Strivin & Thrivin E17. Kristin O Brien

Strivin & Thrivin Ep17. Kristin O’Brien – Business Transformation & Org Design Consultant


This week on Strivin and Thrivin we chat to Kristin O’Brien, a Senior People and Culture Leader specialising in Org Design and Business Transformation. She runs her own firm, KOB Consulting based in Melbourne Australia to help structure companies in order to deliver growth. 

Kristin has been exposed to businesses at every stage of their development and success, and she’s no stranger to redundancy, jumping back into education or relocating for work. 

During our thirty-minute episode, Kristin details what an Org Design consultant is, pulling the strings across the business to ensure that the right talent across all sectors of the business aligns in order to bring the business’ operating model to life. 

Having spent a big chunk of her career in corporate HR, Kristin has extensive experience working in international markets both for small startups and well-established companies and even businesses in decline. It’s this varied experience upon which she credits her understanding of how org structure impacts business success. 

“My whole career, I guess I’ve gone for breadth rather than depth which I think has served me pretty well,” she tells us. 

These days, while running her own consulting business, overseeing a portfolio of companies, Kristin enjoys meditation to start her days on the right foot, she’s learned to frame what’s important and worthy of stress and energy, without beating herself on things out of her control. 

We cover everything from the reality of launching a startup, including the highs and lows and when to make the decision to step back. The career lessons Kristin has learned along the way are ones we all wish we knew as she shares what advice her younger self wishes she had known.

To listen to Kristin’s podcast where she shares some persona experiences and her greatest learnings over the years, download the latest episode of Strivin & Thrivin now! 


Laura: I’m your host, Laura Johnson. And today I’m lucky enough to have Kristen as my wonderful co-host. Today we’re thrilled to be joined by Kristin O’Brien.

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

Kristin: Yeah, sure. So, my current role is, well, I don’t really have a role. I have a bit of a portfolio career, so I work as an Org Design consultant, and everything I’ve done up until now has got me to this spot where I’m doing something I really enjoy. Do you know what an Org Design consultant is?

Kristen: No, please explain.

Kristin: So, you think about an organisation. You have your strategy, so the market you operate in, what you do, what you’re trying to achieve, how you’re going to get there. Then you have your people, your talent, both really important. And the other thing that’s still really important, but often forgotten is how you design your organisation. And it’s not just about structure. It’s about how you bring your operating model to life.

So how you organise people to deliver your operating model, how you design roles, how you organise decision-making rights, what your processes are, how you connect to people across the organisation to make sure information travels. So, my background is in corporate HR and I did that for many years, spent a lot of time as a business partner. So, I’m an HR business partner. So, I worked here in the UK, did a lot of work in India, worked mostly in large corporates at every stage of the business lifecycle. So, I worked at the start-up phase, with growth organisations, with mature businesses, with businesses in decline. So, I got a really good sense of how Org Design impacts innovation, collaboration, how people are motivated, and I love that it’s really close to business results. Business partnering, it’s for a lot of people, but for me, I just got to a stage where that cyclical kind of performance reviews, talent reviews, REM reviews, kind of always chasing your tail a bit, I wanted to step away from that.

But you asked about my early career, and I’ve always worked in HR. So, I actually started recruiting Christmas casuals at Myer. So, I’d done a traineeship in retail operations. I did a couple of years at uni, wasn’t for me. So, I went and started this traineeship in retail, and the part I really liked was recruitment. So, one Christmas, and I recruited with a team, hundreds of Christmas casual, Santas, and it was really fun. I really enjoyed it. And I ended up staying in the recruitment center there for quite a few years. My boss there had done a degree in Business Admin, majoring in HR, and she was awesome, and I decided to follow in her footsteps. So, I actually went back to uni part-time while I was working. And so got a degree in Business Admin.

