“Whatever you do in your career, you’ve got to have a real passion and energy around it”
Another week means another great podcast and this week we caught up with Lyndsey Devitt, People and Culture Director for CyberCX, a cybersecurity company to enterprises and governments in Australia.
Having started her career as an accountant, Lynsey isn’t averse to high-pressure jobs. We quickly get into her career changes, learning her strengths, namely her ability to spot great talent and build effective teams.
Lynsey’s worked with a variety of organisations from startups to retail businesses, banks and educational institutions, expanding her breadth of HR exposure in different industries and learning to adapt to different company cultures and strategies. Her varied career has allowed her the opportunity to learn from a variety of leaders. It’s these informal mentors that Lynsey believes she has learnt most from, carving out leadership personas from what she has seen be effective and otherwise.
Lynsey moved into HR not for the people aspect, but for complexity that comes with working with people and establishing a people strategy that ensures the best business performance. She shares her belief that the most effective HR professionals are those who really take the time to understand how the business works, the complexity of its goals and objectives and to never assume all HR roles work the same.
“I have always been interested in businesses and how organizations operate. I think coming into the business world from an accounting standpoint, whilst it gives you a great foundation, what it taught me pretty quickly was that my passion lies much more in dealing with people-related matters and getting the best out of businesses from a people perspective,” says Lynsey.
To hear more of Lynsey’s experiences, her advice to new HR professionals and how to instill a thriving company culture in a startup environment, listen to 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 Strivin and Thrivin co-host. Today we’re thrilled to be joined by Lynsey.
Okay. To get us started, can you tell us a little bit about your career background your current role?
Lynsey: Yeah, sure. So, I started out my career as a tax accountant. I spent the first two years of my post-graduate life working basically doing tax returns constantly for small to medium businesses and not-for-profits. And look, that was kind of interesting but kind of not at the same time. And I guess it gave me a really quick insight as a grad and sort of in my early twenties as to what I was most passionate about and I have always been interested in businesses and how organisations sort of operate. I think coming into the business world from an accounting standpoint, whilst it gives you a great foundation, what it sort of taught me pretty quickly was that my passion lies much more in dealing with people-related matters and getting the best out of businesses from a people perspective, not so much from a financials perspective.
So, within my first two years, my boss at the time was sort of pressuring me to do the chartered accountant pathway, as all good accountants do, so you can start to climb up the career ladder. And I eventually worked up the courage to have a conversation with him after about three or four months to say, “Hey, I don’t think this is for me. I can’t see myself doing this for the rest of my life. I want to poke myself in the eye with a pen on some days”, all those sorts of things.
So, we had what ended up, for a man that was probably not well known for his conversation skills, we actually ended up having one of the most genuine and authentic conversations that I’ve had in my career today, actually. As much as he didn’t sort of use these words really, I kind of walked away from the conversation just thinking that whatever you do in your career, you’ve got to have a real passion and energy around it and particularly when you’re coming out of university having not necessarily held a role in that particular field, it’s okay to make changes. You don’t need to feel like you’re locked in.
So, after I had that conversation, I felt quite liberated to start looking for what I wanted to do next while I was still working there. So, we sort of agreed a six-month timeframe for me to find something else, which was really good from my perspective. I started looking for roles in the HR space. What I found through that experience was, and again this was almost 20 years ago now, it was really hard at that time I think to people to sort of think laterally about careers and sort of see that someone coming from an accounting and finance kind of background could actually bring a lot to an HR function. So, it did probably take me about four months to find something, which was a lot longer than what I’d sort of anticipated. But I guess I’ve found an organisation that sort of valued more of that sort of financial acumen and system approach that I sort of brought with my accounting background.
So, I just lapped up the opportunity and I went to work for a global outsourcing company that focuses on Real Estate and Facility Management. I learned a lot about the business and got a great deal of exposure to all the facets of HR from that time and I moved around into a couple of different roles in the construction and property industry. I really, really enjoyed that and I again, sort of grew my career just quite opportunistically. So, whenever there was a big project or a business acquisition or a divestment of a business, I’d kind of put my hand up and just jump into it. And if I didn’t know the answers, I’d admit that I didn’t know the answers and just try and either learn myself or find people that did know better than I. And that kind of led me through sort of about the next five years or so of my career.
