Building a business based on people-first principles requires a foundational shift at every level of leadership—from the very understanding of what leadership is to the HR strategies that guide decisions large and small. 

As companies continue to wrestle with the Great Resignation and changes within the world of work, understanding how to implement impactful people-first strategies is vital to attracting, retaining, and nurturing the best people for your business.

We sat down with two of Australia’s well-respected leadership experts to better understand what people-first organizations require of today’s leaders and what strategies can help with addressing common HR challenges:

  • Dr. Kirstin Ferguson is an award-winning business leader, writer, speaker, and former Deputy Chair of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. She currently serves on the boards of two companies where she chairs the people and remuneration committees, and she writes weekly leadership columns in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
  • Kathleen McCudden is the chief HR and communications officer at SEEK, Australia’s leading online employment marketplace operating across APAC and LATAM regions. Before SEEK, she worked as IBM’s director of human resources for Australia and New Zealand and in HR roles at PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Here are some key takeaways on overarching people-first strategies from the conversation.

1. Modern, people-first leadership involves both the head and the heart

On the people and remuneration committees that Kirstin chairs, there has, unsurprisingly, been plenty of discussion about the talent shortage in the tech industry, how to compete to hire the best people, and how to make your company’s employee value proposition (EVP) blow competitors’ out of the water.

But to Kirstin, the conversation around these topics—and around the Great Resignation, which she renamed “The Great Realignment” in a recent column in the Australian Financial Review—misses the point completely.

“You can have the best EVP in the market, but people won’t want to work with you unless you also offer them an environment where they can be led by—and be encouraged to lead as—modern leaders,” she says.

The art of modern leadership, Kirstin says, “is about understanding the extent to which you currently lead with your head and your heart, and then understanding how to draw upon those skills at the right time and in the appropriate way.”

Grasping the importance of this balance is important, not just for “capital L” leaders who direct departments or manage teams, but also for people who play a role in identifying emerging leaders who can benefit from company investment in up-and-coming talent.

Head vs. heart: 8 attributes to consider in modern leaders

On Kirstin’s head and heart leader scale, the head-based leadership qualities that emanate from the cognitive, rational parts of the brain have traditionally been more highly valued. These first four (of eight) attributes include curiosity, wisdom, perspective, and capability.

“There is no doubt that leading with our heads is critically important,” she says. “It allows us to analyze complex data, to weigh up risks and opportunities, to create business strategies, and to write policies.” 

Schools and workplaces reward people who lead with their heads when they pass exams, meet sales goals, or engineer complex solutions. And because the results of these efforts are tangible, the head can feel like a safe place for many leaders to stay.

By contrast, leading with the heart is about processing emotions, connecting with others, and developing values. These skills (the other four attributes)—which include humility, self-awareness, courage, and empathy—may be more difficult to see or measure, but they are equally as important in a people-first organization.

Look beyond the hero leader

In her research, Kirstin has asked hundreds of people to name a modern leader. Most people name individuals like Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and President Barack Obama.

This is no surprise, she says. For centuries, the idea of the “hero leader” or “great man” was narrow in scope. Traditional renditions of the idea defined “hero leaders” primarily as men with superior intellect, courage, and abilities required to be great leaders–and excluded anyone else.

“Now, obviously, that view has been well and truly debunked,” Kirstin says, adding that the world now seeks out female and nonbinary leaders from all ethnicities, faiths, abilities, sexual orientations, and socioeconomic backgrounds. 

“We need modern leaders who lead with their head and their hearts in every context, regardless of the formal roles they might hold in an organization,” she adds.

2. Articulate your principles and policies

The head and heart model describes the soft skills required of modern leaders, but once those leaders are in place, how does an organization extend people-first principles into the day-to-day work of the business—or even into extraordinary circumstances like a global pandemic?

During the pandemic, Kathleen and her team were faced with a lot of important questions to answer in a very short period of time. How would people work from home when most only had desktop computers? What about people working in locations with weak internet connectivity? What if people needed to take time off to care for themselves or their families?

Kathleen quickly recognized the value of head and heart leadership as SEEK’s leadership team addressed both the practical and emotional needs of an increasingly concerned workforce.

