Strivin & Thrivin Ep3. Michael Delaney

Strivin & Thrivin Ep3. Michael Delaney – Head of Talent


Who is Michael “I am the dancefloor” Delaney?

This week on the Strivin & Thrivin podcast we caught up with Michael Delaney, Head of Talent at Humanforce, the shift-based workforce platform. For those considering a career change, Michael shares insight into his successful and unexpected career pivot, or should we say pirouette? 

The first 15 years of his career, Micheal spent as a professional ballet dancer, performing everything from Swan Lake to Bananas in Pyjamas. Now, in a completely different field of work, he can still be relied upon to get the dancefloor moving. During our chat, we discuss what it takes to make a complete career change and the people who helped him succeed. 

“It’s funny, you know, when you talk to someone who really knows what they’re doing, it’s amazing, the insights that you get – who knew that experts could really help you grow and plan?”

Michael reflects fondly on his first female mentor, during a time when mentors were formally recognised and gets to the crux of what it means to be a good mentor. 

“It’s not always about telling them what to do. It’s about asking them questions and letting them come to the realization that they could maybe look at things in a different way.”

The past year has seen Michael juggle being both a mentee and a mentor. Supporting those who have lost their jobs due to COVID, he has been working for a programme called Jobs for Australia, career coaching and guiding mentees on how to navigate the unknown landscape. Killing two birds with one stone, he also used the platform to land his new role at Humanforce. 

During our conversation, we learn the value people can gain both personally and professionally, by having a mentor from someone who has been on both sides of the fence. 

“I have a personal mantra in life that every day try and make somebody feel better and mentoring is a great way to make people feel better.”

Listen to Michael’s podcast on Strivin & Thrivin now, where we learn what it takes to be a successful career mentor and how Michael went from one-man show to team player. 


Laura: I’m your host, Laura Johnson. And today I’m lucky enough to have Hope Dawson as my wonderful co-host. Today we’re excited to be joined by Michael Delaney, Talent Leader and dance floor king.

All right then, to get us started can you tell us a little bit about your career and your background to date?

Michael: Yeah, so I’ve had two completely different careers, which is a very interesting process to go through. So, the first 15 years of my working life, I was a professional ballet dancer, working in ballet companies across Australia and Asia and Europe. Musicals, shows, children’s theater. You name it, I did it. Everything from Swan Lake to Bananas in Pajamas. So, a very different way to start your life off.

And then at the age of 30, I had to make a transition. And as many people do completely by accident, ended up being Recruiting and Talent Acquisition, which is where I’ve been then since that time. I won’t say how long, because that will show exactly how old I am. Let’s keep that a secret between you, me and everybody who knows me.

And so, I started out in an agency, which is where a lot of people go. But then since 2007, I’ve worked across a number of startups across the Australian landscape, starting with a small company that you may have heard of called Salesforce, who not a start-up now, but certainly was when I joined. And through to the point now where I’m the Head of Talent for an Australian scale-up business.

Laura: I think you might be the first HR person I’ve ever met that started in ballet. But I love that. I feel like that might be like a really good Christmas party trick at some point.

Hope: Yeah, that’s great.

Michael: I haven’t come across anyone else in HR. Actually, at my last start-up before this, I did hire someone into a Customer Success role who had been in one of the companies that I had been in, albeit a few years apart. So, we had many war stories to tell. So, it was surreal to get someone else who knew places that I’d been and spaces that I’d performed in.

Laura: Absolutely, and then a good dance off at any work party then as well, right?

Michael: Oh, absolutely. Yes. I am the dance floor. At various places, it was known as the circle of Delaney. Because the music would come on, I would go out and people would just stand around going, “Yeah, you go. You do you”, and we’ll just stand here going, “Okay. I’m not trying any of that because I would dislocate my hips”.

Laura: Yeah. I feel like it’s also one of those, you don’t want to completely show yourself up. You’re like, “Yep. I’ll just cheer you on from here”, have a good time.

Michael: Yes, indeed.

Laura: I love it. Okay then, well, if we talk a little bit more about your role now, there’s obviously just you trying to do a lot as we talked about the other day. So, what does an average working day look like?

Michael: I’m not sure that there is an average working day when you’re in a start-up or scale-up business, and you are the entire talent function. So, it’s one of the good and perhaps bad things about that, is that literally every day you have to reset the clock and start all over again, right? So, everything from pure talent sourcing to talking to candidates and trying to convince them to join a business that they haven’t heard of, that they don’t know that is taking a bit of a risk for them. Candidate marketing, scheduling, screening, running feedback sessions, organising training for Hiring Managers, handling all of the feedback cycle and everything else that happens to come up in between.