Went from recruitment at Myer to HR assistant role, so that was the broader spectrum of HR, not just recruitment. And that was my first role in Telecommunications Organisation or my first role to do with Digital and Technology, which is the space I’ve always continued to enjoy. And from there… So, during my career, I’ve had three redundancies and each redundancy has been an awesome opportunity to get a big wad of cash and go and do something. So, at the end of that role, I was made redundant and I went traveling. I was, I think, in my twenties then, travelled around Asia, India, ended up in the UK and did various temping roles there. Is this getting really long and boring?

Kristen: Oh my God, I’ve known you for how long, and I’ve not known any of this.

Kristin: I was getting sponsored on a graduate program at Deutsche Bank in the UK and became an HR associate there, and I actually had a Data Analytics role and I spent about five years there until I decided to come back to AUS, and when I came back, it was really hard to use that global role and the global kind of data role stuff that I’d learned there. So, I transitioned back to a bank here working in the remuneration team. So, my whole career, I guess I’ve gone for breadth rather than depth which I think has served me pretty well. And then went from the rem team to managing the organisation-wide talent program, developing and managing that. And from there, I off-shored a whole lot of roles, had to change role. So, this was all in the same bank when I got back from the UK.

Was made redundant there when I was pregnant with my second child, so took time off there, did the bathrooms, which was good. So then went back into working for the not-for-profit, which wasn’t really for me. I was running the HR team. That was good, but the culture just didn’t fit in as well as I did in a large commercial organisation.

So, I went from there, back to where I met Kristen Graham, back to Telstra or back into a large corporate and spent five years there doing a whole lot of different roles, mostly in technology. And that’s where I started to do a lot of org design. And at the end of my time at Telstra, I worked in new businesses, which were their start-ups and got a real taste of what it’s like to work in a start-up. And working in HR, you weren’t just the HR person, you actually rolled your sleeves up and got involved in everything.

So, I was doing design sprints, just all elements of building the plane while flying it. So, that part of Telstra was disbanded and I left. I could either roll back into Telstra Corp or go and leave the organisation again with the redundancy. Took that, that was the third one. Again, I think I got the garden landscaped with that one, and that’s when I started working on start-up and also doing my own consulting. So initially the consulting side of things was just to keep the lights turned on, really. I couldn’t not have an income while I was starting up. HR Tech product, but now five years on, it’s the consulting business that has really sustained itself rather than the tech product. I’ll stop there and let you ask me questions.

Laura: It’s amazing, there’s so much there.

Kristin: No wonder I’m so tired.

Kristen: And three little kids and you’re still full of energy. Firstly, what did you grow up wanting to do when you were a little girl and you, what was…?

Kristin: Well, my mom wanted to conduct a bit of a social experiment and never let me have dolls, always played with Lego and actually grew up wanting to fly airplanes.

Kristen: Right?

Kristin: Yeah.

Kristen: Well the doll thing didn’t work? You had three kids. Was that at all related to the Lego or…?

Kristin: Well, no, I don’t know. So, I guess I’ve always loved maths and data and I ended up working in HR, I think, cause I’m really high on empathy and I can relate to people quite easily, build rapport quickly, but in a way, I wish I’d paid more attention to the maths and science that I really enjoyed. Mum did her best, but unfortunately it didn’t stick.

Kristen: Well, it kind of reared its head into Voop Global, Voice of Our People. So, that kind of mixed a lot of different things of your career into your start-up. Tell us where was that born from?

Kristin: Yeah. So, I wanted to start something up, but I wanted to take what I’d already done and leveraged that into something more. And I guess it started with the problem that I wanted to solve, which was when companies try and measure the culture typically using surveys, it’s impacted by people saying what they want you to hear or people feeling like they’re being watched or it’s going to be followed up on and the information coming too late. So, that was the problem. And I met a fabulous data scientist called Suresh Sood, who’s also really interested in that problem. And we just started working on it, and it just got a life of its own. And I met Suresh when, I was caught up with him when I was in Sydney the other week. And we were reflecting on what we achieved with another guy with Rohan, and it really was amazing.

