a lot of stuff.

Laura: Absolutely. I guess, what would your advice be if you could look back, and as someone that’s now starting out in kind of employer branding or something, what would you give it as a piece of advice for those guys?

Quila: I would just soak up all of the free resources that there are. I saw that you just released Andrea Kirby’s, Strivin Podcast this morning. I haven’t had a second to listen to it yet, but she is incredible. Her events are awesome. She always has the best people. This talent community, we are incestuous and in love with each other, but there’s so much sharing. Just get a part of it. I think Hung Lee is also incredible, his weekly newsletters. He’s got the live sessions that you can tune into. Just learn, because employer branding is so… We’re behind in Australia. We’ve got 7 to 10 years to gain on the UK, and the States. There’s just so much stuff that you can learn just by getting these free resources.

Laura: Yeah. I am big fan of Andrea. You’ll like her podcast. There was lots of editing. Oh, she’ll tell you,

Quila: I wonder why. I feel like she probably curses as much as I do.

Laura: I think it was that it had kind of different rants about different things, but it was great. Yeah. I really want to get Hung onto a podcast sometimes, because I think just how he’s built his community, and how open he is about things. Just like even now, he’s kind of recently split the newsletter, but it’s telling everyone how he’s doing it as he’s doing it. It’s like, you’re really on that journey with him, not just in terms of content, but in terms of how things are going. I find it really, really invaluable.

Quila: I think that’s the best kind of industry leader and actual people management type leader, is when you get one version of somebody. I know that the Hung that I see at a pub is going to be the same that I read about in the newsletters, the same that I see on Facebook is the same, same, same, same, same. It’s the same with Andrea, and so many more leaders that we have in our community. You just get one version. It’s so refreshing.

Tim: It’s going back to them being authentic again.

Quila: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. It’s just one version of somebody. Also, because I haven’t heard the podcast, I haven’t heard any of her rants today, but she just keeps it real, and I think that’s so cool. She’ll tell you exactly how she feels.

Laura: We all need that sometimes.

Quila: Yeah. It’s the Australian way, just being casual. I love that.

Laura: Yeah. I think that was an interesting bit in our podcast that she was saying. Taking that Aussie kind of personality trait when she first went to the UK, and she didn’t realise that things would be quite so different. She walked into a law firm, and was just really kind of forthright and honest with people, and said everyone just kind of stared at her like, who is this woman? Why is she talking to us this way?

Quila: Who’s this fiery red-head, right?

Laura: I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall in that situation. I imagine it must’ve been a complete whirlwind, and no one had ever experienced anything like it before. They just all kind of stared at her, but she said in the end, that’s exactly what worked for her because she just was who she was. It didn’t matter whether she was talking to a receptionist or a partner. It was, we’re going to treat everybody the same way, and speak to them the same way.

Quila: Yeah. I think now she built her castle there. I remember a few years ago when she moved back, the reverse culture shock that she had coming back after having this vast network in the UK and Europe, and having to grow that again. It just feels like five, six years down the road happened in a flash, because she’s built an empire here.

Laura: She really has.

Quila: Yeah. This is the Andrea Show.

Laura: I know. I’m going to send her this clip later. All right, going back to your career. Looking back at it now, do you think you’d do anything differently if you could do it again?

Quila: I would be careful who I ask advice from. I use that in my personal life now, not just in my professional life, but everyone has their baggage. Everyone has their story, too. Not everyone has had the same experiences as you. For example, when I was thinking about moving to Australia, my family absolutely lost it. They couldn’t believe that this nice Jewish girl from New York City was going to move for this Italian guy in Australia that she only knew for a year, blah, blah, blah, blah. I had the same experience when I wanted to leave Xerox, this multinational, huge organisation for this little tiny tech company that my mother had never heard of. Asking my mom who had been at the same law firm for 27 years what her perspective was, of course she said that I was crazy for doing it. But, because I said yes, and I took that leap of faith in so many situations in my life, I’m here today. You got to be careful who you ask advice from.

Tim: Or who you listen to.

Quila: Yeah. I guess you can take advice. It’s whether or not you put it into action, right?

Tim: Absolutely.

Laura: I guess on that, what do you think if you had to sum it up, what’s the best and worst advice that you’ve had?

Quila: Ooh. I feel like we’re going to get really deep and personal here now.

Laura: Yeah. Don’t name names.

Quila: Probably the worst advice would be to stay at Xerox. While I loved it there, I don’t want to get a defamation lawsuit sent to me. I loved working at Xerox, but if I would have listened to my mom, I would have just stayed there. I would’ve been on the same career trajectory in sales, which is just so different than what I’ve been able to build here. Never would’ve met my husband, never would’ve tried two or three different career journeys just mixed into one, and employer branding day, what would that be? I wouldn’t even know that it existed. I wouldn’t be this weird HR lady.

