Exclusive interview: Silje Hilden Barningham - Country head of HR at Jacobs

1. Can you tell us a little more about yourself and your role at Jacobs?

I’m from Norway originally, I have travelled and lived in Europe, the Middle east and Asia, before calling Melbourne home.  I’m married with two children, and two step children, which in these times means you could also call me a home school teacher and master of many tasks! At Jacobs, I look after the Australian and New Zealand countries for HR, which is a group of approximately 2,500 people. I’ve been with the business just over ten years, and it’s been a great journey in a few different roles.  During that time, I’ve experienced big changes like a major merger, divestiture and business separations - it is forever changing and keeps me learning. I’ve had a great time, these are an outstanding group of people and I’ve never worked in a place where people have created such a special culture – I genuinely mean this; Jacobs is a great place to work and it's the people that make all the different.

2. What are you focused on right now?

There was a period when we like all others were really in emergency planning mode round COVID-19. HR was at the forefront of that and I was part of the Emergency management team. We have navigated through in a phased and proportioned way. We are working really hard on preserving jobs and it is a testimony to the team in how well we have pulled this together. You will have see all sorts of different responses to COVID-19. Jacobs is in a strong position and it has allowed us to balance the measures we need to take as a business and continue to provide solutions and working with our clients.   

3. How is the role of the HR function within Jacobs responding to the current aims and challenges of your business?

In HR we really partner with the business.  I am part of the ANZ leadership team and the HR Partners that are part of my team are also an integrated part of the Executive directors leadership teams. HR are very much there as a partner from when the discussions happen through to decision making and implementation. We are aligned to the business and clear on what priorities and the direction that we need to take going forward.  We rolled out across ANZ the “Next Generation”, which includes a new operating model, for the business. HR is a key factor to support and embed this change for our business. The next phase is looking at the ‘new ways of working’ so we can really be forward focused as a company and give people the future skills and attributes in Jacobs and their careers. The changes to ways of working are so rapid, and it is a huge focus in my HR team right now. Jacobs have identified competencies to be successful in the company and individuals need for the future of work; COVID-19 has been an accelerator to some those conversations.  We are now working as a more integrated global team and I think the inclusion and diversity in thinking has seen us move closer to that.

The reality of what we are dealing with, and the intimate link between our work and of our private lives has changed things. We are bringing our whole self to work, I even think it has been an equaliser. In the past I’ve had to work with balancing my children in work life from time to time, like when the kids have been sick, and my husband has supported us, as that role traditionally sits with a female role.  Right now this has been an equaliser, where both of us have had to lean in more, both juggling home/work and do the push and pull of that. For example, hubby and I have both scheduled time every day for home schooling.  It’s an honest dialogue.

4. What do you see as the main challenge that the HR function faces in the future? 

Internally: Technology challenges. 
Externally: The current legislative environment is unconducive to what we need.  We are becoming global citizens, mobility need is high, and the ability to do that in the current environment  is difficult – how you engage and employ people, awards of how that plays a part, it needs to catch up with were the world is going.  HR responding to that, being one as a company, to move people and engage people through different ways. People being employed by one company for 20 years will change.  The entrepreneurial mindset for a short term engagement, while protecting IP is a key part, as is, how to be nimble enough to build that into our people practises and technology to support that.  What we do in HR has a flow impact to our clients and vice versa so that we need to speak the same language both technological and through our people.

5. What key characteristics do you look for in HR professionals when recruiting for your team?

Flexibility, courage and resilience are key for me.

6. What is the best career advice you have ever been given?

Make sure you do what makes you happy, and if not, change!  I don’t mean that there aren’t moments in your role that are difficult and we don’t always enjoy, and learning can sometimes be quite confronting. However, if you aren’t happy, you aren’t doing anyone any favours mostly yourself.

7. What keeps you in HR?

I absolutely love the team I work with, part of, and the people I’m around. I feel I can make a difference in what I do and have a positive impact for my team and the organisation. A day in HR is never the same and I really love solving complex challenges, and people challenges often are.

Silje Hilden Barningham
Country head of HR – Australia and New Zealand


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  • 08/05/2020 Brett
    Really like the "whole self" comment and agree the current situation has re-defined the lines between personal and professional life. How many kids and animals have we all met in the last 6 weeks that were not part of the script.
  • 08/05/2020 Shelie
    Glad you are in the a Jacobs team! You and your colleagues are great partners to the business and making a difference every day!

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