Welcome back to Meet a PaperCutter. Thanks so much for joining us and listening to this episode.
Everything’s a little bit different in the world right now and we’re all finding our own way to tackle the challenges that are arising every day.
My conversation today is with Adam Axon, Head of People Experience here at PaperCut.
In this episode, things are a little bit different from what you might be used to if you follow this podcast. We spent our time talking about what’s going on across the globe and discussed how PaperCut is helping support our team as we navigate through the hurdles that life is presenting us.
Adam Axon, Head of People Experience
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A (slightly) edited transcription of PaperCutter Adam’s chat
Matt: So, when I was looking at recording this next Meet a PaperCutter episode, I never could have imagined what the world would look like in 2020.
However, the overarching premise of this podcast is still the same, so we want to give people an insight into PaperCut and those who form part of our family.
So could you give us a little insight into the role you currently play at PaperCut?
Adam: Sure. So, my primary role, if you want to put it that way, is to head up our Global People Experience team.
I view that role as being very much the custodian of how our people experience coming to work at PaperCut every day. Chris and Matt, when they started PaperCut, one of their three goals was to make PaperCut a place where people wanted to come to work.
And we’ve continued to evolve as a company with lots of growth, and new offices, and moving internationally, and so many different things. Our job is to make sure that we are intentional in terms of trying to stay as true to that original goal as possible.
So while I do head up the team, I think the secret to our success as a team has really been about the amazing individuals I have within the team.
They’ve accomplished some truly incredible things, from a people perspective. I’m very privileged to watch each of them go about their work and grow in their roles. They do a great job of making the People Experience team what it is today.
I’m also a member of PaperCut’s Directional Leadership group. This really goes beyond my “people” role. It requires a whole of business thinking. Trying to connect the dots regarding market trends, insights, customer/partner feedback, feedback from our people, and to be able to piece all of that together into a clear and coherent strategy that really helps provide that direction for everybody.
As you know, Matt, that concept of directional leaders is relatively new for us, and we might talk about that a little bit later. But yeah, I do see that as two distinct roles that I’m playing.
Matt: Yeah so I think you touched on, and I know our co-founder Chris is very passionate about it, that since you joined PaperCut, probably one of the main things you’ve been driving is really the culture across the company.
So, maintaining that feeling of a small start-up as we’ve grown into a 200 person plus company. Now, putting culture first is not just for the good days, those days when our developers make a breakthrough on the latest and greatest feature, or the morning gatherings when we celebrate everyone’s birthdays across the company. It’s also about putting culture first to give you the resilience for surviving those tougher days.
So, while we never expected to be in the situation we are in now, maybe you could share your thoughts on how important company culture is at a time like this?
Adam: Yeah, I think it’s essential. But the reason why is that a culture, the values, they give you an anchor to hold you down when it comes to decision making. Things we want to stay true to during a time like this.
We were very keen, as this COVID-19 situation started to unfold, to make sure that we were a company that really lived our values through this experience. Rather than just have them as a token poster somewhere.
The ability to be nimble and responsive and adapt to what’s going on around. The ability to be caring and have that come through our decision-making processes when it comes to looking after our people. Having those kinds of core culture anchoring you serves as a good frame of reference when it comes to the thought processes we’re taking during this time.
I also think that one of the great things about our culture is the connectedness that we all feel to each other. Regardless of role, title, whatever, we just have some really great people that really enjoy working with each other. So to go through a situation where all of a sudden you’re not seeing those people on a day to day basis like you were, what’s been most pleasing for me about our culture during this time is how cultural connected programs, per se, of trying to make sure we keep in contact with each other, it’s just happened naturally here at PaperCut.
For example, the #we-drive Slack group usually get together here in Melbourne and go for drives every odd weekend. Now they can’t obviously do that at the moment because of social distancing rules. So they’ve all got virtual simulators set up on their computers and now they’re driving together virtually in all these glamorous places across the world.
That stuff didn’t happen because it got directed by leadership. It happened because of the strength of the culture and the connection between our people.
Matt: Yeah, I really love that. I think I saw that as well. Is it the great North, it’s not the great North road… what’s it called that they went driving on?
Adam: Ah, the Great Ocean Road.
Matt: The Great Ocean Road, that was the one they went driving down. I saw that yeah, that looked pretty awesome. It’s great to see people embracing technology to bring that culture aspect in.