So, I went traveling for six months, moved into the utilities industry, and part of my process of getting into organisational development, which is where I’ve sort of spent a good chunk of the last 12 or so years, was really through the interview process. Just mentioning the fact that I was quite interested about in leadership development, in how organisations deal with change and transform for the future. Rather than going into the role that I’d been interviewing for, I actually ended up going into an organisational development role which gave me huge sort of influence in the business, to be part of really transformational change and supporting leaders to be able to do their jobs better. And that kind of just continued to grow my passion.
And again, sort of made sure I was in the right place at the right time, having conversations with the right kind of leaders in the business about what I was interested in and how my skills and my qualifications might be able to support them. So, I even got involved in a transformation program because I was in the lift in the morning with the CEO and he happened to say to me, “Oh, what are you up to?” And I said, “Oh, I’m studying a postgraduate qualification in change and the company’s paying for it”, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And he said, “Oh, can you come down to my office at 10:00 o’clock and have a chat to me about that?” I thought that’s a bit strange, but I did it. And yeah, he asked me to come and work on a transformation program. So again, it’s one of those things that I guess I kind of look back and I think if I’d have not said, ‘hi’, to him that morning, would I have had the same sort of career direction that I’ve since had as a result?
So, if I fast forward to 2011, I went and joined NAB. So again, I took a role that was very organisational development focused, and I had a great career at NAB. So, I was there for nearly eight years. I did lots and lots of different things across the whole sort of people and culture or HR landscape. So, I led a consulting team, I was an organisational development head for two lines of business. So, you’re really close to the retail and personal banking area and so the product development and the markets end of the business. So, it really grew my knowledge on what banks are actually about.
And I then moved into the Head of Leadership and Professional Development for the bank. So, it was a really big people-leadership role. I had 32 people working for me at one point in time, and I did that for three years and stepped out for a short period on maternity leave and just kind of kept coming back looking for more challenges, and I got that. I worked on a transformation again at the tail end of my time at the bank. And that was I guess another great learning opportunity where I was thrown a big challenge of working at a plan for exiting a huge number of people from the bank and really kind of just grabbed it and ran with it and made it happen.
So, I left the bank in 2018 and since then I’ve been doing interim contract work in the People and Culture space. And what I’ve really loved about that is the variety of organisations that I’ve worked with. So, I’ve worked with retail businesses, higher education. I’ve worked with start-ups. I’ve worked in the technology industry. So, it’s really given me sort of the breadth of exposure to different kinds of businesses but equally I’ve been able to bring in, I guess, a good depth of experience to those environments as well and to sort of have a value proposition for them that I guess the experience of my 20 years in HR can kind of help to just solve some chunky business problems that they might be dealing with.
Laura: That is amazing. I’ve got so many questions on that. But going back to the beginning, when you came out of kind of accountancy and doing tax returns, what made you think that HR was the route that you wanted to go down and that was kind of what you wanted to try next?
Lynsey: Yeah. I think a lot of really young HR people or graduates will say, “Oh, I want to work back in HR because I love working with people”. That was never the reason for me. I like working with people. I wouldn’t say I love people. But what I sort of thought was different to accounting where you’re obviously focused on hard numbers, it’s quite black and white, people are so much more complex. And I like complexity. I guess I like not knowing what the day will bring, what the challenges will look like. And I suppose I’m probably like a bit of organised chaos in my life. And you definitely get that when you work in people and culture. You can have the best laid plans for what your week will look like, and then an employee issue will come up or some leadership development conference needs to be brainstormed. So, I guess I was drawn to it because I felt like I’m really passionate about business performance, not the numbers, but tapping into a resource that is complex to understand and complex to get the best out of.
Kristen: I can see the mix between accounting and people now.
Lynsey: There you go. Yeah.
