Red Cross Australia’s 2500 staff and 20,000 volunteers all have CEO Robert Tickner’s mobile number.
“Hardly anyone abuses it,” laughs Tickner.
In a 40-year career spanning academia, law, politics and the not-for-profit sector, Tickner has seen how people and culture create successful organisations. And he’s had the chance to put his ideas into practice during a decade of seismic change at the humanitarian organisation.
“I know that an organisation needs ‘people glue’: to hold it together, to inspire it and to drive it to high achievement,” he says. “I’ve always thought that it’s critically important to build a workplace culture where people feel part of the organisation, are proud to work there and feel they have a genuine opportunity to contribute to decision making.”
That puts human resources director Chris Steinfort and his team of 70 in the frontline to contribute to the organisation’s activities and direction.
“Chris and I have been a pretty good natural fit. He’s always strongly argued the case for HR to have a seat at the decision-making table,” says Tickner. “For me, it was conceded on day one, because that’s what I believe, too.”
Steinfort agrees. “Sometimes Robert might not like some of the things I say, but it’s done with a sense of trust in terms of the relationship and the greater good, which is what’s best for the organisation. I’ll never provide advice because I know that’s what someone wants to hear; I’ll provide advice that’s professionally appropriate and Robert respects that.”
When Tickner took on the role of Red Cross CEO in 2005, the board had just agreed to reform the complex organisation. Over the 95 years of its history to that point, the Red Cross had been a federation of state-based organisations.
By the time Steinfort joined four years later, the governance groundwork for reform had been laid, but this move was only the beginning. of the process.
“When Chris came in we had the commitment to move into one cohesive system, but the challenge that remained was to deliver on that.”
A second wave of reform in 2008 reviewed the 130 programs and services operating across the country “because until then, we’d been trying to be all things to all people”, says Tickner.
The new service priorities include national emergencies, international aid and development, championing international humanitarian law, the impact of migration, working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, overcoming social exclusion and working with youth, families and communities in remote and regional areas.
A massive change management program was rolled out, underpinned by a commitment to wide consultation and involvement of members, volunteers and staff.
Staff engagement surveys have been another driver of the Red Cross reform process, “listening to the workforce and then delivering on that”, says Steinfort.
In a major exercise, Tickner wrote to every staff member and travelled the country letting them know he shared responsibility for the results and promising change. Plans were developed to address issues including change management, leadership, communication, training and development, says Steinfort.
“We’ve done four surveys since and all categories have improved,” Steinfort says. “It goes back to the employment contract – not the legal one, but the proposition in terms of people, staff or volunteers – joining the organisation. People expect the organisation to be true to its humanitarian values and objectives. They also have a skills set, are proud of that and want to use it, and they expect to see it continue to be developed,” Steinfort says.
An induction program has been rolled out nationally as well as online learning and skills development programs under the Workforce Development Plan. In 2014, 86 per cent of managers and team leaders, and more than 800 team members enrolled in a program.
In recent times, the organisation has been tested with the loss of government funding for two major programs. When the Immigration Department cut funding for the asylum seeker support service last year, it meant the retrenchment of some 500 staff. It was “immensely challenging” says Tickner from a personal, HR, organisation and logistical point of view.
“We know the reaction of people because we saw it first-hand: mass meetings of staff, with people grieving. But overwhelmingly, the focus of case workers around the country was on the clients,” Tickner says.
Steinfort and his team developed a document to explain the process, clarifying and spelling out scenarios for redundancy, redeployment and retrenchment.
Tickner is proud of the way the redundancy program was handled. While it was emotional both for those leaving and those delivering the news, “we managed to do it in such a way that those leaving still hold the organisation in high regard and where the number of public embarrassments to Red Cross were, as far as I can recall, nil.
“In some ways, what was one of our darkest hours was also one of the important demonstrations of the level of commitment of the Red Cross to its people.”
Australian Red Cross was Indigenous Employer winner at the AHRI Awards in 2014.
NOTE: Robert Tickner will step down as CEO of the Australian Red Cross in September this year.
This article is an edited version. The full article was first published in the September 2015 issue of HRMonthly magazine as ‘Times two’. AHRI members receive HRMonthly 11 times per year as part of their membership. Find out more about AHRI membership here.