Adam: Definitely. Now I made a mention of the cat earlier, I just need to pause and let this cat out of the room.
Matt: Yeah go ahead, go ahead (laughs).
Adam: Sorry about that.
Matt: That’s alright. With cats they always want attention now, you have to give it. (Laughs)
Adam: Yes, exactly.
Matt: So, I like to think I’m pretty good at handling surprises, and I’ve gotta say these last few weeks have certainly been full of surprises.
Now, when I usually say surprise I normally think of it in a positive way. Maybe surprising someone with a birthday gift. Or at PaperCut maybe that’s approaching their desk with their favourite cup of coffee in hand. But right now the surprises seem to be hitting us more like obstacles.
So, from your perspective, how do we see these surprises as opportunities and not obstacles?
Adam: I guess the first thing is, sometimes it’s actually important to see an obstacle as an obstacle. And I think this situation has been unprecedented in terms of the suffering and the misery and the anguish and the anxiety that it’s caused for so many people around the world.
I think it is important that we don’t lose sight of that. Sometimes we can have a thing to say well let’s just try and turn it into an opportunity or a positive. And I think that’s a good attitude to take for sure. But sometimes we just have to sit with obstacles for a little bit, so I think that that’s an important thing to point out first.
But, I think with every situation that unfolds, there are going to be opportunities that present themselves. You know, sometimes those opportunities might be to really grow the business. Sometimes they might just be to sustain the business during these types of times. I think it’s trying to maintain that perspective of what’s going on and sort of trying to look at it through a lens of where we can potentially look to add value. Where we can see market shifts may be happening quicker than what they would have happened elsewise.
So really staying connected to our customers, to our partners and making sure that we’re listening, which we do a great job anyway, is even more important during these times to be able to see those opportunities when they present themselves.
Matt: And I think especially over recent months, PaperCut’s been giving everyone the opportunity to attend sessions to help build out their resiliency. I know personally I went on one of those as well and I found it massively beneficial.
So, with the current situation a lot of leaders will have people looking to them and looking to them for support. Now this can either be possibly a crippling moment as a leader when you realise you don’t know what to do, or it could be an opportunity for this to sort of be your finest hour to really show up for your employees.
Now when I say leader, I want to be clear that you can be a leader and have no direct reports, but being leading through your behaviours, your influence, your communication style. Or you might directly have a team that is looking to you as a leader.
So, during this time, why is resilience so important at the moment, and what is PaperCut doing to support our people?
Adam: Well you touched upon the fact we have been running resiliency workshops globally for the last couple of months before all of this hit. I think resiliency is very popular sort of word to use at the moment, and very much on the upswing when it comes to a capability you want people to have.
What I think it really means is the ability to show that you know things can change around you, unexpected things can happen, and you’ve got the ability to continue to persevere through that, or maybe even grow stronger as a result.
Resiliency is important in terms of being able to help the company help our people adapt to the situations that are unfolding around us at the moment. But it’s also not easy, and it’s not about trying to ignore the realities of the situation. It’s important that we are able to be with people in the space that they’re in. Allow them to experience what they’re experiencing. But also invest the time to help them have that resiliency to cope during a situation like this.
So yeah we’ve ran workshops to that effect. Looking to over the next couple of weeks run regular sort of workshops driven by the People Experience team on topics like resiliency but other topics that are relevant to these times as well.
Matt: Yeah, and have you got any personal tips you could share on how you personally keep resilient?
Adam: Yeah, probably the three things that I’ve been- I say three, it’s probably more four, I just group one or two of them together. But the things that I’ve done most consistently that have helped me, meditation and taking the time to reflect are two really important practices that I’m not as diligent with as I would like to be.
Generally, I find that during these times of high stress I struggle to do them. It’s now 5:23pm here Melbourne time and I intended to get my meditation session done this morning at about ten o’clock, after my first round of meetings and didn’t get around to it. But I’ll be j,ping off from here and doing it later, so meditation and reflection help. Reflection through say journaling or just deep thinking to really turbo charge that reflection time.
I also see my psychologist once a week and talk around a variety of different topics with him. Most of them generally work related just to help me understand what of myself I’m bringing into the workplace, and have more awareness around that.
