Australian HR leader abroad Jill Collins discusses how professionalising her HR skills helped her narrow the gap between two cultures.
It’s a rare thing for an interview for HRM to be postponed because the interviewee has “an urgent tasking from the Ambassador”. But that was the case with this story, in a last-minute email from Jill Collins, Deputy Ambassador at the Australian Embassy in Moscow.
Collins, a career officer at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), has previously served overseas in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou in China (she speaks Mandarin), and the Australian Office in Taiwan.
Having started her career as a DFAT graduate, she already had a Bachelor of Commerce with Honours, a Bachelor of Arts and a Master of Arts in International Relations when she commenced her two-year course to achieve AHRI certification in 2015. She took up the Moscow posting in July last year, around the time her certification came through.
She says the broad understanding of HR management she gained can be applied to her diverse and blended roles at the embassy, where the workforce is comprised of about 40 English-speaking Russian staff and fewer than 10 Australians.
“One of the biggest challenges when working internationally is thinking about how the Australian view of HR management can be applied in an overseas environment,” she says.
“Something we talked about again and again in the AHRI course was making sure people understand your organisation’s strategy and vision. It’s even more important overseas because people won’t automatically understand where you’re coming from. They may not have much knowledge of Australian history, government and culture.
“At the everyday level, and also at the strategic level, the way we get across the Australian government’s vision to our workforce is very important. It helps them understand the context of why they do particular things. At the same time, they need to translate how that is going to work in Russia and explain to us how the Russian system works. There’s a lot of translation going on.”
Having been in Moscow for less than a year, Collins is still sorting out the similarities and differences between Australian and Russian HR.
“But it seems that Russian HR experiences many of the same issues we do. For example, the Russian public service has a disproportionately large number of women, but very few in leadership positions.
“Within DFAT we’ve been very forward-leaning on workplace gender equality, and I’ve had involvement in that. The department’s Women in Leadership strategy is about strengthening our capability by enabling all staff to reach their full potential. But it’s also part of the messaging we promote globally – for example, through advocacy and recognition of International Women’s Day and White Ribbon Day.
“In other areas, there are fewer similarities, such as in work health and safety. We’re best practice, but in general the WHS standards across Russia and Central Asia are relatively low. We need to understand the regulatory frameworks in Russia and how we can close that gap so we can meet our duty of care wherever possible.”
When Collins commenced the AHRI practising certification programcourse, she was in an HR role in Canberra, managing DFAT’s graduate, Indigenous and entry-level training programs.
Applying for certification was a sign of the times and very good timing for her, she says.
“After a merger in 2013, DFAT was going through structural reform and looking at how to improve its delivery of corporate services. It recognised a need to build its HR professionalisation and we were starting to recruit more qualified HR practitioners externally.
“It was as part of that professionalisation agenda that DFAT got involved in AHRI’s certification pilot program for the public service, and I was in that first intake.”
Collins says the very practical nature of the AHRI course fitted in with her work-based projects right from the start.
“I was in our staffing branch, and later the branch responsible for overseas HR operations, so I had access to that network and its resources.
“I was a bit different to some of the other participants in that my entire career hadn’t been focused on HR. But my academic coordinator Dr Kim Schofield and the department managers were very supportive.”
Her certification capstone project was entitled reDESIGN: Piloting an HR Shared Services Model in Australia’s Global Diplomatic Network.
“Australia has more than 100 embassies, high commissions and consulates worldwide,” she says. “As part of our capability improvement agenda, we had a close look at ways we could reduce our administrative overheads, boost productivity and increase the impact of our work overseas.”
The centrepiece of the four-year reDESIGN project is the rollout of a shared services hub and spoke model, including HR services such as recruitment, onboarding and performance management administration.
“I helped implement the first six-month pilot by coordinating the HR stakeholders in overseas locations and in Canberra. We were able to establish six regional hubs in London, Jakarta, New Delhi, Manila, Beijing and Washington.”
“Doing the course as part of a cohort of public service officers was very beneficial. It then went beyond what we were doing on the course. A network was established and we were in active contact about real issues in the workplace, swapping information, templates and best practice ideas. It was really invaluable.”
Be the one to create value in your organisation as an HR partner. Build your HR capability with the AHRI Practising Certification Program and stand out from the crowd. Enrolments for the May intake close on Friday 6 April.