I’m kind of the guy in the business that people come to and say, “Hey, do you know how to do…?”. Let’s just put something else in here. “Great. Can you look after that for us, because we’re not really sure who else is responsible for that?” And to be fair, it’s something that I really enjoy, which is why I’ve done this sort of thing for a long time. And I really enjoy that variety and the chance to do lots of different things and know that I can build the best plan for the day.

You sit down, they say sit down at night and build your plan for tomorrow. And I do that, but normally by about 9:15, I’ve just torn all about up. And I’m reacting to the sudden need that the CEO has of something that he’s found to be really important. And it’s amazing how often that suddenly becomes something that’s very important for me. It’s like we have the same brain some days when we’re working together.

Laura: I love that. I always used to plan on a Sunday night. I would spend an hour planning out what my week would look like and literally go, “What are my priorities each day?” And then you’d get to a Friday and be like, “Well, I’ve done two of those, and there’s 26 new priorities”.

Michael:  Yeah, and I think it’s one of those things. We all hear about the priority hacks of you write down all the things you have to do, but draw a line under maybe the top two or three. Because realistically that’s all you’re going to get done. And I think that’s still very much true, but that top two or three is in a constant state of flux when you’re working in a start-up business.

Laura: Yeah, absolutely. So, I guess then, in terms of obviously your day is a bit crazy and you’re trying to be across pretty much everything. How do you stay up to date with trends, best practice? What the kind of new up and coming stuff?

Michael: Well, that’s what the hours of midnight to 3AM are for when you work in a start-up. So look, I do an enormous amount of reading and an enormous amount of listening and watching of things. So, I will queue up podcasts and articles and links to things, webinars. I’ll sign up to everything I guess is the best way to do it, and whether you can get there at the time or not, watch the replays.

I have a 50 minute commute each way. So, there’s plenty of time there that I can catch up on stuff. And then, I mean sometimes to my detriment, I’ll be still sitting there at midnight, because I found some really interesting thing that I’m listening to and you suddenly look at the clock and go, “Oh, got to be up in five and a half hours. I might have to just pause that one for now and come back to it tomorrow”.

But yeah, I think the secret to all of it is just constantly be curious and always find lots of things. And don’t worry if you can’t get to it at the time, you’ll get to it eventually. And as I say, midnight to three, perfect. I don’t get very many emails or calls at that point. So, I’ve really got all the freedom that I need to get things done.

Laura: You wait until you open an office in the US, that will ruin that.

Michael: Yeah, well, West Coast would be okay. East Coast, yeah. Then you’d definitely get no sleep because they’re online and demanding things. But West Coast, you can sneak it through until about midday Australian time. So that’s not so bad.

Laura: With the podcasts and books and things, what would be your top couple of recommendations if people needed a new book to read or a new podcast to listen to?

Michael: Ooh, so my top two that I go to always, the first one is by Reid Hoffman, who was the founder of LinkedIn. He has a series called ‘Masters of Scale’, where he interviews people who’ve done start-ups and scale-ups, and departments within big businesses and talking to them about their challenges and how they overcame things. And some of the big picture thinking. But some of it’s also really granular level. Here was a specific idiosyncratic problem that they solved, and hearing from people like that is wonderful.

And I have a personal interest in neuroscience and wiring the brain and how the brain works. So, there’s this wonderful series called ‘NOUS’, which has interviewed a whole bunch of neuroscientists and people who think about how the brain operates and how it impacts you, and mindset, and a whole range of things from a really nerdy scientific level, which I barely understand probably one in three words. Right through to more practical day-to-day application stuff. So, they’re the ones that I would typically go to most often.

Hope: ‘Masters of Scale’, is one that, I think from a start-up point of view, everybody raves about and everyone’s like, “That’s the one”. Any start-up group is like, “Okay, we finished Masters of Scale, now what do we do? What’s next?”.

Michael: Well, the great thing about ‘Masters of Scale’ is a lot of the people that he had as guests also have their own podcast. If you find someone that you think is really good, it’s easy to then expand the spokes out from there and see. Or at least track them as guests on other podcasts, because a lot of those people obviously know each other, so they just cycle around all of the various ones. So, you can definitely follow and extend upon. It’s almost like, yeah, the breakaway series that we get on TV shows. Suddenly a character pops up in their own show. There’s a little bit of that, that can go on there for sure.

Laura: Yeah, I love that. Okay. I’m going to skip over to ask you some questions about mentoring, because I know that’s what we talked for hours the other day.