“It was a crisis that no one had ever experienced before. So there really wasn’t a playbook,” she says. “Our leaders needed to be really front and center talking to people about what the pandemic meant for SEEK as a business, and how we would help people through it.”

Put guiding principles into action

Something that made those early decisions easier was understanding what company principles to apply to the situation.

“Our number one principle was: We will always put the health and well-being of our people first,” Kathleen says. “So that meant if people couldn’t work, they couldn’t get access to technology because we didn’t want them to be traveling and coming to any office. That’s fine—we would just live with that and we would do whatever we could to then provide them with technology.”

SEEK provided unlimited carer leave when schools closed so people wouldn’t have to choose between caring for family members or resigning from their jobs.

“We didn’t want to put people in that position,” she says, adding that SEEK’s guiding principles governed decision-making during the early pandemic and also allowed team leaders to make day-to-day choices about how to lead their teams.

Document workplace policies—for both candidates and managers

Although the Asia-Pacific region hasn’t experienced the unprecedented resignation numbers seen in the United States and Europe, the Great Resignation—or what Kathleen calls the Great Jobs Boom—offers companies a unique opportunity to be creative and flexible.

Pay and work-life balance are two of the most important issues for candidates, and research shows that the need for flexibility and boundaries is especially important to women.

“Being able to promote that you’re a place which is flexible, that you understand people have got lives to live, and that you’re offering stimulating, interesting work and careers—but you also recognize that people are whole and they’re juggling lots of things—I think is really important,” she says.

Creating written policies to govern flexible work arrangements is just as important as articulating your organization’s guiding principles. Policies should be well-documented, easy to understand, and communicated to everyone across the organization.

Some leaders may worry about underperforming team members or those who could exploit hybrid work or work-from-home policies. But, Kathleen says rather than creating policies or processes based on exceptional cases, organizations do better when they develop approaches that work well for 95 percent of their people. Then, they can more easily address individual problems on a case-by-case basis.

Kirstin adds that this is part of the job when it comes to managing people.

“You’ve got to have these difficult conversations,” she says. “And whether that person is sitting outside your office while you have it or they’re in another country, I think it’s just part of being a leader.”

3. Bring the people-first strategy into the boardroom

Leading with a people-first strategy goes beyond managing teams and creating strong EVPs—it’s a posture that must extend all the way to the boardroom.

“CPOs (Chief People Officers) should be in boardrooms and making sure boards are really informed about what’s going on from a people-first strategy perspective,” Kirstin says. “If you’re not there, it sends quite a message—I would expect a bit of a flag, especially if you’re an HR professional—about the value that people are being given in your organization.”

Use data to support a people-first perspective

When HR leaders are present at the table, part of their role can be educating board members for whom a people-first strategy may be less familiar.

Even in organizations that really prioritize people, there will be times when the CPO may need to help board members step into the shoes of people in the workforce, Kathleen says. 

“Rather than just expressing an opinion or a view, if you can express that opinion or view and make a recommendation—something that you want [to have] an influence in—backed up by actual data, that tends to be really compelling,” she says.

Engagement surveys, people metrics, onboarding interviews, and exit interviews are all excellent sources to mine for data that will enhance an HR leader’s ability to influence decisions at the board level.

Pro tip: Provide a “vibe report” to keep board members in the loop

Kirstin regularly asks the CPOs she works with for a “vibe report.” This is a verbal report—written reports often become quite sanitized—about what’s going on in the organization and where leaders encounter any hot spots.

“Where is there a team or a team leader that’s really struggling? What are some of the big-picture issues that are keeping you up at night? That ‘vibe report’ ends up setting the tone for the rest of the meeting,” she says.

The bottom line: People-first strategies engage leadership at every level of the organization

Articulating principles, policies, and priorities for everyone from team leaders to board members is key for any organization on a mission to modernize its approach to leadership.

“It is modern leaders who truly believe that leadership itself is the privilege and is no longer just for the privileged view,” Kirstin says. “Our workplaces need leaders who understand that the art of being a modern leader lies within.”


Shelby Blitz Hibob

From Shelby Blitz

Shelby is the Head of Content at HiBob. She's passionate about the written word and storytelling. In a past life, she was a music journalist. When she's not writing and editing you can find her baking sweet treats in the kitchen.