And a development coach, slightly different development coaches. One of our PaperCut programs that we have available. Development coach tends to probably be a little bit more tactical and a little bit more specific than the psychology conversations which can be a bit broader. But I found those things in particular, just having that space to reflect, to learn, to see the bigger picture of what’s going on, have really helped me.
Matt: I think you’ve sort of perfectly transitioned into my next question. Over the past three and a bit, maybe four weeks now, I along with the whole PaperCut team have moved to working from home.
A change on the surface can often seem small and full of benefits, however it is a massive switch from what I especially was used to. I think it’s so easy to often underestimate how much you come to rely on the interaction you get from working in an office environment. The benefits this brings to your day.
Let me maybe share an example. So, my day in the office usually would start off at 9am and then about ten thirty I’d be able to take time away from my desk and join my colleagues around the coffee machine for a catch up and a coffee which usually breaks out, “Matt the barista” and Dawn our People Experience Advocate even goes as far as to call it “Matt’s Coffee Shop”.
However suddenly the opportunity has gone, and it’s only then that you realise how much you relied on it. This also doesn’t only take away this opportunity to interact, but it also takes away the one thing that drags me away from my desk, and it’s now so easy to spend many hours of the day sitting at my desk at home without a break.
Now I’ve learned to introduce things into my day such as taking a walk outside to try and counteract this. Now I know there are a lot of people out there who’d be very familiar with working from home, and for them it’s an easy transition to make. However, for others like me this presents a unique and new set of challenges.
Would you be able to talk a little bit about how PaperCut is helping our teams with this transition, and maybe not only that, but share with us any tips you have that have personally aided you with the transition?
Adam: I think you touched upon it at the start. We’re probably quite fortunate that we’re all primarily doing jobs that translate relatively well to working from home. At least in comparison to people like say airlines or hospitality. When we see what has happened to some of those industries I feel very grateful for the position that we’re in.
Our initial transition has been relatively smooth, the fact we were able to do some working from home test days in the weeks leading up to the COVID-19 crisis really kinda kicking off, I think helped there.
Although I think it’s still worth calling out that our parents in particular have probably had the hardest adjustment with schools being closed. Having to balance work and looking after their kids is a challenge that is very difficult.
I think there’s been a number of things that we’ve done to assist that transition, not just in terms of the actual act of working from home, but the idea of being separated from the rest of the company. Clarity and the frequency of our communication has been very important from the very start of this crisis when few people really foresaw what was coming.
So, it’s been very important that we’ve been able to remove ambiguities around questions that people may have: “Can I do this? Am I going to need to do this? Am I going to need to do that?” That’s been very important.
Add to that transparency the fact that we are sharing our company dashboard with all of our company metrics for everyone in the organisation to be able to see what’s going on around us is something I haven’t seen other companies do. I think it has really aided in, and will continue to aid us, in creating a sense of a shared reality that we’re all working on together.
In terms of some of the more specific aspects, you mentioned that we’ve created a few Slack channels or shared spaces for people to share and support each other with different tips. Whether it’s been parents, how are they coping. Whether it’s been people living alone. Whether it’s been people just getting used to working from home. We’ve had our we-remotie Slack channel, which for a long time was a very quiet space and then all of a sudden got bombarded by everybody.
Creating a shared space for people to share those tips, we just recently last week accumulated those tips into a Distributed Working playbook. A lot of that is around trying to take the autonomy and the empowerment to make the decisions that are going to work for you in terms of how best to work. When you try and convince yourself that you can continue to do your standard nine to five work in the same way, I think that’s where things get difficult. It is a different situation, and so getting aware of that and what you need to do I think is important.
We’ve also encouraged alternate working patterns for those who are struggling with the transition a little bit. Also, for anyone specifically affected by COVID-19, we obviously implemented some discretionary leave for those people as well.
Personally, I’ve found some respects a bit of a groove. Despite working in a people role, I am quite introverted, so the working from home thing is probably working relatively well for me.
What I’ve liked and why I think it’s worked well for me is that I have taken the autonomy to kind of build my day the way that it works for me, within reason obviously.
But that has seen me sort of splitting my day kind of almost into two chunks. Starting at about say eight through to about twelve, trying to chunk all of my meetings into that time as best as possible. And then effectively having sort of two to three hours off around that lunchtime period and just stretch my legs, going for a walk, then jumping back on at three o’clock, four o’clock and sort of working through ‘til the hours seven or eight.
