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An Interview with...Nicole Barry, Talent Director at CHE Proximity

18 Aug 10:00 by Danni Uglow

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Early 2017 the inaugural People & Culture Award, founded by iknowho in collaboration with AdNews was awarded at the AdNews Agency of the Year Event. A staggering 7 finalists were announced in the category, and all were winners in our eyes. Each entry outlined incredible initiatives to enhance their culture and demonstrated that their people are critical to their success. We will share the best of the best with you from our series of interviews with the 6 finalists and the winners. We caught up with Nicole Barry, Talent Director at CHE Proximity to learn about their initiatives in the third interview of the series.


What does People and Culture mean to CHE Proximity?  

It means everything. Any service industry is nothing without people. People are our top priority. There’s a lot of lip service about it but I genuinely believe that for us it’s everything, we’re nothing without the people.


What prompted you to enter the AdNews People & Culture award?

We enter a lot of the People & Culture awards as we are really passionate about the work we do in that space. I think AdNews is an incredibly influential and important part of the industry, so for us it was an important recognition and endorsement of the work we’re doing. We are thrilled to be one of the finalists, particularly in that category.


When did you begin ensuring people and culture were central in the business planning?

I think people have always been at the heart of what we’ve done at the agency. Though we’ve had a greater focus on it since 2014 which is when the role of Talent Director and the dedicated function was set up. This introduced an increased focus and structure about how we’ve managed our people. I think when we went through the change of CHE Proximity coming together, about 5 years ago, there was an appreciation of the rate of change we were looking to create within the agency, we needed to ensure a care for our people and nurture them within a pretty chaotic but exciting period of change.


How would you describe the culture of the business currently?

I always find culture interesting to describe, as it’s much more of the feeling than the words you put around it. We did do a deliberate construction exercise around our cultural ideal and positioning a couple of years ago. For us we articulate it as ‘running towards the fire’, and it’s this behavioural code that unites everyone that works in the agency.


How do you believe employee happiness is connected to business success? 

The CEO, Chris Howatson has long talked about service profit chain – in order to create commercial success, you need customer satisfaction and loyalty; that’s at the heart of what we do. Everything we do for our people is anchored in business outcomes and that’s because over time there is proof if you have happy, challenged and satisfied people, you have successful commercial outcomes. We absolutely subscribe to that theory.


What are the main initiatives the company currently has in place to support its people?

We’re constantly applying focus and trying things in the people space. More recently we’ve worked hard to develop a good welcome into the agency. I think it’s really important when someone starts in any new job, but I think particularly in a job that’s very dynamic and that changes a lot, it’s crucial to welcome people into the fold, and bring them up to speed with everything the agency has to offer. We’ve spent a lot of time on our onboarding process and we’re constantly tweaking that, not everything is perfect all the time! The other aspect we look at is talent acquisition; we’ve got a very generous scheme. The best people come from recommendations from the people we already have working within the agency.


The corner stone of our activities is our training plan – for the last two years we’ve invested heavily in our learning & development programmes. When people talk about how does happiness lead to business success, I think being challenged is an important element of satisfaction and happiness within a job. The industry and marketplace is changing so much that I think people run the risk of feeling overwhelmed. It’s great that sometimes uncertainty with the tech capability is met with conversations of confidence; we’ve done a lot of work investing in development and speaking more about the tech side of the business. We’ve put a robust programme in place, and that’s something we’re really proud of.


Is it a feeling from people within the agency that their training, development and their career is more important than some of the perks that were around a few years ago?

Those things are nice to have but they aren’t at the top of anyone’s list anymore.  I don’t think we’re that homogenous group of 20 year old something’s who just want to drink and have fun together. We talk a lot about development in the agency – we are keen to develop programmes that allow people to have more flexibility in their roles, because that’s often more important than having an open bar on a Friday night. People sometimes just want to go home early or come in later, or work slightly different hours. They want it to be easier to care for their families, run a business on the side or have interests to keep them inspired and interesting people. Learning and development has been a huge part of it but we are also building into the programme the question – “are we actually making people happy?” Not what we think made them happy a few years ago. 


Have you ever implemented an initiative that didn’t deliver the expected results if so, how did you manage this with your people?

Yes is the short answer! We’re ok with failing as long as we deal with it quickly and move on. I think the bigger initiatives we’ve generally had success around, but within each of those programmes we’ll add different elements that just don’t work. For whatever reason people don’t resonate, or might not be exactly what they expected, so we are constantly having to optimize what we put into the agency and adapt as we go along.


How do you drive continuous innovation for your people within the business? 

Innovation is part of our DNA. For us, it’s helped by having a dedicated function and a group of people who are focused on managing it. Part of our task is to make sure that the behavioural code of running towards the fire isn’t just about a great creative idea, we have to apply that within the discipline that we’re working in as well. Our approach to how we manage our people is possibly different to more conventional environments and I think by default that creates innovation in this space. You have a team of people who are trying to break the mould with the behavioural code that the agency has set. There’s also applying different minds to the same problems, to get different and innovative outcomes.