Michael: Indeed.

Laura: At what stage in your career did you first have a mentor? Or first become a mentor for that matter?

Michael: Yeah, that’s a really interesting one. When I was coming through, back in hm-hm, don’t worry about dates. Mentoring was probably not something that was maybe formally recognised. You might have someone that you knew who became that person almost by default. So, the very first person who hired me into recruitment effectively became my mentor. She was a wonderful woman. She employed me four different times, which shows she’s a terrible judge of character, but we’ll put that aside. And became like my best friend. So, I was able to workshop a lot of things with her about life as much as business.

But in a more formal sense, this has come to me fairly late. So I, last year during the pandemic when everybody had time on their hands and was stood down, I was very fortunate to be involved in a mentoring program called Jobs for Australia. It was a group of TA and HR taught folks who were out of work or stood down or whatever who pulled together to create this platform where we could take people who’d lost their jobs through COVID and coach them on how to navigate that, how to get through how to make yourself more accessible and available to employers.

And within that group where some of the absolute literal genius minds of TA and HR in Australia. And because we all had time on our hands, we were all coaching each other as well. And so, one of those people I have stayed very close with and she’s gone on now to be effectively my career coach. She’s incredible. I’ve learned more in 10 months, in terms of planning and thinking about strategising for my own career, than I had in all of the years leading up to that.

And it’s funny, when you talk to someone who really knows what they doing, it’s amazing the insights that you get. Who knew that experts could really help you grow and plan? And so, through my career by nature itself, I’ve mentored a whole bunch of people. I’ve often been the most senior person in the team. And so, people have asked questions and I really enjoy that. I have a personal mantra in life that everyday try and make somebody feel better. And mentoring is a great way to make people feel better. And it’s not always about telling them what to do. It’s about asking them questions and letting them come to the realisation that they could maybe look at things in a different way.

And I take that back to Wendy, who was my first manager. I can’t tell you the number of sessions we had where she would start out with, “Okay. Tell me how you think that went?”. And I would explain, and the immediate follow-up would be, “Now thinking about that, how might you have done that differently?” And it became just an almost like you could have put it on recording for us, but it’s something that I’ve used going forward, right? When you’re mentoring someone it’s not about making judgements. It’s not about saying, “Oh, that was wrong, or you shouldn’t do it that way”. It’s about, “Okay, how did you come to that process? That decision? All right, now you’ve had time to think about it. How would you possibly do that differently?”.

And it’s that, I guess that thought of taking a step back and removing yourself from the situation. So, you can look at it from above rather than being right in the middle of it. And that can be difficult to do. And I think a mentor can really help with that. So, I’ve done that in a number of places, to the point now where I have a couple of folks that are working at start-ups who are relatively early in that process that I’ve not necessarily formally, but on a reasonably regular, every couple of weeks, catch up with them to talk about situations they’re experiencing and give them some advice from all the things that I’ve gone through. To hopefully help them avoid some of the mistakes that I made.

Hope:  And how would you advise mentees then to get the most out of their mentorship? So, when they’re coming to you for that hour or however long you’ve got to give them, what should they bring to the table to make the most out of that hour?

Michael: Probably three things, I would say. So, the first thing is, leave your ego at the door.

If you’re going to sit down with someone and say, “I want you to help me,” then you need to be prepared to just expose all of the things you’ve done, warts and all. And to not feel judged, to not feel that someone is looking at you going, “Oh, what an idiot? Why would you do it that way?” Right? So, leave your ego at the door definitely.

The second thing I would say is be, and this sounds a little bit new age, but be your authentic self. Don’t say what you think you should say because that’s what you’re supposed to say in that situation. If you come at something and you’re like, “I have absolutely no idea what to do here”. That’s equally as valid as, “Here’s my plan, and here’s what I’m thinking. And here’s the way I would perhaps do that. Does that make sense to you?” And I think too often we have this expectation of ourselves that we should be really good, and we don’t want to necessarily let that vulnerability and that authenticity out. So, I definitely think, yeah, be as authentic and genuine as you can.

And the third thing then is to be really curious in a session. Don’t accept that just because your mentor is saying something to you, that it’s actually the right thing. And I think there’s a wonderful joy in people who don’t have as much experience coming at a situation because they don’t have all of that ingrained learning, that sort of cynicism, that when you’ve been around a long time, you see a situation, you just go default into, “Yeah well that won’t work. That won’t work. This will work. That might work”, because we kind of inverted commas ‘know’. But we don’t really until we stop and explore.

