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Current as of 23/09/16 07:39PM NZST
Personal finance and KiwiSaver columnist at the NZ Herald

Executive Success: Discovering new ways to communicate

Video updates and apps for staff are among the tools being put to work at Spark Digital.
Heather Polglase began her new job by asking staff to tell her how their work affected customers. Photo / Nick Reed
Heather Polglase began her new job by asking staff to tell her how their work affected customers. Photo / Nick Reed

Buttoning things back was the first thing Heather Polglase did when she stepped into a senior human resources role at Spark Digital a little over two years ago.

After a decade working for consumer goods retailers, it was a brand new industry and a fast-changing one at that.

The temptation was to get stuck in, boots and all, and "get stuff done", she says.

Instead, the 38-year-old head of HR at Spark's business-to-business arm heeded the advice she'd been given in a previous role to resist her first impulse. Rather than leaping in, she spent weeks talking to staff across the business.

She wanted to know what it was they were working on that was so important to their customers.

"Tell me how your role shows up for customers," she asked.

Polglase says that approach quickly gave her an understanding - beyond the acronyms and technical speak - of what it was they were spending their time doing.

She also asked them what capability they'd fix or build if there was a spare $100,000 in the budget.

It was a hypothetical question, but the answers gave her insights into where the business issues and sticking points were.

"Then I could marry all those insights up back against our strategy and say: what will I do first, what's a quick win and what's a maybe later?" Ideas needed to stack up financially, with a clear return on investment or they didn't make it off the drawing board.

"To my mind that's the commercial business story because I sometimes find that HR functions may not express themselves in ways that are commercial," says Polglase.

Formerly known as Gen-I, Spark Digital has been through huge change as it and its parent, Spark, shift from their telecommunications roots.

"A lot of people go straight to 'oh well, that must mean restructure', and certainly I guess that's the bit people highlight but behind that, what I would say is, what we've been doing is actually radically transforming the way that we work and how teams of people from different expertise or functional areas actually come together to deliver something better and more for our customers."

Polglase says that hasn't been without challenges, particularly as "multitudes of people", herself included, have changed roles.

The flip side, she says, is that it gives the organisation amazing insights into the digital transformation many of its customers are embarking on.

The other positive side to people moving and switching roles, she says, is the need to constantly communicate the reasons for the changes, both internally and to customers.

"That communication is not just about pushing emails out or bulletins or newsletters, it's really been about well, how do we find different channels that make sense for them and are two-way where possible so we can interact."

I'm always encouraging our other leaders to go after that real, honest, raw feedback because that's what's going to make the difference.
Heather Polglase, Spark Digital

Polglase has even ditched her own email updates to management - mainly because she dislikes writing long emails, and also because she suspects people dislike reading them - in favour of a spoken, audiobook-style update.

The response was that people loved the new approach but wanted to see and not just hear her.

"Well, isn't that ironic, because there are not too many organisations where people are asking to see the head of HR or the HR team." Now it's a video-based communication that has evolved to include interviews with leaders within the business.

With digital leadership an important part of the future, she says it is increasingly important to make use of internal experts and make peer-to-peer knowledge sharing work within the organisation.

TED talk-style presentations are now available to help with everything from nailing a Linkedin profile to using HR self-help portals.

Polglase always has her eye on new tools and ways to communicate, with apps being used more widely for this purpose.

A lot of what she works on is focused on "test practice" - trying new ideas on the fly - rather than the backward looking "best practice".

As someone who has perfectionist tendencies, Polglase says she has been surprised at her ability to run with ideas that are a bit experimental.

Now in development is an on-boarding app to support people through that awkward first day on the job.

"That, I think, is the worst feeling in the world.

"That's like first date kind of stuff." Instead, access to content and context on what to expect when people show up for work will be available as soon as the job contract is signed, she says.

"That's a really important thing when you are running at pace like we are."

The year ahead will bring a focus on leadership coaching. Polglase says it's about giving people access to different insights and different leadership ideas other than those of their immediate manager.

It's something she has found hugely beneficial personally as she has moved into more senior roles.

Polglase says executive coaching gave her the "real oil", enabling her to identify and address weaknesses that could potentially become barriers to career development.

"I'm always encouraging our other leaders to go after that real, honest, raw feedback because that's what's going to make the difference."

- NZ Herald

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