AHRI award-winner Clare Murphy FCPHR says her success in HR leadership has much more to do with listening to employees’ needs than knowing how to apply a best-practice model.
Clare Murphy FCPHR fell into HR by chance. While she was working as an Assistant Manager at a hotel in Darwin, her General Manager (GM) asked if she was interested in taking a 12-month parental leave cover as the hotel’s HR Manager.
“I don’t know anything about HR,” was Murphy’s first reaction, but the GM assured that her people skills would stand her in good stead.
“I went into the role and loved it. I’ve always been drawn to helping people and it was rewarding to look at how HR could work strategically with the business,” says Murphy, who is now the Organisational Enablement Executive Director at EACH, an organisation with almost 2000 staff delivering health and support services across the eastern seaboard.
The encouragement from her GM at the time led Murphy to pursue a career in HR; she went on to work in various industries, including education, hospitality and healthcare.
“Every time I’ve moved jobs, I’ve essentially changed industries. I think it’s been really beneficial for me to take different learnings from one industry to another. Some organisations will say they want someone who has experience in their industry, but I don’t think that’s overly relevant. HR is a very transferable skill set.”
She says a better approach is to enter an industry with an open mind and a willingness to learn, before you start trying to change a system or apply a best-practice model.
Often, HR leaders can stumble when they implement a new strategy before they’ve understood the industry and broader context.
“The only way you can implement a strategy effectively is by taking the time to learn. You can’t underestimate the importance of listening deeply and authentically connecting with people.”
Co-designing the employee experience
Murphy has always placed emphasis on co-designing HR strategies alongside employees. Her former role as Director of People and Strategy at St Michael’s Grammar School in St Kilda, Melbourne, is a prime example.
She attributes her success in this position as being in large part due to her focus on understanding employees’ needs.
“A best-practice strategy won’t have any impact on organisational strategy if you don’t know your workforce. I have always tried to ask staff what new programs or changes would make a difference to them. Once you understand that, you can think about putting a strategy in place,” says Murphy.
Another critical consideration when involving staff is to put aside any assumptions about reaching the end goal.
“HR needs to be an enabler to a solution. Don’t just come in with a predetermined plan about how you will reach your objective.”
She actively engaged employees in the design of St Michael’s health and wellbeing strategy, transforming the school’s wellbeing approach into a more holistic model.
“There were a lot of activities being organised, such as morning teas to facilitate connections between staff. But there was a gap in the organisational and strategic space.
“We created a strategy that was based around the issues that were important to staff. Through conversations and surveys, it became apparent that flexibility was key, especially for working parents.”
The school introduced a flexible part-time teacher role and initiatives to ensure staff were managing reasonable workloads, and for developing strong leaders as key pillars for health and wellbeing.
For this work, St Michael’s was named a finalist for the Martin Seligman Health and Wellbeing Award and the Best Health and Wellbeing Strategy at the 2013 AHRI Awards.
A few years later, Murphy was awarded AHRI’s Dave Ulrich HR Leader of the Year Award and was listed as a finalist for the Wayne Cascio Organisational Development and Leadership Award.
AHRI’s 2023 Award and Scholarship Program, recognising exceptional achievements and celebrating progress in HR practice, is now open for applications. Learn more here.
It was also during her time at St Michael’s that a mentor encouraged Murphy to become more involved in external organisations such as AHRI. She started out as a member of the IR-ER committee, before stepping into the role of Vice President of the Victorian State Council.
“My involvement with AHRI has been of huge benefit to my professional development and career growth,” she says.
“You have to be prepared to invest the time into building your network, but you get the opportunity to learn from so many people. I don’t think I’d be where I am now without having been connected with AHRI for a good part of my career.”
Her connection to the AHRI network proved even more fruitful when a fellow member told her about EACH, which she hadn’t heard of at the time. She applied, and was successful, for the role of HR Director in 2018.
“Chris Steinfort [former AHRI Vic State President] was doing a short-term consulting role at EACH when he told me about the vacancy,” says Murphy. “It was a big jump from managing a team of three in HR at St Michael’s to managing a team of 35 at EACH. If I had applied without a recommendation, I probably wouldn’t have gotten through because on paper it looked like I didn’t have the required experience.”