Laura: Yeah. I think the sales to marketing to HR is definitely an interesting journey.

Tim: Yeah, absolutely.

Laura: Definitely, it feels to me as to a similar kind of traits going through, just exactly what you’re saying before about just really understanding who you’re talking to, and why you’re talking to them, and what matters to them. Essentially Sales, Marketing, and HR, isn’t it? It kind of just feeds through.

Quila: I remember having a meeting at Australia Post with one of the heads of HR, and now I feel like a total dick for saying it. I constantly replay this meeting in my head, probably weekly. I remember telling her, “Oh my God, this is what you do in HR. I had no idea. I thought you hire and fire people”. She was like, “Yeah, you loser. We build these experiences, we do this, we’ve got diversity and inclusion, yada, yada, yada”. I just remember that day of just having this awakening of holy shit. That’s what HR is, or at least what it could be, and we’ve got a lot of work to do to change that perception in the market of what Human Resources actually is.

Laura: I think your perception is the pretty standard perception, realistically.

Tim: Yeah, absolutely.

Laura: I think it is. It’s just like, that’s the department that tells people off. If HR asks you for anything, your instantly like, “Oh, what did I do? Am I going to lose my job?”. It’s not the other stuff that once you get into it, and some companies like Australia Post are a great example, they’re doing so much more around that. I really just tried to… What did someone explain it as the other day? ‘A colleague experience’, which I really liked, and I liked that kind of idea of colleague experience. I think that’s the bit that people miss, and you don’t think about. You’re just like, “Are they going to tell me off, or are they going to fire me?”

Quila: Yeah. Make a policy that I actually fit into, and then tell me why I’ve broken it.

Laura: Yeah. Have you had any career mentors along the way?

Quila: Yeah. I’ve had, obviously, Rebecca Houghton. She helped me get these opportunities in employer branding, became my direct manager, and now in the last three years, she started her own business. While I’m not formally part of her coaching program, she is somebody that I always rely on because she’s helped me grow in this industry. Then, there’s people that I also aspire to be, as creepy as that kind of sounds. Christine Corbett, who’s now I think at AGL… She was at Australia Post, and she was the Chief Customer Officer when I was there. When I was part of the social media team, I helped her build her social media presence on Twitter and LinkedIn, as well.

She’s just somebody that always was so well put together in the media. Physically, she just was always dressed to the nines. Then, when you actually peel back and understand her family life and her professional life, she started at Australia Post in her twenties working on a PR team, and worked her way up for 20 plus years to get to the C level. She didn’t stop until she was at the very top. She was even offered the CEO role before Christine Corbett had joined. I just thought that was such an incredible journey, to think about the internal mobility that one person had gone through.

She’s also a mom of two. She’s got the family life, she’s got a husband, she’s trying to make it all work, plus the responsibilities of working at one of the largest organisations in the country. I just always thought she was so impressive. What I love about her is that she still knows all the little people. Even on my birthday on LinkedIn, she’ll still send me a message wishing me happy birthday, or checking in to see how I am. That means so much more to me than what she could ever know. Yeah, that’s my little story about Christine Corbett. Yeah.

Laura: I love those stories though, because I think going back to it like we were saying before, part of the reason we did this was to kind of highlight different people’s career journeys, and that there’s so many different ways to the same thing. I think that’s amazing. You can imagine PR grads sitting in those roles, kind of looking around, especially at an organisation the size of Australia Post, knowing that someone has then got to C-suite from going from where they were. It must be incredibly inspiring, but also just show you what is kind of possible, and what you’re capable of.

Quila: Yeah. I think people in our generation and the younger generation would rather roll over and die than be in the same organisation for 20 plus years. Let’s be honest here. Two, three years, they’re ready to see how much more money they can make, what the next job title is that they can get, and I respect that. Just knowing that you can put in the hard yards now and it pays off, and you can be part of the C-suite if that’s your dream. Seeing somebody do that and have a family, that’s always been really attractive to me. I think a lot of the female leaders that we see in the generation older than I am, they’ve had to choose. I’ve even heard people say, “I know a lot of babies that weren’t born because of this job”. I just love seeing that people have been able to have both.

Laura: Yeah. It is incredible. I don’t know how anyone does both. I struggle to do my washing each week, and I have a job let alone keep another person alive. I genuinely don’t know.

Quila: Well, we don’t know what else is missing in their lives. I don’t know. Maybe they don’t do their own washing.

