leadership with Helen Hovenga

This is the first of a series of interviews that we would like to share with you which will provide senior HR executives observations on leadership now and the future of leadership in Australia. Recently, Jeannette Lang, HRP General Manager VIC/TAS/SA, had the great pleasure of sitting down with Helen Hovenga, who is an extraordinary HR future-thinker to explore the topic of leadership. A topic we both feel passionate about and have in fact explored together in a podcast previously. 


You were the HR Director of Peter Mac Hospital (Victoria) when COVID struck which must have been incredibly daunting from a leadership perspective. How did you rally your leaders and team through this time? 

In times of crisis, hard times and in the stages of response, recovery and even when we get to reimagining, leaders are more important than ever… and great leaders will come to the fore I think. They say “good leaders plan, great leaders prepare”. I used to think command and control in a crisis was always the right way to go… and I still do, but only if the groundwork is already in place - people know their roles, they have relationships, they know the protocols, communications standards are in place and people feel safe to be truly honest with each other.

When COVID hit our team, we were ready to adapt. We had set up the team with laptops and remote access 12 months prior. We had our vision, we cared about each other, we knew our roles, we knew the plan and we got on with the job. Trust and enablement was the key and control was not needed. Exactly as the research proves, employee trust in turn improves performance.

- "The only thing that endures over time is the 'Law of the Farm. ' You must prepare the ground, plant the seed, cultivate, and water, if you expect to reap the harvest." ~ Stephen Covey 

This has been a steep learning curve for all. What do you think the key learnings are for leaders from this time?

I started by asking `How are people feeling and what has been their experience of COVID?’ Some of us are feeling fragile, others overworked. Some loved working from home and some haven’t. They have dealt with kids, new pets, partners, missing their family members or having a friend over to talk to. Some have had to go into work every day, feeling a greater sense of the risk of exposure to COVID, some have done this easily, without a second thought - their sense of purpose driving them. Some have thrived and been more productive than ever. 

So I asked myself what is the consistent theme? Our difference - different experiences, different backgrounds, different responses. Difference is the only consistent theme - there is no standard that an algorithm can fix. With such individuality, our response cannot be mechanical, it must be human.

- "When trust, loyalty, and creativity are high, and stress is low, employees are happier and more productive and turnover is lower. Positive interactions even make employees healthier and require fewer sick days

So if it’s about bringing humanity to work how do you think we can all do that?  

  1.  Prioritise safety and employee wellbeing
  2. Bring empathy - regularly ask `how are you?’ and truly listen and engage with the response
  3. Be likeable and warm - as Amy Cuddy of Harvard Business School has shown `Being likeable gives leaders a distinct advantage’.
  4. Be humble - admit you don’t have all the answers and defer to others who do
  5. Be vulnerable - share how COVID has impacted you, what you have observed and what you have learned?
  6. Be compassionate - it is kind, instills trust and builds loyalty
  7. Be a secure base by being visible, accessible and `having their back’
  8. Move from managing to enabling. i.e there are people and resources they can access to help themselves and each other
  9. Be a role model in bringing your humanity and spread the word by recruiting, promoting, publicly acknowledging and rewarding others who do the same
  10. Build bonds in your team: When going through tough times, we need social support and to know who to ask for help from. Reduce loneliness by creating connection.
A pressing issue for leadership (now) for AFTER the crisis is about reimagining the future. You have always been a visionary when it comes to HR leadership. How do you think we need to evolve as leaders to face this new world we are living in?
Some organisations will adapt as required incrementally and others will completely transform. Either way, they will look to achieve sustainable performance. 

Bob Johansen- futurist - Fellow of the Institute for the Future in Silicon Valley states that the `hard part is that our brains want certainty. Certainty can mean command and control.  It is too brittle in a VUCA environment’. 

- VUCA is being reimagined. It is no longer Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous it is now Vision, Understanding, Clarity, and Agility. As employees grapple with uncertainty and adjust to major change, leaders need to be agents for change in a future that will reward clarity and punish certainty." Bob Johanson

So what type of leadership do you think will enable this? 

  1. Those that are clear about direction, flexible about execution
  2. They will have agility - fail fast and scale fast
  3. They will put people first in the transformation
  4. They will translate purpose into action and align personal purpose to the organisation’s purpose
  5. They will have courage with humility – try new things, challenge the status quo.
  6. They will pick up on quiet signals in a noisy world.
  7. They will maximise the power of technology – find the best tools that enable the team and make them more effective. 

This is a time of the collective voice and the individual voice. How do we address the needs of all as leaders and demonstrate our humanity and agency for change? 

It’s all about communication. We need to: 

  1. Listen individually to our team members and colleagues, not to respond and not just to understand, but so the other person feels heard
  2. Active Listening to the masses - what is the vibe? Hierarchy matters less and mass opinion matters more - listening to understand vs listening to respond
  3. Provide open, timely, honest, candid, consistent, reliable, fact-based communication – it builds trust and prevents inaccurate and damaging rumours
  4. Establish clarity by reinforcing a shared past and future – use storytelling. Our brains are wired for stories and without stories we make them up. 
  5. Communicate with clarity, to provide continuity, and to empower the organization with a sense of purpose. 

Any final words? 

William Gibson said, `the future is already here it’s just unevenly distributed’. To encourage even distribution takes leaders who learn, leaders who see a crisis like this as a learning opportunity. Those who know the long term benefit the investment of reflection brings will take the time to reflect on their responses and actions and review what worked and what didn’t and what they would do differently. 
Let’s not let a crisis go to waste!


Biography: Helen Hovenga


Helen is an established People and Culture Executive who has worked alongside CEOs, Boards and Executives in collaboration to create and deliver People Strategies with passion, kindness and a drive to achieve effective performance outcomes.


about the author

Jeannette Lang - General Manager VIC/TAS/SA

Jeannette has over 20 years experience as a senior HR leader. With a strong network (nationally and internationally) of HR practitioners she is focussed on the placement of senior and executive HR professionals.

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