So, I learn as much from the people that I’m doing mentoring with as they learn from me because they don’t have that jaded cynicism. And so yeah, be curious and ask lots of questions. And definitely question your mentor as to why, why do you think that? How would you think that would work? What if this happens? And turn it into a discussion, not a, “Please give me wisdom from the mount on high that I can just take away and apply”. I guess they would be my three big ones that I’d suggest.

Laura: I guess on that, and again, it’s something we were talking about the other day. If there’s someone that’s going, “Oh, I think I need a mentor, but I’m not quite sure”. If you had to sum up the value of mentorship for someone that’s on the fence, what would you say?

Michael: Yeah. Well, that’s a very personal thing to me at the moment, because I hadn’t had one and I hadn’t really considered it. Which is silly, because I’d done my own mentoring of other people. Right? So yeah, let’s park the fact that, do as I say, not do as I do. But I think the real value is in having somebody who doesn’t have involvement and engagement in situations, and can really give you totally unbiased advice. Unbiased feedback, unvarnished truth is something that we should get much, much more of. And we would all learn incredibly if we had someone who was prepared to say, “Check yourself, that’s not right. Let’s look at different ways of doing things.”

I think the other thing is, for all that I say it’s great that people who are getting mentored come in with a fresh set of eyes. There’s also real value in talking to somebody who has been through the things that you’re trying to go through. Don’t make the mistakes that other people have made before you, if you can avoid it. It’s a lesson I wish I had learned a long time ago. I had the battle scars and bruises to prove that you can get through it by making mistakes all the way along. But if you don’t have to, then don’t.

Take the wisdom that other people have, and use it as a supercharging of your own decision-making and your own awareness of challenges. And I think really the biggest thing being mentored does, it gives you that extra layer of awareness that you just sometimes can’t have because we’re in the middle of things, you really do get tunnel vision. How do I fix this gnarly problem that’s sitting right in front of me right now? Versus somebody who’s got a completely dispassionate view of the situation can really help you elevate, well outside the frozen decision-making models that you’re using in any given moment.

Laura: I was going to say something and it’s gone. I started to thinking too much about what you were saying. No, I’m like, “Wow, this is great”.

I think it touches… because we spoke to Neil Gunning first thing, and then we spoke to Amy, who works at Xref, and asked them different things. And I think you’ve summed up what they both said really succinctly. That’s why I was just like, “Oh yeah”. Because we were talking about that, and we were talking about that.

And I think going back to what we were saying as well, knowing it’s just you in a department, you can get really quite stuck with, “I need to tick off these priorities”, and actually maybe you’re not doing them the best way, a bit like you were saying. You’re like, “Oh, I’m just going to do this”. And actually having somebody else’s perspective on it and being like, “Well actually, maybe there’s another way to do that, or maybe there’s a better way”. I think sometimes, especially when you’re by yourself all day, every day and you are firefighting, it’s even more valuable in those instances.

Michael: It is, and let’s face it, we all have a personal pride, right? We all think we know what we’re doing. We’d all like to… or we all at least are faking that we know what we’re doing because we don’t want anyone around us to know that inside we’re going, “Ahhh”, right? So, it can be hard to be that open and that vulnerable and admit that. But that’s really the value. I mean, look, yeah. When I think of the things, as I said, the things I’ve learned just in that last period of time, it’s like, “Oh”. The number of moments I just drop my head on the table and just go, “Why did I not know this five years ago when I was in the middle of that situation?”, It’s just invaluable to me.

Laura: Totally. Okay, just looking at time, we’re going to ask you two more questions and then we’ll let you go.

Michael: Sure.

Hope: So obviously you’ve gone through all your experience with us and your career, which is amazing. What’s not on your LinkedIn profile? What’s not on your resume? What’s not on there that has also made a huge difference to your career to date?

Michael: Okay. So bizarrely at the age of 37, I decided that playing rugby league is something that I hadn’t done in my life, and I’d really like to explore that. Now rugby league, if you’ve watched it, is a violent, full contact sport played by enormous human beings. And I am five foot six, so the complete opposite of an enormous human being. And it’s taught me a couple of things. One, it’s taught me, it’s the first team sport I’ve properly played. So, it taught me a real value of knowing your role in a team. And sometimes that executing your role as well as you can, every single time can have enormous value to an overarching contribution. We all think about always, we’ve got to be better. We’ve got to be the best, we’ve got to be growing. We’ve got to be evolving. But there are some days, and indeed I’ve seen this in work over the recent years, being consciously competent and executing on that is extraordinarily valuable to a business being successful.

