A colourful childhood that spanned many countries set Helen Matovu, Chief People Officer at Code Like A Girl, on a career path that centred people, community and purpose.
Every two to four years during her childhood, Helen Matovu’s family would pack up their belongings and move to a new country. Growing up with a diplomat father meant Matovu, who was born in Uganda, never settled in one place for long.
“We were like army kids whose families had to uproot every four years,” says Matovu, Chief People Officer at technology social enterprise Code Like A Girl.
As relocation became a constant feature of her upbringing, so too did multilingualism and a curiosity about other people and their backgrounds. At age seven, Matovu left Uganda for France, before starting secondary school in the Central African Republic.
“Moving so often meant having to learn about people and the ways they operate.”
By the time Matovu was 11, her parents decided it was important for their daughters to live in one place and receive a consistent education, so they enrolled them in a boarding school in the UK.
“That’s where I started to learn English. My mother tongue was Luganda and my second language was French, so my sister and I would have to sit in extra language lessons at the end of school to brush up on our English.”
After completing her last few school years in Swaziland and then in South Africa, Matovu returned to the UK for university where she graduated with a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in Linguistics and French from Birkbeck, University of London.
“My childhood and early adult experiences helped me be resilient to change and build an understanding of how we’re all impacted by our different circumstances. It prompted me to lead from a place of curiosity. What drives people to be who they are in their personal life and at work? How can leaders work with each employee to get the best results for them personally and for the organisation? My approach to my work is single-handedly linked to how I grew up.”
Developing a passion for HR
While working in corporate communications at City & Guilds – a UK-based skills development organisation – Matovu was tasked with developing an internal communications strategy with the HR team.
“I was privy to conversations about behavioural change, best-practice messaging, embedding company values, and how we generate engagement and good communication internally before we tell our story externally.
“In the back of my mind, I thought HR could be a great space to work in because all my interests – behavioural change, language and communication – felt intrinsically linked to this work.”
“If it wasn’t for AHRI, I wouldn’t have retrained to become an HR practitioner. It was the final nail that indicated to me that this is exactly what I need to be doing.” – Helen Matovu, Chief People Officer, Code Like A Girl
Matovu’s interest in HR was piqued when she immigrated to Australia in 2012 and, in 2015, began working at AHRI as Senior Communications and Content Coordinator.
AHRI’s commitment to the certification of HR professionals was hugely influential in her decision to pursue a career in HR.
“Certification is an important way for HR practitioners to operate from a place of governance and transparency,” she says. “AHRI inspired me to professionalise my HR learning. I also learnt about good success stories across Australian organisations that did HR practice well.
“That experience really underscored my love for the sector. HR is critical to establishing a good organisation that people are proud of.”
In 2017, Matovu sealed the deal by completing AHRI’s BSB40420 Certificate IV in Human Resource Management.
“If it wasn’t for AHRI, I wouldn’t have retrained to become an HR practitioner. It was the final nail that indicated to me that this is exactly what I need to be doing.”
A pathway to B Corp certification
Self-reflection is a key attribute required of HR leaders, and this proved particularly relevant when Matovu recently began leading a values alignment project as Chief People Officer at Code Like A Girl.
“We’re in the process of seeking B Corp certification,” she says.
This is a globally recognised certification that demonstrates a company’s social, community and environmental commitments. It requires high standards and commitments from the organisations that seek to use the B Corp certified logo, and involves a lengthy and thorough application process.
“One of the main reasons we wanted to do this was to self-examine our organisation and ensure we’re authentically working towards rebalancing gender representation in the technology sector,” says Matovu.
“But beyond that, we want to encourage young women to see that there are opportunities for them, and there are people championing them.”
“It’s a wonderful opportunity for HR to work with their colleagues to ensure that everyone is operating from a place of transparency.” – Helen Matovu, Chief People Officer, Code Like A Girl
The process of applying for B Corp certification took seven months and required considerable introspection: “Can we say that we are a socially impactful organisation? Are we really transparent? Do we operate from a place of strong governance?”
Putting the application together highlighted key strengths and areas of development for the organisation.
“We’re very transparent about our KPIs and how we’re performing financially as a company, right from the CEO level to the most junior roles.”
It also prompted Matovu and other senior leaders to not only examine the organisation’s internal processes, but to turn their attention towards external partners and suppliers.
“The B Corp process has helped us scrutinise the assessments we give organisations that apply to become a Code Like a Girl partner – either for sponsorship opportunities or to offer internships. We need to consider factors such as whether they have mentors and dedicated line managers, and what their feedback model looks like.”
Equally important to creating a more stringent assessment process for potential partners is being able to provide well-considered – and often uncomfortable – feedback.
“It’s helped us to be more courageous in being able to say to some organisations that they might not be quite ready to be an internship partner,” says Matovu. “Being true to who we are means we might have to turn down an opportunity that looks lucrative and exciting because our values aren’t aligned.”
Unifying teams around the organisation’s collective goals – to facilitate the best possible internship experience and close the gender gap in the technology sector – helped drive this message home.
“It’s made us all be more dedicated to our community of interns. They are an extension of Code Like a Girl, so their experience is our experience. We need to be responsible and transparent so that our interns’ experiences align with our intention.”
Applying for B Corp certification has presented a unique opportunity to bring all parts of the organisation together. This has also given HR direct insight into the roles and responsibilities of each department.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity for HR to work with their colleagues to ensure that everyone is operating from a place of transparency,” says Matovu. “The application process is very intensive, so it’s been great to pull together a strong working group made up of different roles across the organisation.”
It’s also a project for the benefit of the entire organisation, rather than reflecting the interests of one department.
“It’s a whole-of-organisation objective to become certified, but the exercise itself is where we’ve taken the most pride. It’s enabled a lot of self-examination and retrospection, and that’s been invaluable for us. It has also helped employees better understand our purpose and values.”
A longer version of this article first appeared in the March 2023 edition of HRM Magazine.
AHRI’s training and certification programs kickstart amazing career opportunities. Like Matovu, you could start out with AHRI’s BSB40420 Certificate IV in Human Resource Management and then one day lead an HR team. Learn more about the training AHRI has on offer.