Kristen: All development accounting, organised chaos. Perfect.
Laura: And then I guess one of the points you made and there were a lot, but just how do you manage a team of 32 people?
Lynsey: You need really great people in the team. So, I think one of the things that I’m quite good at is I can spot really great talent and I’ve worked with some fabulous people who I guess have been a great support crew to me. I’ve got a few people that I’ve worked with repeatedly now who’ve worked part of that team. And I guess, it’s really about as a leader, setting up a good infrastructure around you. Like good sort of roles and responsibilities, clear expectations for people and collaborating really well. So, I’m quite, I guess, a trusting, empowering leader. I want to work with people that want to work with me, and that’s really the only way that I could manage and organise a team like that in an organisation the size of NAB with 36,000 people, was just to be that kind of leader and to sort of clear the roadblocks and then step out of the way and let people shine and be their best.
Kristen: Did you have mentors to get you to that place of having that view? Or did you learn by mistakes on your way? Or how did you come to that philosophy of people management in leadership?
Lynsey: Yeah, probably a bit of both. I think I’ve had sort of informal mentors, if that makes sense. I’m not sure that I would say that they meet the technical definition of a mentor, but I guess in the roles that I’ve had, I’ve had the benefit of working with lots of leaders in lots and lots of different capacities. So, I’ve been able to see what gets the best and the worst out of people. And even when I was at the very early stages of my career, dealing with employee relations issues and grievances and counselling and health and safety type things that I’d often kind of look at those scenarios and think, well, when I’m in that position, now I know what I won’t do.
And it’s almost, I suppose, that’s kind of carved out my leadership persona if you like, is looking at those types of people and thinking well, I don’t want to be the kind of leader that’s breathing down the neck and my team, or I don’t want to be the kind of leader that doesn’t pick up the phone when their team member rings. I want to be known as someone that empowers people but also supports them as well, so I try and be a bit of both all the time.
Laura: I think that’s really valuable. And I think I always had a thing earlier in my career that I wanted to work for a really great leader because I’d had a couple that weren’t great. And I remember talking to a coach about it and just really coming to that realisation that you can learn just as much from the stuff you don’t want and all those things that you see that you don’t like, you can learn just as much from that as trying to find someone that you think looks like a good leader.
Kristen: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Very true.
Lynsey: Yeah, and I think that’s spot on, Laura. I think you can’t really sort of emulate people or say, I want to be a Richard Branson or whoever it is that’s your sort of poster child of leadership because that’s sort of an extreme personality, but you can kind of take the essence of some of the actions that those people whoever you’re aspiring to be does. But also thinking about the times when you’ve not felt your best in the workplace or when a leader has had an impact, that’s maybe not so positive on you and that can really shape and inform the decisions that you make as a leader and having those kinds of thought processes about the impact that you’re having on your team.
Laura: Yeah. So true. I guess, just as well, going back to your comment around kind of being able to spot great talent, what do you think makes a great team member, but more specifically around kind of your experience within HR and organisational development?
Lynsey: Yeah, I think in the HR space, there’s a lot of people that I guess haven’t had exposure to the depths of the business that they’ve worked in, and I think that really makes a difference. And what I mean by that is, when you’re working in HR, yes, you are part of the business, but you’re often dealing with sort of the periphery or issues that might come up. You’re not in the commercials, you’re not understanding necessarily the full operations end to end of the business. And I think the best HR and learning practitioners are the people that really take the time when they join an organisation. And it might take 12 or 18 months, but really, really take the time to understand the organisation and not make assumptions about the way that things work.
Organisations are really, really complex. And I think it can be really easy to sort of oversimplify and fall back on process or policy and think that a grievance is a grievance in every single organisation or performance management always needs to be the same. But there’s always that cultural aspect or the values of the organisation and how that plays out in decisions. So, I think anyone that aspires to be a really sort of top notch HR practitioner or learning practitioner, I would say, just get out there, just understand the business, even read more, get a AFR subscription, understand what’s going on in the business landscape, not just in the People and Culture world.