Murphy’s motivation to take up the new role stemmed from her desire to keep learning.
“I was ready for a new challenge. Once I start to feel like I’m going through the same motions, I like to move on to a new challenge. The role at EACH also stood out to me because of how the organisation contributes to society. I saw a real opportunity to make a difference.”
“A best-practice strategy won’t have any impact on organisational strategy if you don’t know your workforce.” – Clare Murphy FCPHR, Organisational Enablement Executive Director, EACH
Using employee insight to drive leadership development
One of the major projects Murphy has worked on during her time at EACH is Leading@EACH – a culture and capability transformation project to improve leadership skills and capabilities in the organisation.
When Murphy first started at EACH, she discovered there wasn’t a strategic approach to leadership development.
“I spent a lot of time talking to employees and leaders about what was working well, what wasn’t and what could be done differently. It became clear that levels of staff engagement varied significantly.
“Some managers were doing a brilliant job, and others, who might’ve been newer to a leadership role and didn’t have sufficient training, were lagging behind.”
EACH’s engagement scores garnered from an organisation-wide survey painted a similar picture, with a 92 per cent spread of scores relating to how leaders were managing.
Equipped with these insights, Murphy created an Organisational Culture and Capability team to meet EACH’s future needs. Led by EACH’s Managers of Organisational Culture and Capability, Meredith Carrington and Tam Bourke, the team brought together the areas of learning and development, inclusion and diversity, and leadership development.
One key objective was to create clear benchmarks for leaders to measure themselves against.
“Whether you’re a team leader, a middle manager, a senior leader or on the executive team, people need to know what expectations EACH has of them. How do you tell a leader that they’re not doing what they should be doing if there isn’t any benchmark against which to hold them accountable?”
EACH developed a framework that outlined the organisation’s expectations of leaders, and a leadership development program aligned to these expectations.
The program focused initially on building foundational skills and now extends into a senior leadership program, with learning bites offered regularly on a variety of relevant topics, such as providing feedback and conducting performance reviews.
Another key element was building relationships and connections across EACH.
“With about 60 sites and 150 programs at EACH, there were a lot of employees who hadn’t met each other. The program was designed so it wasn’t just about delivering content, but it gave people time to talk about their experiences and share their stories.”
Ensuring a minimum of two executives were present and involved at each program was key.
“The feedback we had from staff was that it made the executives real people. Executives shared stories about situations they’d dealt with earlier on in their careers. They got involved in the program and took it seriously. This helped to bring everyone along on the journey.”
What progress has been made so far?
Since rolling out Leading@EACH, the organisation has experienced improvements on multiple fronts.
The overall engagement score has increased by 16 percentage points, from 56 per cent in 2019 to 72 per cent in 2022.
Innovation increased by 22 points, the learning and development score increased by 20 and the number of staff recommending EACH as a great place to work rose by 19.
“I think these results highlight the importance of not rushing new initiatives. It’s been three years since we first started work on Leading@EACH.
“We could have gone in and introduced all these things, but there was a significant cultural shift that needed to happen,” says Murphy.
“We also needed to clearly set out what we wanted to achieve, how we would get there and articulate that in a really clear vision. That’s the only way we could get executive buy-in.”
These results led to EACH being awarded an AHRI award in 2022 – the Sir Ken Robinson Innovation and Creativity Award.
“The award was great recognition for the whole team, who have invested significant effort into delivering strategic initiatives as well as keeping on top of BAU.”
As an advocate of HR leaders putting themselves out there and applying for such awards, Murphy says it’s a valuable exercise in professional development.
“Earlier in my career, applying for these awards felt a little unnatural. I saw it as waving my own flag. But I’ve realised it’s a great way of benchmarking your work.
“Judges point out parts they were really impressed by, and suggest ways you could enhance your work further.”
Public recognition can also be an effective attraction tool, says Murphy.
“When you advertise a role, potential hires take note when you’ve won an award. People see that they will have an opportunity at EACH to do things differently; that they’ll be able to change things and come up with new ideas. That’s an attractive prospect for people.”
A longer version of this article first appeared in the May 2023 edition of HRM Magazine.
Clare Murphy FCPHR will be joining other Executive and HR leaders as a panelist at AHRI’s Convention in August. Secure your spot today!