Alison Watkins, group managing director at Coca-Cola Amatil, shares her thoughts on HR leadership with AHRI CEO Lyn Goodear.
Lyn Goodear: How are you putting your leadership stamp on the organisation?
Alison Watkins: There are four priorities that, with the help of the board, I’ve been able to frame into a clear plan. Our business performance had been deteriorating, so we needed to understand what our reality was and make sure we were facing up to it and dealing with it adequately.
Having that clear plan was the first priority. Second was having a clear vision, and creating an energy and purpose everyone in the organisation can relate to. The third priority is around our relationships with major customers, which were all under stress. The fourth priority is building a strong leadership team at the top.
Coming in, I thought carefully about how I could display – through my words, my actions and how I spend my time – that I was focused on each of those four priorities.
In terms of customer relationships, I went over to The Coca-Cola Company in Atlanta as part of my induction, met our major retail customers, and listened to what they were saying and to their advice.
In terms of building a strong leadership team, I discussed with the team what my priorities would be, what sort of CEO I might be, what changes we would make, and what changes we would wait to make, according to each of those four priorities.
LG: How has your personal strategy of listening – to your customers, your leadership team and your people – had an impact at CCA?
AW: Listening is an important strategy for any leader, although sometimes there’s a lot of pressure because people want you to make a decision. You have to strike the right balance.
But being a questioner, going beyond the obvious and asking more and more questions is an important way of not only learning yourself, but also of creating an environment where people know that you’ll be interested in taking their views on board. That’s good for the long-term, and also for the short term to get up to speed.
The culture at CCA is highly performance-oriented. People are good at ‘getting on with it’ and following directions. The culture we need going forward retains strength around that ability to get things done, but the kind of environment we’re operating in means we need people who are themselves good questioners, good problem-solvers, who can form a view, make a decision, and who we can hold accountable for decisions.
Sometimes in a strongly directive culture, people wait for instructions and you don’t get accountability. So we’re going through a lot of thinking about change in our organisation.
There’s also the digital revolution. It’s speeding up everything and changing the nature of jobs in the organisation. A top-down directive approach isn’t going to be rapid and flexible enough for the kind of challenge that lies ahead.
LG: On managing the work-family challenge, Annabel Crabb says in her new book The Wife Drought that “women need wives and men need lives”. Your husband Ron quit his investment banking role 13 years ago to become a stay-at-home parent to your four children, the youngest now 13 years of age. What lessons can you share from that?
AW: Large organisations came out of the environment where men worked and women didn’t, and where nine to five Monday to Friday made sense. It’s a very different construct that has developed in the past 15 years.
In organisations such as ours, which have been around a very long time, we have to challenge ourselves to adapt, and I’m excited about the focus we have on increasing women’s participation.
Obviously, I’m a great beneficiary of that focus and have been given great opportunities. But I’ve also been fortunate in not having to compromise in order to do that. For example, I haven’t sacrificed having a family.
The reason it’s worked for me is that my husband has always more than pulled his weight at home. So the second shift that most women still pick up when they return home from work – cooking, cleaning, caring for children, etc – my husband does 90 per cent of that.
As a society, to create work environments that allow women to participate more effectively, we have to consider how we can allow men to participate more effectively at home.
We can’t get to 50/50 gender participation at work unless we get to 50/50 participation at home. We have to educate our children at pivotal moments – when they’re choosing careers, when they’re making choices about how they’ll parent.
LG: Your commitment to a more transparent work culture includes penning a weekly blog to staff. How has this helped drive engagement?
AW: Engagement is about going the extra mile. My plan is to be accessible – to be a leader people feel they know, can relate to and trust. Of course, in a large organisation, people only catch glimpses of you. So by writing a couple of hundred words every week about what’s going on – what’s important at CCA, how I’m spending my time, what happened on the weekend, what my kids are up to – I hope it helps people at CCA feel they know me, and feel they want to stay with us and thrive.
Ultimately, I hope they’ll feel sufficiently clear about what we’re doing and that it’s exciting, and that I’m contributing to their understanding of why what they’re doing is really important.
This article is an edited version. The full article was first published in the February 2015 issue of HRMonthly magazine as ‘Thirsty work’. AHRI members receive HRMonthly 11 times per year as part of their membership. Find out more about AHRI membership here.