How do you measure the success of the initiatives you have implemented? 

From an agency that has data at its core, we measure a lot of what we’re doing. One of the greatest ways to measure is talking to people. We always encourage an open-door culture, where we can share feedback and how things are going. That depth of conversation and engagement is what I personally use the most to evaluate success. As we now have over 300 people over two offices, it does make it harder so we look at people reports; the movement of people over a departmental level all the way down to individual levels, we look at who is coming and going. We send out a survey which is a pulse check – how the agency is feeling about the agency, which is important. We overlay and feed in salary and performance metrics - we basically review the health of our people. Are they performing? Are they being rewarded fairly? Are we really driving that performance moving forward? We always make sure we’re mapping our people initiatives against our business outcomes, make sure they are aligned, everyone is across it and measuring over time.   


What’s been your most successful initiative?

I think the training programme that has the power to become more transformative for the agency. It’s represented the biggest change to how we’ve done things, it’s extensive enough that it is far reaching so that everyone feels like there is a benefit for them. I think it’s really accelerating our capability and satisfaction.


How do you go about deciding what training programmes to put in place?

We look at business outcomes; we draw relationships between our activities and how they are driving commercial outcomes. That’s a good steer to help us prioritise what we need to commit to, in investing where the gaps are. If we talk about training specifically, then that is the biggest line item of investment. We do different performance reviews and have conversations for everyone in the agency, and we talk about what development the agency can help facilitate. We get an aggregate view of adding up all the development needs of the agency, look at where we need to invest from what our people want. Then top down we look at business direction and where the agency needs to move into and make sure those two things are aligned. It’s bottom up and top down to get an outcome, to create satisfaction and happiness for the team.


Where does the management support come within the business?

The support is legitimately across the business, Chris Howatson is incredibly passionate about the people, so there is a lot of support from him directly.


What programmes do you have in place to ensure inclusive culture and hiring policy?

We’ve long believed talent comes from anywhere and everywhere, and we’ve always been open minded. We focus on values alignment, not just at tech capabilities because good people can come from anywhere.


Why do you think your team loves working at CHE proximity?

Anytime I ask anyone this the number one response is always the people! We are lucky to be surrounded by a group of inspiring, motivated and intelligent people. I also think as an agency, it’s that alignment with the cultural ideal of running towards the fire, I think that really galvanises us. That energy is something that people are attracted to.


What do you think are the top 3 initiatives or perks you have running at the moment?

Training is definitely up there, the flexibility that we build into everyone’s role in the agency, and our referral incentive is really generous


Can you tell me a little bit more about the flexibility that you build in?

When we were looking at some of the barriers with people returning to work (for both genders) we started thinking that people shouldn’t be measured against the time they are in the office. Our key performers are people that just get the job done. We started breaking that down and it became clear that what people were asking for and what we were able to provide was actually aligned. There is permission in every role and at every level to negotiate. It’s an important shift in mindset as it allows people to stay in the industry perhaps longer than what they might otherwise. It also provides an environment and culture that allows people who might have thought the industry wasn’t for them to enter [or re-enter] the industry.


Is the culture affected positively or negatively by being part of a broader network? What are the befits?

I think the benefits far outweigh any of the negatives; we’re really fortunate to be part of an amazing group and we reap the benefits of that more often than not. We have a dedicated Talent Director who works at a group level, and we are able to share ideas but still have the freedom to implement those at a specific level for each agency. There’s absolutely rivalry that sits within the group but a healthy and respectful one. Largely we work together to deliver great outcomes to the Clemenger Group. It’s more like a sibling relationship, there is a lot of love with a bit of rivalry as well.  


Do you think it’s easier to build the culture in a larger business with that support behind it, or do you think it’s got its own limitations?

It requires more structure and a bit more process around it, upfront that makes it a little bit harder. When you have a lot of growth, like CHE Proximity has, you reach a tipping point where you need to deliver at scale and this creates the challenge around identifying what the components are to build a successful outcome. I think it probably makes it a little bit more rigorous but ultimately really advantageous – the challenge is not losing the charm that led to that outcome in the first place. Sometimes things are over engineered and analysed too much, lose their magic.


Lots have been written of late about agency talent moving client side – what do you think agencies could be doing better to limit this? 

I do think the aspect of flexibility is the most critical thing here. Pay is interesting to look at in this space too, traditionally I think there is the perception that client-side is better pay for more work life balance. Agencies need to continue to remain accountable to making sure they’re paying their people appropriately. By far, providing more flexibility is a huge start to stopping that shift. It does tend to be a lot of women moving client-side as family commitments come into play. By having more generous maternity leave and return to work programmes I think all these feed into the challenges we’re seeing. We improved our investment in regards to maternity and paternity leave. All of those things feed into creating an environment that’s more enduring and more attractive to people.


What three words would you use when summing up the culture at CHE Proximity?

We’re curious, courageous and collaborative