Kristen: What’s your favourite book or has brought you the most learnings I should say, or podcast?
Lynsey: Yeah. So, I went to Harvard two years ago and I did a course under Ron Heifetz, Adaptive Leadership. And so, anything that he’s written, I’ve got three of his books on my bookshelf. They’re just thought… They’re amazing. Adaptive leadership is really a concept that focuses on how leaders can change the broader system around them and that we often get distracted by what he calls technical challenges. So small problems that we spend most of our time working on when we’re actually not looking at the big picture. So, I was exposed to that probably about 10 years ago and it just always sort of sat with me and I had the opportunity just by fortune of being able to go over two years.
So, two years ago, so I went over there and did this course and I’ve literally read everything that he has written. And it’s, I mean, mostly some things that I don’t necessarily subscribe to. It’s just a really interesting way for anyone that’s interested in Leadership or People and Culture to just think about how we spend our time in organisations, and are we actually solving for the things that we should be trying to solve for.
Kristen: You mentioned before you’ve worked for start-ups and obviously large companies here in Melbourne, what do you prefer? The culture is very different in a start-up than what it is in a big corporate. What are the, “Fors and against” for both?
Lynsey: Yeah, I think, well, I’ll start with large organisations. What I love about large organisations is sort of the buzz and the energy that people can have around a particular brand that’s known in the market. So, they can be a lot of pride that can be attached to that. So, I remember obviously I spent a long time at NAB, and I remember some of the things that we were doing as an organisation I was so, so proud of. And there were people that I was working with, the pride was just oozing off of them. So that can be really great. Yeah. The other thing is, I guess, access to resources and not necessarily money because in major organisations the budgets can be really tight as well, but I guess you’re often exposed to people that have got such great experiences, breadth of connections and roles that they’ve had that you can’t always get in smaller places. So that’s what I did love. And that’s kind of why I hung around in the bank in particular for such a long time.
The con around that was really, I guess it can be complex to get things done. So, when you’re in large organisations and there’s so many different people that need to be engaged in things, it can be quite challenging. So, I guess, I’ve sort of focused in particular the last 18 months, really working with the smaller organisations who are scaling and the pace is what’s really, I guess, energising and enthusiastic for me. I just kind of jump up every day when I’m working on these kinds of programs of work with these smaller organisations, because you just know that there’s so much attached personally, to people to what’s happening in these organisations and different to working in a big company, you can kind of feel the impact straightaway if that makes sense.
Laura: I guess, given all that and kind of the vast array of business sizes and roles you’ve had over the last few years, what would you kind of give advice to anybody in their first few years as HR practitioner?
Lynsey: Yeah, look, I would definitely say again, really understand the business context and much more broadly than just from an HR perspective. So, I would say understand your HR world really well even if you do want to specialise in a particular stream, whether it’s Talent Acquisition or learning, don’t shy away from opportunities that expose you to the whole end to end HR space. And equally, if you do want to be a generalist, spend some time working in specialised functions or grab a project that is your learning and development type piece or something like that, because it gives you such a different perspective. And I’ve found, again, the people that tend to really stand out in the HR community are the people that have done that.
The other thing that I would say is, I would say, get exposure to the business, do it early, do it often. And again, really lift your head out of HR. So, understand what’s going on in the broader community, across the country from an economic perspective and think about how that applies in your business. And I guess if you can ask really good questions as an HR practitioner, it really makes a difference. So, bringing in that broader knowledge is what will kind of set you apart.
Laura: It’s really interesting. The last few people we spoke to have all said the same thing, just in that like, get to know the business that you’re in as much as possible, what are the widgets that they sell or what’s the service and who’s the customer. And if you can understand that the rest of it just seems to come together a lot quicker.
Kristen: Final thought from me.
Laura: Go on.
Kristen: I say, culture eats strategy for breakfast. As in a start-up, how do you really ensure that your culture is one of thriving and what are the first little signs of culture going bad?