For me personally that’s always where I’ve been most effective, after say five o’clock when everyone has left. So being able to build my day around that seems to be a little bit easier when you’re working distributively, than when you’re in the office.
Matt: I definitely think I need to take that tip around grouping the meetings together, you can very suddenly find your day disappears very quickly with meetings after meetings. One of the challenges probably is that you’ve got that thirty minutes between meetings. It’s very difficult to be productive in that amount of time. Back to backing them is a really great idea.
Adam: You basically can’t. And what I’ve found is that if I do like four hours straight meetings back to back, there’s an impact of that in terms of my mental focus. Which is sort of why I do eventually take that two to three hours off just to rest, recover. I might occasionally jump on Slack every now and then during that time, but you know, by the time I come back at three or four, I’ve refreshed and I can really jump into that focus work.
Now you’ve got to make some compromises. I generally work better the other way around: focus time in the morning, meetings in the afternoon. But with everything going on and the times we were needing to meet, particularly, meetings that are needing Steve from EMEA to jump on and Dave from the U.S. to jump on, it’s all happening in the morning, so I just accepted pretty early that I wasn’t going to be able to work to that optimum model and just made the adjustment.
Matt: And I think a lot of those internal conversations that we’re having right now are starting with more upfront time to talk about more than just a one word check in, like, “How are you coping right now? How are you feeling?”
Rather than just a simple, “Hey, how are you?”
Really being able ask people, “How are things going? What’s on your mind?” Those questions really create space for a conversation.
What are some of your favourite questions to ask in these situations?
Adam: I’m not particularly good at asking this one, because I can sometimes fall into the trap of wanting to be a little bit too solutions orientated and help someone solve all of their problems. I think sometimes the best way to help someone in this type of situation is just to take a bit of a pause and ask what can I do in this conversation to best support you today.
I think especially in these times get a sense of where the other person is at coming into that conversation. You know, I’ve had a number of conversations where I’ve just said, “Look, I’m just not in the headspace right now. I need to take some time.”
Indeed, we were going to record this session last week, but I said exactly that to you.
Just trying to create that space for someone to be authentic and honest with where they’re at, and what they need, and help them feel comfortable to share. In some of the coaching sessions I’ve done it’s sort of like, “Do you want to talk coaching or do you want to talk video games today? What’s it going to be?” Sometimes during this it’s video games, and that’s the best thing you can do.
Matt: I’ve always had a tremendous amount of empathy for anyone in a People Experience team. I know that on any given day, there are so many different competing priorities from the “What do I need to do right now?” to “Is there a fire I need to put out?” or “What’s the strategic thing I’m looking at?”
I know there’s a lot going on, but now more than ever we’re all turning to People Experience for help and guidance. Now, what have you been doing within your team to help support them through the current challenge? Is there maybe one big takeaway that has stood out for you during this period?
Adam: We have a really good established practice of being there for one another. It’s not just that the team have one on ones with me, the team have one on ones with each other. Everyone has got that support mechanism within the team. Sometimes it can be pretty heavy emotionally, especially in these times, especially as people who go into a career wanting to help others. Often that comes with a strong connection to a sense of empathy, which in these times can sometimes be overdriven. Because you’re emphasizing connecting with everybody.
So I think for the most part we’re very good as a team of giving each other space, when we’re having those conversations. We’ve had daily check-ins both in the morning, for the APAC team, and Cara in the U.S, and then in the evenings for the APAC team and Dawn. Then Dawn and Cara have been doing regular check-ins as well.
So just, yeah, making sure that we’re there for each other, and for me personally setting a pretty clear guidance ‘round the fact that it is OK to take time off. You know, if you wake up and you’re exhausted then take the time off. Recharge. Rest. I’ve done that myself and encourage my team to do that as well.
Matt: And do you think maybe you could share with us on a personal level what’s the biggest challenge you’ve had over recent weeks?
Adam: Finding the balance between being really in the work and then subsequently sort of overdoing it. We’ve been working distributively for three weeks now and two weeks or so in the build up to that the COVID-19 crisis was still at a stage where it was escalating every day, but really kind of under the radar of most people’s attention.
