Leadership Learnings with Lend Lease

georgia knoxBy Georgia Knox, Manager – Projects/M&A at APN News & Media and current student of the University of Sydney Business School’s MBA program

We concluded the first MBA subject ‘Leadership Practice and Development’ (LP&D) by learning about engagement – the measure of how much of themselves people give to their role at work. It was a fitting way to end, as engagement is a superior predictor of overall leadership effectiveness and it accordingly draws on all of the concepts that we learned – and practiced (many times!) – throughout the unit of study.

I left the last day of the three-weekend intensive subject amazed; not only at how much I had personally developed as a leader, but also at how readily I could apply my new skills to my own work environment.

It was perfect timing then, when Dr. Will Harvey (one of the unit of study’s two facilitators) invited our MBA cohort to an “hour of power” with two Lend Lease HR executives – Michael Vavakis, Group Head of Human Resources and Lisa White, Head of Talent and Organisation Performance. What better opportunity to discuss the challenges and benefits of people management and employee engagement than a Q&A session with two people at the top of their field at one of the world’s leading fully integrated property and infrastructure businesses?

Michael and Lisa’s initial mandate at Lend Lease was to place HR permanently on the company’s radar. Now, it is to develop and implement an exemplary HR strategy for the next three years. They shared their insights along this journey with us.

To kick-off the journey, Michael advised us to gain the buy-in of the CEO and senior management: “If you don’t have the support of your CEO, then you have zero percent chance of being successful.” So how do your obtain this buy-in? Find out what is most important to the CEO and his direct reports and start with working on that. This could range from advising on incentive schemes to succession planning. Once you have delivered on this, those at the top will directly see the value in what you are doing.

But buy-in at this level is just one step. Obtaining the acceptance and enthusiasm of the rest of the organisation is a whole new challenge. At a company as large and diverse as Lend Lease, where there are over 18,000 employees working in four key regions across the globe, there will undoubtedly be resistance from different groups to change. Lisa’s insight in this respect is to see this as an opportunity. View your internal stakeholders as a different form of customer base, understand their different needs and “don’t speak too much HR” – engage with them by speaking their language.

Michael and Lisa’s current challenge is implementing their impressive Group HR and Talent Management strategies for FY13-15, which go hand-in-hand with greater business strategy and company culture. And at the heart of it all is – you guessed it – employee engagement. Lisa explained that you need a variety of measures of engagement to track how your initiatives in all of these areas are going. Lend Lease uses formal engagement surveys (the results of which will be tied to the performance review cycle from next year) as well as focus groups from across 12 different company areas to collect engagement data. Lisa noted that while the data is not always easy to listen to, it cannot be categorised as ‘wrong’ or ‘right’, as it is based on the experiences of each individual.

That insight drove home the importance of people managers, like many of us in the MBA cohort, in the engagement process. Michael affirmed it when he stated that: “Where people take most of their guidance from is the manager that they work with every day. That relationship shapes their engagement experience.”

It was exciting to hear of how such a large organisation has recognised the centrality of employee engagement and leadership to its operational success and has undertaken significant change in order to ensure that these concepts have a permanent place on the radar. It serves as a precedent in this regard for other large corporates and it also proves how much of a positive difference that we can make at both an organisational and individual level through the application of our LP&D learnings.

So, thank you to Michael and Lisa for both your time and your insights. And thank you to Will for arranging such an apt session to top-off a fantastic course!

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