Lynsey: I think that’s a really good question. I think particularly in the start-up with the scale-up kind of world, it can be very easy to sort of think, yeah, everyone joins us because they get what we do, and they’re sort of rallied around the purpose. But I think you can forget that you have to actually do deliberate work on purpose and values and culture. And I would say any leader that sort of leaves it any longer than really a couple of weeks in a start-up or scale-up environment between talking about this topic is probably on the wrong track, right? So, I am working with an organisation at the moment that is a scale-up and growing incredibly quickly. And the CEO of that company at every opportunity, he’s talking passionately about the vision, about the purpose, about the values, about what his aspiration is for where he wants leaders to be in that organisation as well.
So, I always kind of see it as being, you can’t over-communicate on this kind of stuff. And you need to, I guess, point out to people the signposts really quickly of what you’re doing that makes that, but also calling out or looking for opportunities constantly when work needs to be done. So, if you’ve got people joining your business who have got experience in particular areas, get them to sort of look at what’s going on and use the purpose as a kind of question mark in terms of, how are we doing? If we really want to be the best in the market or grow the fastest, are we setting ourselves up really well to be able to do that? So that culture eats strategy for breakfast, I 100% agree with it. If you, I guess, reinforcing the culture, demonstrating the culture and correcting people on the culture as well, you’re not going to win in your market, and they may be a need as well to make hard decisions about people that don’t fit in that environment that move quick within my view.
Kristen: And what number employee should a start-up hire a HR person?
Lynsey: Oh, I don’t know if there’s a number. I actually don’t know if I would even put a number, but I would say it’s early. Even if it’s not hiring an HR person, I think get someone on board who can advise, who can mentor, who can support. If you haven’t got the funding to bring on a permanent resource in a senior capacity, there are people like me that exists that can provide a day of week or a day of fortnight consulting or work on projects to make sure that you’re getting the best out of it. And that you’re setting the right tone for where you want to be in the future as well.
Laura: I think it’s like just getting those foundations in early, right? You’re saying that you’ve got to kind of know where you’re at, so you can keep saying it. So even if it is a day or fortnight, get those foundations of who you are, get those structures in place and the cultural cues and all those things that are going to keep reminding people. I don’t think there’s enough, especially from a start-up point of view. And I’ve kind of focus on getting that really early because I think it’s the early you can get it, the bigger the rewards later on, right?
Kristen: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. For sure.
Laura: Couple more questions, outside of work, what do you do to chill out?
Lynsey: To chill out? I really love going to the gym, so that’s one of the ways that I guess I’m mentally sort of calmed down from work, if that makes sense. So, I think again, sort of working in the HR space, you’re sort of juggling complexity, the impact that you’re having on people and the decisions that you make and that can be a little bit exhausting at times. So, I find going to the gym and making that part of my sort of regular way of operating is really helpful. I just love to sort of spend time with friends and family and do things that aren’t too serious as well. I think having roles where you are, I guess, accountable for a lot and accountable for, I guess, other people’s careers in some instances, again, there’s a bit of a mental load attached to that. So, I try not to take myself too seriously on the weekend.
Laura: That’s great. You’re totally right. And I think, especially when you’ve got a team of 32 or however many that you feel quite responsible for those people and it can get quite serious, so actually making that time to just relax and have a bit of fun at the weekend is definitely needed. And I think we were at a talk last night and they were just even talking about stuff like getting eight hours sleep because we’ve all done it. We think that the best thing we can do is just to keep working. If we keep going, we’ll be okay. We can get through that ridiculous to-do list, and it’s actually just the worst thing you can do.
Okay then, the last question we’ve been wrapping up with each week is, who would you like to hear from on the podcast? Who should we interview next?
Lynsey: Okay, great question. Okay, I would really love to hear from the CEO of a scale-up business. So, someone that’s a couple of years into it with a bit of lessons learned.
Laura: Yeah. I love that.
Lynsey: I think that would be really awesome.
Laura: Great. Thank you so much for your time today. Really appreciate it.
Lynsey: No problems at all.
Laura: Take care.
Lynsey: No worries. All right. Thank you.