Laura: True. Yeah. I do think anyone that is having kids, and has a career like that is incredibly inspiring. It does blow my mind a bit. I think going back to that point as well, I think it’s that point about internal mobility that keeps coming up, as well, and just knowing that actually, if you’ve got an organisation that’s being open to it, you don’t have to move company every two or three years. You can’t move departments, or whatever, and you were still getting those same opportunities for growth.

Quila: Yeah.

Laura: Yeah, but I think you’re right. I get it. It’s a perception thing, isn’t it? You don’t hear anybody now that says, “I’ve been somewhere for 20 years”. It’s like, oh yeah, everything’s kind of two or three years. I think that’s, again, the perception that you feel that you need to move on to get a pay raise, and you need to move on to get a new opportunity. I think there’s a lot we could be doing around that.

Quila: Yeah, absolutely. I think after the last year that we’ve had, it’s the responsibility of these organisations to pick up their programs and get it going, because we’ve had a year to contemplate what we want out of life, and there’s going to be so many people leaving. I mean, we’ve heard it every day. The last few weeks, there’s been reports coming out about how it’s a talent first market, blah, blah, blah. That was my experience. Even just finding the replacement for my maternity leave for a 15 month contract, when normally, they’re less than 12 month contracts, I thought it was a really compelling offer. At market, it was really hard to find the right person, and we did. It’s a happy story, but it was much more difficult than what I would have thought, because there’s just so much choice out there.

Laura: There’s so many roles, and it’s a conversation we keep having. Just there’s so many roles out there now. I think as much as a lot of people are happy to move, because we’ve had that realisation about what we really want over the last 12 months, I think there’s still that hesitation in some places that it’s like we don’t really know what’s around the corner, either. I think there’s still a little bit of hesitation in the market, and particularly hiring in the UK and the US. That’s what you’re hearing. People don’t want to move right now, because they actually don’t know what the next 6, 12 months are going to look like. We don’t know what the return to work is going to look like in those countries. I think here we’ve come relatively unscathed with the whole kind of situation for the last 12 months and the return to work, because we weren’t in the office, yeah touch wood, and we weren’t stuck at home for as long as a lot of people have been. Actually, that transition hasn’t been as difficult.

Quila: Yeah, but then I look at my best friends in New York City. They’re living like Queens, because no one else wants to live in New York City. One of my best friends just moved into this luxury apartment building in Flatiron District, has the dog park across, has the Eataly restaurant right behind her. She’s living her best life, but at what cost? New York City still hasn’t opened up, so we are very lucky despite having had lockdown, to live where we live.

Laura: Right. Just looking at time, I guess, one last question to kind of wrap it up, who would you like to hear from on the podcast?

Quila: I’ve been on this go the last few years of, I want to hear from juniors. I want to hear what they think about what’s coming up. You go to these conferences, and you hear from all the same people. They’re incredible, and they’ve got some insights and forward thinking, but I want to hear what people say on the ground. That’s not a person, but it’s a challenge. Instead of getting the managers or the leaders, it’s actually getting the people that are reporting to them.

Laura: Yeah.

Tim: To dish the dirt.

Quila: Yeah. Yeah.

Laura: Are you thinking grads that have been in roles for like 6 to 12 months? Be like, what’s the reality versus perception gap? What did you think working life was going to be like, and how did you think this was going to happen versus how you’re feeling now would be quite an interesting one.

Quila: I remember when it was my first summer interning at Xerox, and we were running a customer event at a baseball game. It was going to be all day setting up drinks, dinner, really fancy in the suites. I asked one of the managers and said, “What should I wear for this event?” He’s like, “Oh, casual, like you normally wear to work,” to make fun of me, because I didn’t realise that you had to wear suits to work, and all that kind of corporate jazz. It’s like total BS now. I also play that in my head all the time about how he said, “Hey, you can just wear casual clothes like you always do”. It’s the things that you learn when you’re a kid getting into work. Yeah, I think that’d be a really funny episode.

Tim: I remember the same sort of scenario with one of the first companies I worked for. They had a ban on facial hair, because it was deemed to be untrustworthy. Now, everyone’s got some. It’s ridiculous.

Quila: Yeah, where you have to have the same look as you do in your security paths for your whole employment, so like same haircut, same hair color, same everything. I just think that’s so crazy.

Laura: I just don’t know. Yeah. It’s HR that wrote that policy, right?

Quila: Yeah, probably.

Laura: That’s how they get a bad name.

Tim: You might be right. Maybe that’s why they get an element of the bad name, to say that you must follow these policies, and procedures, and all of a sudden you realise the trick is in the HR bit. There’s a human in there. That’s the important bit.

Laura: Thank you so much for this morning.

Tim: Thank you.

Quila: Thank you.

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