Liam Hayes: A human-centric HR leader

HRD talks to Liam Hayes, global chief people officer at Aurecon, about why human-centric leadership is critical in a globally disrupted marketplace.

HRD: Can you outline your career to now?
Technically, I’ve only worked at one company but it has evolved during the last 15 years. I started my HR career as an intern at the end of my second year of university – it was a six-month work placement with one of Aurecon’s heritage firms, Connell Wagner. At the end of that six-month period, they offered me a full-time HR officer role, which I accepted. I subsequently completed my degree part-time over a couple of years.

I was in that position for about four years before moving up to into a regional HR operations management role that covered Australia, NZ, Asia and the Middle East. Adding to the role, I was lucky enough to be asked by the CEO at the time to lead a culture change program as part of a broader business transformation program that he was running. After a couple of years handling this function, I was appointed to the regional people leader role for our operations across Australia, New Zealand and Asia. I then moved into a global talent and culture leader capacity for around a year, before moving into my current position as the global chief people officer for Aurecon.

HRD: What is it about the company that makes you stay with it?
It’s common to leave positions to look for that next challenge, whereas I’ve been lucky in my career with Aurecon to be offered a variety of roles and to grow with the company. When I started the internship at Connell Wagner it was a 1,300 person business in Australia and New Zealand, with a couple of offices in Asia. Today, Aurecon is a $1bn per annum advisory, engineering business with 7,000 staff and 60 offices across 20 countries.

HRD: Can you outline current responsibilities?
I report to our global CEO Giam Swiegers, who appointed me to the role when he joined the business 2.5 years ago. I work very closely with Giam and our leadership team to drive the delivery of our global people strategy. I’m also responsible for the global HR team of around 80 people, so I work on everything from how we attract our unfair share of the best talent and developing people to make sure they are future ready, through to ensuring we have the right leadership and culture to be able to deliver on the company’s strategic goals.

I’m also one of nine leaders in what Giam calls our Future-Ready strategy team, where I focus on ensuring we have the skills, attributes and technology required by a future-ready engineering workforce.

HRD: How did the Young Executive of the Year Award come about?
 There were 100 nominations that were whittled down to 10 finalists and then six winners. There were two parts to being selected as a finalist. The first involved going through a pretty gruelling ‘CEO for a day’ simulation exercise done in conjunction with DDI.  In this, we were assessed not on whatever our core capability was – marketing, finance, HR, etc – but rather on our competencies as a CEO and our ability to run a business. It was one of the most intense things I’ve ever done but it was also a great learning experience. The second part was facing a rigorous panel of heavyweight business leaders in an interview. We were quizzed about our backgrounds and our career aspirations.

HRD: The judges said that all finalists showed emotional maturity, resilience and a genuine passion for their business, their teams and community around them.  Is there anything else you believe the judges saw in you personally?
What I talked to the judges about, and a key part of my nomination, was a focus on human-centric leadership. That came through, I think, in how I simulated running the business and my decision-making as a CEO, not just as a HR professional – but an ability to take a broader view of a business beyond the people lens.

We’re entering a period of dramatic change in which leaders will need to use a very different toolkit of skills in order to thrive in a globally disrupted marketplace. Never before have we seen good people practices being so important because today organisations need to take people on a journey. We’ve got to embed an understanding of a new vision and changing future; we’ve got to be able to retrain people, to encourage them to adopt new skills.

HRD: What can HR professionals be doing for themselves to ensure their own skills remain sharp during this time of disruption?
 I’ll split it into two parts. Growing your technical HR capability is always going to be important, and through this period of rapid change you’ve got to be able to stay up to date with the latest trends. Personally, I do a lot of reading. We’re fortunate in this day and age to have access to a vast amount of tools and research online, and making sure you’re aware and learning from what others are doing is extremely important. I’ve always got a business book I am reading on my iPad.

But I think what will really differentiate all professionals, not just HR professionals, is their ability to problem-solve and innovate. If we look at the rise of AI and machine learning, there is no doubt some of the tasks HR do today will be automated in some way in the future. But it’s much harder to automate someone’s knowledge, their ideas, their ability to ask the right questions, and their ability to work with stakeholders, as well as innovate and develop solutions. From a HR point of view, the whole workforce of the future will look very different. If we can take those problem-solving and innovation skills and work with our client groups, we have a huge opportunity to shape and drive this workforce of the future.

HRD: What are you doing to shape the future workforce of Aurecon?
One thing we’re doing as a business and in our people team at Aurecon is building this capability by applying and developing concepts around design thinking. We are using design thinking to re-imagine our employee experience and last year as a people team we went out and asked some of our clients about the attributes they believe Aurecon people will need to have in the future. Based on what we gained from those interviews, we developed what we call the eight Aurecon Attributes. We look for these attributes when we’re recruiting people into the business, and aim to build teams embodying all eight Attributes in order to solve client problems. We’ve created a whole new people development framework around those Attributes to help people grow their future capabilities.