We built this tool and it used publicly available data to get a gauge of your company’s culture. And before COVID hit, we were just about to go in with it on a trial to a big organisation. And a whole lot of things happened that meant I didn’t keep going. So one was, we ran out of money, Rohan got another job. I was worried how long is COVID going to go for? My husband and I have three kids to support. I wanted to make sure that I didn’t get left not working for 18 months, two years. I’m not getting paid work. And all those things kind of caught up with me and I just put it on hold. But enough time went by that I just lost momentum and decided not to go back to it.

Although speaking to Suresh the other day, he was encouraging saying, we can always figure it out. We can always do it faster, easier, cheaper, and better. But right now, I’m pretty happy with where things are at. I’ve got a really good life balance. A portfolio career works brilliantly with three kids. I’ve got one in high school and two in primary school. So, it’s all working pretty well.

Laura: And actually, the lessons learned from doing start-up were huge as well. So, going back to what we’re saying before we started recording, it almost doesn’t matter what you did with it or do with it because like you say, you could still pick it up in a few years’ time. I imagined just the lessons learned and everything that you learned doing it were incredible.

Kristin: Yeah. So deep tech, it would be better to do something. I could understand the technology, but I couldn’t build it myself. So, that would be a lesson learned. I’d want to do something that I could build myself. Didn’t have to rely on others. I read something the other day about when something gets hard, don’t give up, just have a rest. And I thought that’s really good advice. And I don’t know if I had a rest or if I gave up or if I had a rest and then the rest turned into giving up, but would I do it again? Maybe, but not for a while. It’s really hard and I’m probably a bit burnt out with the start-up world for now. And it brings me so much joy when I see other people who were going through the same journey as me and it’s worked out for them and they’ve been successful.

In a way I think it’s a numbers game and, it’ll work out for some people and plenty of others, it doesn’t. But it’s all part of the journey.

Laura: I would say again, I think it’s, Kris and I were talking about it earlier. Just the ability to give it a go. Just sometimes you just got to back yourself and if it doesn’t work out, there’s something else around the corner.

Kristin: Yeah.

Laura: You gave it a shot and maybe it’s not this time, but it will be next time, or it will be the sixth time. Just everything you learn doing each time is incredible.

Kristen: Absolutely, and I think you hear so much of big corporations needing that start-up mindset, that courageousness that is in every founder. Corporates want that in people, and I think having that experience, that courageousness and risk-taking and passion, and you’re really aligned to the purpose or the problem that you’re trying to solve. I think it’s a very valuable, well, it’s not a skill set, is it? It’s a grit. You’re gritty.

Kristin: They notice. It’s something that people really, some people dismiss it and they’re probably not the right organisations for me to work with, but where people say, “Oh gosh, that’s something we want”, you know that that’s going to be a good fit for you. It’s definitely valued. Particularly, so the kind of work I do leans towards change management, but also business transformation. And a lot of businesses are transforming to be more like start-ups. So that experience serves me really well.

Laura: Going back now right to the start of your career, what do you know now that you kind of wish you knew when you started out?

Kristin: The kinds of things that are coming to mind. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter as much as you think it does. Just get out there and work and do something you love, and it happens.

I’d see people leaving uni without work experience and I think that’s a shame. With my own kids, I want them as soon as they’re 14 and nine months, I want them to be out there working because that’s the start of the journey. It gives you confidence. It helps you understand how the world of work works and the cream always rises to the top. Well, I don’t know, actually now I’m thinking of examples of people who worked really hard, and it didn’t happen for them. Earlier we were talking about what is success? Maybe it’s that idea of defining what success is. I remember early in my career, not a week would go by when I wouldn’t be crying out of frustration in the toilets, and I wonder if young people still do that, I’m not sure, but I had a really tough boss.

I put a huge amount of pressure on myself, it was awful. It was absolutely awful. And, finally, I grew out of that, but not until probably I was in my late twenties. So, it was probably, five or 10 years there of pure hell. But I just needed to believe in myself and also go to where I could do my best work. You need to go somewhere where you’re valued. I’ve had great experiences, great professional experiences. And I’m really happy with the journey I’ve taken, but there probably are things I wish I’d known earlier on.

Kristen: It makes me sad that you were crying in the toilet, wish I was in the next cubicle, send my love through the cubicle and say it’s okay.

