Brenda Hawke spent her early career in major organisations, pushing boundaries and executing change, but it was a mammoth shift in her personal life that enabled her to see where she could make the biggest difference.
Brenda Hawke became aware of her gifts early on. She loved helping people assess their needs and reach new goals, and was confident about having tricky conversations. But it was when her father lay sick in a Mackay hospital during his final weeks and she watched staff rally around him, exhausted yet determined, that she knew where she wanted to apply those skills.
“I suddenly had a completely different perspective. From the cleaning staff to the admin staff, to the doctors and nurses who just got through COVID, these people have had to turn up daily. I wanted to be able to give back to that industry, to help them do their jobs,” says Hawke, who is the Senior Director, Talent and Organisational Development, at Queensland Health.
Before taking on this role, she had already garnered considerable HR and change management experience. After 14 years at Westpac, where she ended up leading the Regional Finance Service Centre, she had yearned for something more community-focused, and took the role of local government customer service and HR manager in the small Queensland town of Beaudesert.
“It was my first specific HR role. I loved assessing what motivated people and helping them decipher their next step.”
Her skills were tested in 2007 when the Queensland government created new council boundaries. Hawke helped disband an entire workforce into two councils.
“People had so many questions: ‘Am I going to have a job at the end of it? How do I pay the bills? When will I know what’s happening next?’ I learned that even if there is nothing to say to people, there is still something to say.
“I also realised how comfortable I felt leaning into difficult conversations to ultimately help businesses move forward.”
From there, she moved to Queensland Rail, where she centralised its decentralised model and reviewed its resourcing, training and recognition policies, ultimately transforming its operations. Then she spent four years at Suncorp, where she implemented a reskilling program that dramatically changed the capacity of the workforce.
After this professional milestone came a momentous shift in her personal life when her beloved dad passed away from cancer.
By chance, she saw a role advertised at Queensland Health that had carriage of leadership, job design, organisational development and talent attraction.
“It was an ideal fit in terms of my personal purpose and my experience. I started the role literally a year to the day after my dad passed away,” she says. “That to me is very special.”
With a workforce of 100,000 people, plus 11,000 in the Department of Health, the opportunities and challenges were vast.
Values-driven change management
In her new position as Senior Director, Talent and Organisational Development, Hawke’s mission is to transform Queensland Health into “a contemporary organisation and an integrated health service, with people knocking down our doors to work for us”.
Achieving this requires “bold and courageous ideas”, she says. There are plenty of initiatives already underway.
One notable success has been the introduction of hybrid working for non-medical staff – a significant shift for a government organisation, but crucial for its attractiveness as an employer.
“Don’t be a passenger; if you’ve got an idea, put it forward. You need conviction behind you to do that.” – Brenda Hawke, Senior Director, Talent and Organisational Development, Queensland Health
Hawke has also played a pivotal role in centralising diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, previously isolated to individual hospitals.
“We have a fabulous First Nations-first approach. We’re very strong on multiculturalism, and we want to improve our focus on disability in our workforce. Departments across Queensland Health are committed to partnering together to create holistic solutions and a truly diverse workforce that represents the communities we service.”
To enhance recruitment and relieve the burden on individual hospitals, Hawke also wants to unify the hiring process. She believes elevating recruitment campaigns, improving branding and streamlining recruitment operations will help attract more talent, especially from overseas.
“We want to get qualified people in the door sooner, [so] hospitals will be able to meet these quality candidates and appoint them in a shorter period of time.”
Part of attracting these quality candidates is being able to communicate and promote Queensland Health’s key values, she says.
“While we align to our public sector values, one of my observations coming in was that there wasn’t common language around those.”
The key values at the Department of Health are: customer first, ideas into action, empowering people and unleashing potential. Hawke’s team is currently collaborating with internal communications to ensure consistent messaging across all channels, including in-person interactions, branding, strategic communications, reviews, forums, emails and social media campaigns.
Additionally, Hawke encourages individuals to continually evaluate and celebrate their own values both personally and professionally, and without compromise.
“Performance can’t be at the expense of values; you can’t have one without the other,” she says. “Employees need to consistently evaluate what worked, what didn’t, what they’ve learned, and what changes they can implement.”
Throughout her career, Hawke believes she’s kept her own values front of mind; specifically integrity, courage and care.
“We all have highs and lows during our career and personal life. However, these three personal values are what keep me grounded. The whole time, I’ve maintained my values, my sense of purpose, who I want to be as a person. And I’m incredibly proud of that.”
Winning support from stakeholders
Equally important to Hawke as attracting the right talent is equipping them with the skills they’ll need to thrive. One of the greatest challenges of her career to date was the revamping of Suncorp’s reskilling program.
From 2019 to 2022 she held various executive positions related to the learning experience. When she first joined the company, the learning and development initiatives “lacked direction and impact”.
“I didn’t believe in the program in its previous form and I didn’t want my name associated with it,” she says. “So I made a bold move to disassociate myself from it and asked for the authority to reset what was required for the future.
“I engaged with strong-willed individuals, each with their own vision of how things should be done. I embarked on a mission to win their support, which meant testing different ideas with different executives at the leadership table first, getting their buy-in individually, then asking them to state publicly that they backed the proposed changes. Eventually, we managed to move forward as a united front.”
“Performance can’t be at the expense of values; you can’t have one without the other.” – Brenda Hawke, Senior Director, Talent and Organisational Development, Queensland Health
Securing their agreement enabled her to set up a pilot group that was “truly something magical and got us those positive results”.
“But I left the public recognition to those business areas, and that’s something I’m proud of. In HR, we help move the business forward so we ultimately achieve our combined purpose.”
Hawke firmly believes that true progress occurs beyond the comfort zone, that it’s imperative to push boundaries and find new ways of doing things.
Her advice to other HR execs wanting to execute change and transformation, particularly in the face of resistance, is simply to communicate – and be brave.
“Know who your stakeholders are and engage them early. Get their thoughts and ideas. If people disagree, get them to the table to understand what some of the blockers are.
“Don’t be a passenger; if you’ve got an idea, put it forward,” she adds. “You need conviction behind you to do that. If you’re not confident, talk to others before the meeting so you can test some of the ideas and know you have support.”
Effective HR, she believes, requires buy-in from the get-go.
“HR gets a bad rap when we develop something in isolation and then throw it over the fence and wonder why people aren’t embracing it. We need to actually involve people up front so they feel part of the journey. And more importantly, they can be excited and be the cheer squads for it.”
Hawke’s experience in executing change has made her realise that all organisations actually face the same challenges.
“All businesses think they’re unique, special and different. The reality is they’re not, because they’re all made up of people. And as much as people are different, there’s a sameness that comes with that. The obstacles we have at Queensland Health are literally no different to Microsoft or Google or Foot Locker.”
Tackling these issues through a big-picture lens is where Hawke truly thrives.
“I love seeing where an organisation is currently, where it could be in the future, developing a roadmap of what we need to do, and then making sure we get there. I love converting ideas into action, and I love seeing an organisation and its workforce find its wings.
“I love the chaos and complexity that comes with large organisations. Just because something’s always been done a certain way, that’s no reason not to change it, because everything evolves.
“Do I think I would have done this role at Queensland Health four years ago? Absolutely not. My dad’s passing shifted my own perspective on what was important, which is people, and people looking after people.
“He’d be incredibly proud that something that was so terrible has been turned into something so positive.”
A version of this article was originally published in the December edition of HRM Magazine.
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