Managing Director of Hearing Australia, Kim Terrell, shares how he’s empowering his HR team
Kim Terrell is accustomed to working in high-performing teams: he was part of the Australian swim team for 5 years in the 1980s and went to the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, as well as winning ten national titles and holding six Australian records.
From there he continued to push himself, and over the years completed multiple degrees, earned three Australia Day awards, and built an extensive career that spans from working with various Prime Ministers and Ministers and establishing the Digital Transformation Office, the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority and myGov.
There’s no doubt that Kim has applied his winning attitude to his career in government, leveraging his ability to build successful, driven teams.
“I’m competitive,” Kim admitted.
“I like succeeding. I think I learned that through sport, and that has shaped me, no question.”
Kim was appointed to the role of Managing Director of Hearing Australia in 2018. He knew early on that in order to take his organisation forward, his focus needed to be on the strategic HR agenda of the organisation.
Hearing Australia is a statutory body which provides outstanding hearing services and research into hearing loss,” said Kim. “We have helped over a million Australians in the last 30 years and currently have some 300,000 clients, ranging from newborns to children, to adults, pensioners and veterans. We see every child with hearing loss in the country and help with counselling and hearing devices. One of the most important things we’re doing right now is looking into how we can implement a national hearing loss prevention strategy and reduce hearing loss in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.”
Kim knew he was surrounded by an incredibly talented and committed team, but he also identified areas requiring improvement.
“We needed to change,” Kim said. “We were an organisation built on traditional service delivery models. Our people are fantastic, we have many very talented clinicians, but the reality is the world is changing around us rapidly, and we weren’t as equipped as we needed to be.”
So Kim initiated a functional review of the organisation. “Part of that was to look at where we were going and where we needed to head in a strategic sense, but more importantly what internal capabilities we needed. We were strong in some areas, weaker in others.”
“One area we really needed to focus on was our people.”
Kim knew a strategic workforce focus was essential to the transformation of his team and his organisation. This started with upskilling the existing HR team, to give them the tools they needed, and making sure staff were front and centre of the organisational transformation.
So how did he do it? And what can all of us learn from his experience and apply to our own organisations?
Kim’s first bit of advice is empowering staff, emphasising the fact that when people are empowered, they rise to the challenge. “I started the journey by explaining to my team the importance of their role enabling the transformation agenda,” he said, “and that I have huge expectations about how they could help me and the strategic leadership team to achieve the change.”
To support their development, Kim also brought in external experts to challenge old ways of thinking.
“So we lined up what we needed to do to develop our leadership and the capability of people, and have been putting them front and centre – we’ve been doing that for the past 12 months.”
And the HR team stepped up and was front and centre to the transformation process: revitalising the whole organisation.
“The glue that holds an organisation together is both its purpose and culture,” he said. “In any of these activities, it’s all about being very clear about the vision – creating clarity for staff and stakeholders for the ‘what’ and ‘how’. Then it’s about getting the right team together; and getting the team to work as a team. I always invest a lot in the culture of the team, and if you get it right it should help the rest of the organisation.”
This is where the newly energised HR team came in, helping Kim to bring the Hearing Australia leadership group on board. “That’s the heart of any HR endeavour,” said Kim.
“Make staff feel confident, trusted, respected, challenged, and that they can contribute.”
Since then Kim has worked with HR to take a number of strategic actions, focusing on how strategic leadership works; for example, looking at new ways of working across silos, and encouraging creativity.
The ideal is to reach something like a self-perpetuating cultural cycle – what Kim calls a ‘virtue circle’. “When you get to a point when we are demonstrating those values, helping others achieve those values... that to me is the virtue circle.”
And this has been critical to Hearing Australia’s response to COVID-19, with people at all levels across the organisation stepping up to the challenge and helping some 2,500 clients each day via a range of new tele-audiology, face-to-face and digital services.
But how did Kim know what effect the transformation was having on staff?
“The Public Service Commission do a survey annually,” Kim explained. “But typically it takes agencies some time to collate the results and address staff feedback.” I can’t wait that long and have implemented a survey tool that runs fortnightly across Hearing Australia. “This gives us real-time information on how people are feeling, how engaged they are, and five-to-six other key metric areas.”
“Our people have responded really well. Data and transparency is essential and our people have enjoyed the opportunity to provide rapid feedback and ideas.”
The tool also benefits the senior executives and the HR team, as they can drill down into the data to assess how individual teams are tracking. “We can identify teams working well and figure out why; identify teams that are struggling and intervene – this is pretty much in real time.”
As an example, the question ‘How are you feeling about your personal wellbeing?’ scored 62% at beginning of April, but with organisation-wide action scored 70% in May. “The survey tool made it clear we needed to more here, and we acted accordingly,” Kim said.
When asked how he got the best out of people while avoiding burnout in a large transformation process, Kim had this to say: “I hope people would say that I am very focused on helping them be successful. I’m very focused on trying to be clear about the direction and expectations that go with the role they’re doing. I’m a big believer in compassion. It’s probably not talked about enough, but you need to be able to feel what your people are going through, particularly in times of crisis such as a pandemic, and you need to try to walk in their shoes.”
“It’s been a really great journey and the HR team has been incredibly helpful.”