Kristin: I like to think now as more adult, adult that work had that effect on me, what a funny thing

Kristen: I used to get anxiety. I could feel my heart palpitating because of what was coming the next day. Just too overwhelmed, too much work. And not even being able to go to sleep that night without thinking of, “actually tomorrow is going to be worse”, because of the big plate that you’ve got. That anxiety, and I just feel there needs to be more balance. And I think balance comes when you’re aligned to purpose, which we were talking about last call, but having that purpose gives you the energy you need to do the work without it feeling like work.

Kristin: Yeah, which is when you do your best work.

Kristen: You’re in the flow.

Kristin: But you know what? You don’t have to have purpose. Work can just be work as well.

Laura: That was actually one thing because earlier you’re saying about the fact that you’ve got quite a good work-life balance now with the portfolio career. What do you kind of do to chill out and maybe separate them? How do you keep them so separate when you’ve got portfolio? because even that can be overwhelming, because you’re not just working for those companies. You’re kind of running a business at the same time.

Kristin: Well, I guess the way it works is I roll on and off the project. So, you rolled off one project and you have typically at least a week or a couple of weeks, if you can manage to make that around school holidays, that’s really good. I took six weeks off over Christmas and it was fantastic.

So that was cool. During the year, I don’t like having too much downtime because then I have to do things like clean out cupboards and do the kind of housewife-y things that aren’t for me. So, I try and keep things going back-to-back, but when you’re on, you love it, cause you’re on. And then you roll off and you have a bit of downtime, and you could also manage your own time to. My mum’s elderly, and take her to appointments or whatever it might be or go and see the kids get an award at school. I think most people in most jobs can do that now. Is that right?

Kristen: I think we’re becoming a lot more flexible. COVID certainly helped companies realise that we can be productive at home as well. But I think having the flexibility to do that gives us that feeling of doing the work when you’re ready to do the work. Flexibility is different for everyone. Some people are morning people, some people are night people, some people have dogs or kids, and their lives are so hectic and different. And if you can fit work into your life, I think you’re going to be more productive. So, I definitely think…

Kristin: It’s that energy thing, isn’t it? I find a lot of things pop up on my social media feeds, LinkedIn, whatever it might be about energy and energy at work. And I don’t know, something in my algo is drawing it towards me, but it seems like a bit of a hot…Well, I don’t know if it’s a hot topic or it’s just coming at me.

Laura: It was actually brought up last night, wasn’t it? Just the difference between like managing night owls versus morning people and just actually the standard nine to five doesn’t necessarily work for either of those two. And actually, one of the good things about COVID and more flexibility is that if you are a morning person, you can just start earlier and finish earlier. And if you’re an evening person, you can do that. So, I think there is something kind of going along with that, just in terms of flexibility.

Kristin: But also, what sucks energy out of you, the kind of people that aren’t good for your energy. Scrolling through your phone, it’s not good for your energy. Working out what gives you energy and what takes your energy is…

Kristen: And focusing on the stuff you can control rather than zapping your energy on stuff that’s just completely out of your control. So, recognising those little thoughts and really catching them when you can move them into a more positive mindset. And I’m a big believer of meditation every morning and, totally, yep, Insight Timer, it’s a really good app.

Kristin: All right.

Kristen: So that’s kind of got a bit of a hooked feeling. So, you build up your days in stars and points, and if you like that gamification of trying to challenge yourself to keep on top of it. So, Kristin, what book have you read that’s really had a huge impact on your philosophies, on your way of who you are and how you work?

Kristin: At the moment, I’m reading a lot of fiction. I haven’t read a work book in a long time, actually. No, I’ve got nothing for you.

Kristen: Podcasts.

Kristin: Podcasts. On the books, the books are all ones you’ve given to me. Brian Hawkins one, brilliant for understanding sales. Can’t remember what it’s called. And what’s that one? Not first customer, first?

Kristen: Was it Hooked?

Kristin: No, I didn’t like Hooked that much.

Kristen: I loved Hooked.

