'Reputation is driven by culture, not just by marketing': Meet AHRI's new CEO Sarah McCann-Bartlett

‘Reputation is driven by culture, not just by marketing’: Meet AHRI’s new CEO Sarah McCann-Bartlett

How do you lead a profession that’s at the core of how we work, into a new decade? Sarah McCann-Bartlett has some ideas as the new CEO of the Australian Human Resources Institute. She sits down to talk the future with Women’s Agenda. 

In the last few decades, Sarah McCann Bartlett has built an impressive record as a senior executive and CEO. The momentum she’s created is accelerating in 2020; after a global search for the next CEO of the Australian HR Institute (AHRI) saw McCann-Bartlett announced as its new leader.

McCann-Bartlett returned home to Melbourne to start the new role this month. She has previously worked in the city when she was Deputy Commissioner of the Building & Plumbing Industry Commission.

One of her first priorities will be participating in a discussion on equal access to paid parental leave, with Annabel Crabb due to address the issue — and her widely read Men At Work essay — at their upcoming breakfast series, to mark International Women’s Day.

McCann-Bartlett believes that when it comes to parental leave, it’s not just a matter of getting the policy right in order to get men and women taking it up in equal numbers, but the cultural aspects right also.

“It’s all very well to think about the policy issues, but how do you actually make the change?” she says.

Much of that change is led by the HR department, putting HR professionals at the centre of what could be a game-changing shift in how fathers take parental leave over the coming years.

We find out what McCann-Bartlett has observed about the shifting trends in HR.

You’ve moved back to Melbourne after 8 years in the U.K as the Director General of the British Constructional Steelwork Association.
Yes, it’s lovely to be near family and I’m very excited about this new role at AHRI.

What are you most excited about heading into this role?
I want to highlight the ability of HR professionals to really influence how businesses operate in Australia, and particularly drive the return that business gets from its people. If we look at organisations in Australia, they have the need to manage risk, and the requirement to drive growth. HR has a really important role to play in both of those, particularly in driving positive workplace cultures.

What do you believe are the key issues facing HR in Australia?
I’ve been thinking about the needs of Australian businesses; their people, their strategies, their stakeholders. I see AHRI’s priorities lying across two main areas.

The first is the HR profession’s role in reducing risk. This includes having the right policies and processes in place and ensuring that you follow them. If we think about the recent underpayment cases, and what went wrong there, that’s one example.  Workplace health and safety, and employee wellbeing is another current issue, and it’s not just physical but also mental wellbeing too.

We also need to think about whether the rewards structures in organisations are actually creating perverse incentives that can result in reputational risk.

Poor workplace culture is a really high risk strategy, as it promotes the wrong sorts of behaviours and it risks reputation and profit.

The second priority area is around organisational excellence and driving business success through a positive, thriving workplace culture; one that is underpinned by an ethical culture. Having a certifed HR professional can influence and lead others and drive positive workplace cultures forward.

Graph from AHRI’s ‘Five Hard Truths about Workplace Culture’ report


CEOs need to think differently about the role of HR.

Previously, risk management was left to the CFO, but given that unethical culture has driven so many workplace issues, I believe that much of risk management now sits with HR. Reputation is driven by culture, not just by marketing. We are also seeing this responsibility shifting across to HR. So there is now a very strong argument that HR’s inclusion in the C-suite is a no-brainer.

AHRI is also providing experienced HR practitioners and academics with professional HR Certification. It’s really important that HR is professionalised and practitioners and organisations can achieve this through a very clear path to certification.

Our certification program is mapped against AHRI’s Model of Excellence, which provides HR professionals with the knowledge and competencies they’re going to need into the future.

What do you foresee as being the most challenging aspects of your new role as head of AHRI?
I come from a more generalist background, so I’m taking a deep dive into the key HR issues that workplaces are facing now but also into the future. So it’s a big learning curve.

I’ve worked in what many would consider traditionally male industries in the past – the wool industry, manufacturing, construction. I have been asked how I am going to do things differently now that I’m working in a more predominately female sector. My answer to that is – I’m not going to do anything differently. For me its about celebrating their individualism and what they bring as individuals to the organisation and the profession.

How did you come to be in this role?
I have always worked in a role that represented a particular group of stakeholders. Some were statutory authorities like the Australian Wool Corporation and the Victoria Building and Plumbing Commission. My most recent role in the U.K was Director General of the British Constructional Steelwork Association, which is a trade association. For me, having responsibility for a sector or a profession is really exciting and compelling.

AHRI, being a membership body, provided a really great mutual fit. The progression feels very natural.

Annabel Crabb is speaking as guest at AHRI’s numerous International Women’s Day events across four cities in Australia. What issues are you looking to address?
Annabel will be highlighting some of the key issues from her most recent Quarterly Essay “Men at Work”.

Audiences will get two things out of it. The first involves thinking specifically about the issue that Annabel raises in her essay. She wants us to look at the issue of gender equality in the workplace from a different perspective, to help us understand what’s still holding us back. She’s focused on access to parental leave for men.  When I say access to parental leave for men, I’m not talking just about the policy access but the cultural aspects as well. It would be good for the audience to think about that and how it could mean that taking parental leave is not seen negatively for anyone in the workplace. It should be viewed as sensible and positive for all. Second, because Annabel looked at this issue in a different way, it reminds all of us to look at the issue of equality through a different lens and be challenged to look at other root causes of a lack of equality.

AHRI is a very practical organisation. We make sure we focus on the issue of implementation. It’s all very well to think about the policy issues, but how do you actually make the change?

ARHI has a Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Panel that is made up of experts in the field.  The Panel recently came up with the concept of building a Diversity and Inclusion Maturity Model that organisations can benchmark themselves against. It has some very strong thinking behind it and will be an incredibly useful tool for benchmarking and driving change.  What organisations can do is map themselves against that model – look at where you want to go, and look at the areas where you’re strong or have work to do, and that will help you implement your own diversity  and inclusion plan.

So outside of taking on a big job like this, how do you unwind?
I have a 12-year old son and so I’ve become a really good table tennis player. I have three dogs who I love to walk. And I read, a lot. I like fiction, particularly literary fiction. One of my favourite writers is Meg Wolitzer, who writes beautifully about women and their personal journeys. Her book The Female Persuasion is one I’d highly recommend to all young people.

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