The second thing it showed me is that you can do way more than you think you can do sometimes, if you are prepared to just take a chance. And as somebody who was a ballet dancer, I’d surely I should have known that because I grew up in a country town in Australia where there was no ballet school. And it took me years to find one. I should know that this is true, but as you get older and you have more things happen to you and more experience in your life, you start to build the shell up. Build the walls of, “Yeah. Cool. I’m prepared to take risks right up to that point. And then I’ll just stop there because that’s my comfort zone”.

So doing something like that, I remember the first time I ran onto the field and someone passed me the ball and I ran up, and it was these two suburb sized Islander guys in front of me. That were just about to crush me. And it was one of the most exhilarating feelings I’ve ever had. And so, I’ve been playing for 15 years now and absolutely loving it. And it’s taught me a huge value of teamwork and how everybody interlinks, and how you can utilise strengths in the way that different people go about things to achieve an outcome. And that there are times when you will take somebody and say, “Okay, great. You’re not good at those four things, but you’re really good at this”, and help them focus on things that make them a valuable contributor to a team.

Laura: I love that. Are you still playing rugby?

Michael: Yes.

Laura: Wow. How often do you play?

Michael: We play about every three weeks, because we’re really old and it hurts a lot. And we can’t play every week because that would be impossible. And it’s a wonderful sport. So, it’s an over 35s team, but our oldest player is 76.

Hope: Wow.

Michael: And at that age it’s not contact. Right? The contact gets less, but for a lot of these guys it’s a wonderful way to stay connected. It’s a great thing for, particularly we know men struggle to talk, right? Other than in grunts most of the time as we get older. So having a group where you can feel safe, where you can feel supported. One of our guys, he said the proudest moment of his life was the day that he played with his three sons, who had all turned over 35 and they all ran onto the park together. And he said, “That’s it. I’m done. There’s nothing else in my life that I could ever achieve that would top this moment”. So, it’s a wonderful thing to do.

Laura: I know. Melts the heart. So lovely.

Hope: It’s like a community, isn’t it? It’s fantastic.

Michael: Absolutely, and because at our stage of life, things start to happen. You lose people, there’s divorces, there’s illnesses. And so, it is really a living, breathing support group to help you navigate at times some of the worst moments of your life with a bunch of people who are just there for you. And then at the end of it all, we’ll say, “Great. Now let’s just go to play some footy”, let’s just be mates running onto a pitch and belting the living daylights out of each other, and shake hands and have a beer at the end of it and say, “Wasn’t that great?”, and “Ow, that really hurts. But yeah, it was great”.

Laura: I feel like numbers for rugby signups have just increased by about a 1000%, and Hope and I are about to sign up for a team sometime soon.

Hope: Yeah.

Michael: Excellent.

Laura: All right, last question. Who, from an HR perspective, would you really like us to interview? Or you’d like to hear more from?

Michael: Oh, okay. So, I’m a person who if you follow me at all on LinkedIn or Twitter or other socials is constantly on about diversity and inclusion. And I think we should celebrate and empower more women to be out there talking. So, I’m going to cheat and give you several names. So, Rebecca Powell is wonderful. She’s an amazing thinker, she’s done incredible things. She’s been in TA, she’s taken on not that long ago, a really big People and Culture role that she felt was a massive step for her. And she’s done some just extraordinary things.

There’s a lady, Jo McCatty that you should definitely talk to. She’s had a really interesting career path, doing not dissimilar to me, coming in one area and moving totally out of that into TA, and now does a lot of mentoring and coaching. She’s fabulous.

Laura Paton from PaperCut is amazing. And one of the wonderful speakers, that if you ever hear her talking, she’s just genuine and warm and has a real, a huge amount of insight. Who else? Tanya Siggins is really interesting. She does some wonderful things on social about posting and giving content away to people for free because she just cares. And is really, really genuine.

And there’s a million more, but I probably should stop there because the podcast will be done and you’ll be like, “Yeah, really, we stopped recording half an hour ago. Really, we’ve run out of names”. But yeah, they would be some immediately that I would say to you definitely get in touch with. And if you want an introduction, feel free. I’m happy to facilitate that because I think they’d all have really interesting stories that your listeners would gain something from.

Laura: Amazing. Thank you so much. I’ll be taking you up on that later. Cool. Thank you for today. I’ve really enjoyed it. And I really want to hear more about the ballet next time we catch up.

Michael: No problem at all. Look, thanks guys. I really appreciate you giving me the chance to tell my story and yeah, hopefully someone gets something out of it that they can use and apply going forward.

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