Kristin: It’s a popular start-up one. Anyway, I haven’t touched that stuff in a while, podcasts. Well, this is interesting, I mean, I’ve mentioned before how all this stuff about energy keeps popping up? Well, it’s mainly her Facebook page, the Heroine’s Journey, but she also has a podcast which I listened to, and she also has a newsletter. Her name’s Kellie Sterling, and she didn’t start here, but she started her coaching career as an executive coach, but now has become a women’s life coach. And she’s all about the heroine’s journey rather than the hero’s journey and about women’s transitions in life, particularly focusing on menopause and how it can be a very powerful transition for women. So that’s kind of the one that I can’t look away from at the moment. Yeah. I found it fantastic.

Kristen: I’ve had a tip from two very different people that I had a conversation with on the same meeting. They’d never met each other before.

Kristin: This is weird.

Kristen: This is weird. And one of them had told me the day before, and then the second person told me on the call and then I’m like, “Oh, this is crazy”, I’ve got to read it, but it’s called the Art of War and it’s practical life lessons and lesson one, choose your battles. How often do we do that as parents? Lesson two, timing is essential. That’s so simple, Lesson three, know yourself and know the enemy. Lesson four, have a unique plan. Lesson five, disguise your plans. Lesson six, the best way to win is not to fight at all. Yeah, I think it is.

Laura: I guess just going back to career and your different jumps around and going into data and things, what made you move each time? Was there anything career wise, you were like, “Oh, I need to upskill in this”, or was it just opportunity and country and all these other bits and pieces?

Kristin: One of my reflections on my career is I probably didn’t move early enough in a lot of instances. Sometimes I was getting, I’m just thinking of the expression, blood out of a stone, but pushing-

Kristen: Uphill?

Kristin: Uphill on and I should have bowed out earlier than I did because time is finite and the older you get, the more you realise that you can waste it so easily doing stuff. So, there are three organisations, I spent five years at each one and had many different roles in those organisations and that worked well. And I’ve moved to build that portfolio of experience and build that breadth. As I said, I’ve always been about breadth rather than depth. And I don’t know. What do you think about breadth versus depth? I don’t know if that was the right way to go. It was probably more about what I enjoyed.

Kristen: Well, I think doing breadth first to understand what you like about the depth. Surely, you’ll come across something that you’re really into across the breadth and then go deep there.

Kristin: Yeah.

Kristen: Because you’re passionate.

Laura: I’ve always been a generalist, so I’ve definitely gone down the same route and just kind of been breadth rather than depth. And that’s not because I’m not super interested in any of it. I think I’m just too interested in all of it that I was never able to pick anything. And it depends on what you want and there’s so many articles about it, isn’t it? One year, you should be a specialist and the next year it was great to be a generalist. I think it’s like anything else in life, there is no right or wrong. It just depends what excites you and what comes up.

Kristin: Yeah. But somewhere along the way I realised in large corporates more success was going to come for me working on my own. I think there was something about hierarchy that just doesn’t kind of bring the best out of me. So, I love going and working with larger organisations, but now to be in that system. I don’t think that-

Kristen: You’re just a millennial disguised as a Gen X, aren’t you?

Kristin: Oh gosh. Yes please.

Laura: Just looking at time, we always finish up with one last question, which is, who would you like to hear from? So, if you had to pick someone you were going to interview on a podcast, who would you want to hear from?

Kristin: Oh, Julia Gillard. She’s awesome. Yeah.

Kristen: That was left field.

Kristin: Why not though?

Kristen: Yeah. She’s great.

Kristin: Or do you want someone more realistic?

Kristen: No, she can be realistic. Anyone listening right now? Bring Julia.

Laura: I’ll ask for Barack Obama. So realistically, it might. See what happens.

Kristin: The things that woman went through, wouldn’t you really like to know? She stood up to it, all the stuff that’s coming out now. I know she sat on the other side of the fence, but they’re both just as bad, I think in politics. What a trailblazer, what a tough love.

Laura: Love it.

Kristin: Yeah.

Laura: Thank you so much for today. Thanks for joining us.


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