A change that benefits everyone
Belinda Casson, Head of HR at the Department of Finance and former Assistant Commissioner at the ATO, joined the organisation on temporary transfer at an extraordinary time. It was June 2020; the organisation was in the peak of delivering JobKeeper, and the majority of the workforce had just started working from home.
One year on, her time at one of the APS’s largest organisations has come to an end. We caught up with her during her final week to chat about what the past 12 months has taught her, and to see if she can share any tips for people looking for a change.
Can you tell us a bit about what brought you to the ATO?
There were a lot of things that made the offer to do HR at the ATO appealing. For one, it’s an organisation that is more than four times larger than the largest agency I had worked at. The chance to do HR at scale, as well as work for the Head of Profession – Jacqui Curtis – was just too good an opportunity to pass up. I was also incredibly excited by the prospect of working on the APS HR Graduate Program. As a former graduate, I am very passionate about graduate programs and think there is so much potential in this program.
You joined the organisation at an extraordinary time. What was that like?
It was confronting – everything about COVID was confronting. I was recruited over a series of video calls and didn’t meet my manager in person until several months after starting at the ATO. I have staff and colleagues I have worked with closely over the past year that I will never meet. That has been tough, especially for an extroverted HR person.
I was also used to being co-located in Canberra with my teams. If I needed to have a stand up, for example, I’d go outside my office and ask everyone to gather in the kitchen. At the ATO – and during COVID particularly – working like that was obviously impossible.
But there were some benefits to come out of doing more things virtually. COVID changed our whole operating platform for the grad program, for example, and we had to flip to Zoom. The convenience of that meant we would get deputy secretaries and people like Jacqui to ‘crash’ our Zoom sessions much more frequently and easily then if they had to come in person. So, in that sense it really improved the accessibility of some very senior people, which was great for the grads.
You’ve worked at a range of other government agencies, including the Department of Education and the Department of Health. What was it like joining the ATO?
It was a lot to get my head around at first. Not only is the ATO much, much bigger than anywhere I had ever worked before, the business is entirely different too. I came from much smaller, more centralised agencies with a focus on national policy design and implementation. By contrast, Tax has sites – big sites – right across the country and in a number of regional centres, and is for the most part a service delivery organisation.
That said though, I had the same ‘mental checklist’ for transitioning into my ATO role as I have had for my other roles. For starters, I knew I needed to understand the business before I could apply HR. Reading corporate publications such as the agency’s corporate plan and annual report have always helped give me a grounding for what an agency is focussed on. Another handy short cut I have found is ministerial media releases and transcripts from the agency’s latest appearance at Senate Estimates – it is a great way to get perspective on the ‘hot issues’.
After that, it’s about getting in and connecting with your team and other colleagues. They are the ones that will really get you up and running.
Do you have any tips you can offer for people who are looking to transition roles? How can they make the transition as smooth as possible?
For starters – if you’re a leader – you need to think about your transition ‘out’ of the role you are in. I say this is particularly important for leaders because their leaving can have a real impact. You need to be conscious that you are leaving a strong team with some solid foundations in place.
The power of networks cannot be underestimated either. Have your networks finely tuned in your own department, across the profession, and in multiple agencies. These people can give you invaluable access to information – they may even be the ones to help you identify an opportunity to begin with.
Once you are in your new role, I like to have a very clear conversation with my manager and team to establish clear expectations. I ask them ‘What does success look like in this role – in 30 days, 60 days, one year?’ This is especially important if you are in a role temporarily – you need to quickly develop a clear sense of what they want out of having you in the team.
It’s critical to take a ‘stewardship’ approach to the roles. If you come into a new team with the mindset that you just want to make a great contribution while you are here, and make an effort to provide positive change and stability, then that is likely to set you up for an experience that not only benefits you and your career, but also the team and agency you have joined.
Many people find it challenging to take up new roles in new agencies, for various reasons. How do you think we can improve mobility in the APS and do you have any words of advice you can share to help people who are on the lookout for new opportunities?
We do need to be better at mobility in the APS, we know that. But we also need individuals to know that the onus is on them if they want to make a change. Make sure your networks know that you are open to new opportunities. You could be very happy in your current role but still open to having a chat – there’s nothing wrong with that.
Mobility is multi-layered but is something that can have enormous benefits to everyone involved if it is done well. Of course, our commitment to mobility needs to be tempered with the need for stability. Sometimes it’s just not practical or good timing to have people changing roles. That’s why having an honest conversation with your manager is a good start to exploring your options.
You are now coming to the end of your time at the ATO. What do you think you’ve learned from the experience, and what are you looking to learn from your next endeavour at the Department of Finance?
The opportunity to do HR at scale at the ATO has really been amazing. When you have a workforce this size you can innovate and try new things. Of course, what you can do at a large scale can also be done on a much smaller one, and I look forward to trying out a few of the things I have learnt in my new role. The networks I have made here have also been amazing – even though I was never able to meet people in person! Working in an organisation that is quite advanced in its HR journey has also been eye opening. I have seen the benefits of HR being a true business partner, and I know that will help me advance the case for HR in my next agency.
Finally, do you have some tips for aspiring HR leaders?
Where to start? A couple of key things spring to mind here:
- Invest in your capability – it goes without saying I’d encourage you to focus on your own learning and development – it’s vitally important to keep your HR knowledge current, so you can continue to be a credible, trusted advisor to your department or agency.
- Invest in your networks – another obvious one for me to call out! Remember, the best network is a mix of people who can help you, and people you can help – as well as peers and colleagues who can provide a much-needed friendly ear about a difficult case, or an idea on how to solve a HR challenge.
- Invest in your own wellbeing – HR can be a tough gig. Make sure you find the things that ‘fill your cup’ and commit to making space for them in your diary, because it will help you stay on top of the day-to-day challenges of life in HR. For me, that’s cycle classes with colleagues a few times a week – the exercise part is obviously important, but it’s the coffee and chat afterwards that really seals the deal!
You can find Belinda on LinkedIn or contact her at Belinda.Casson@finance.gov.au.