I was leading PaperCut’s response group. In the build up to recognising, “Okay, it’s time for us to make that switch to distributed working”, we wanted to do that ahead of the curve, so that we could have some degree of planning and control over it and ease into it. Rather than just have the government say, “No one can go to the office” and have to adapt on the fly.
But in the build up to that I probably did four or five days back to back as maybe 16 to 18-hour days. That was important at the time and I knew this was sort of a one off, but still was very much in that space. But I felt really calm. I didn’t feel stressed. I felt like I had a very good handle on what was going on around me. I was really connected and aware of all the developments that were happening globally.
Once we made that successful transition to distributed working, thankfully the rest of the directional leads and the board said, “You’ve done really good. We’re very appreciative, take some time off so you don’t burn out.”
So I did, but actually taking the time off had an opposite effect. From stopping and then kind of trying to almost detach from it, I found myself getting more stressed.
I play video games and in some respects it can be a bit of escapism. After a day of playing Formula One, it was great in the moment, but then it actually sucked when I had to pull myself back into reality. Finding that balance of being in the work but still making sure that I’m creating space and stillness to just sit with what’s happening, and be in it at that right balance, has probably been the biggest challenge and a lot of the themes of the conversations with my psychologist over the last weeks.
Matt: So, let’s look to the future. Assuming we’re back in the office and six months has passed. What do you think will be the most notable long-term change to the way we work? What do you think will be the lingering lesson learned?
Adam: Hmm. You know, actually, I couldn’t tell you, if I’m being honest. I think so much is still up in the air. It’s really hard to predict how we’re all going to adapt when we get back to some degree of normality.
Certainly, people will be a lot more comfortable with working remotely.
I’ve read lots of people say this is the beginning of the switch to fully distributed working. That’ it’s going to create a big shift in reduction of people using offices and all of these things. And certainly there’d be some great stuff that would come if that was to be true.
You can imagine that a boom for smaller country towns that actually can have people living in there and sustain small businesses - which would be great.
But I also wonder whether or not we see this huge craving for h,an connection. Because of this sustained two to three months of social isolation, when people can get back into the office, they actually want to work in the office more. Working remotely is the last thing they want to do.
So I think lots of people are speculating around what it could mean, but personally, I’m just going to sort of sit back and try and watch it unfold. And then think about it in the moment rather than try and speculate, because h,an behaviour is very unpredictable.
Matt: Now I know on a personal level you’ve got a love for Dr Jason Fox and Frederic Laloux, two authors that have written books about organisational design and culture.
Now as I understand it, Frederic Laloux was the author of the book that gave some real weight conceptually to the ways of working changes that we’ve gone through at PaperCut.
Could you maybe give us a high-level overview of some of the changes that we’ve been going through, and how maybe this book has helped guide these?
Adam: Yeah, I can certainly give it a crack. For people listening, they’ve probably never heard of either of those authors. Frederic Laloux is certainly the one who has a little bit more world acclaim, but Dr Jason Fox is a local Melbourne doctor of motivational design in workplaces. He’s written some really amazing books on those topics.
A lot of the work we’ve looked at from an organisational perspective is about what is the best way for us to work given the nature of the work that we’re doing.
And Laloux’s book talks around how as the world has evolved to be more complex, some of those traditional organisational models that are characterised best by the factory floor, where you’ve got a commanding control hierarchy - decisions flow up and then are made and then flow back down. Everything is controlled, everything is driven by process.
That work is very well suited to predictability. You know, when you know exactly what you need to do, and that’s not going to change for the foreseeable future. Then those models are really good.
And certainly, some of the work we do at PaperCut has those hallmarks. You know, we know we’ve got customers, we know they’re going to have that knowledge gap of using our product, and they’re going to reach out to us who have that knowledge to fill that gap. And that’s going to be a predictable sort of flow.
But when you look at the type of world we live in now and you see all of these unpredictable events happening - I mean obviously COVID-19 is a classic example - but even on a day to day basis whether it’s in our industry, manufacturers buying other manufacturers, manufacturers buying big resellers, stuff is changing so, so rapidly.
So what Laloux talks about is some of these companies that have evolved their organisational model to more autonomous empowered teams. Teams who have everything they need end to end, to be able to deliver value to the customer.
And a lot of what we’ve been trying to do is follow that exact thing rather than have traditional hierarchical models where things need to flow up to the top. You start to have those siloed thinking, siloed communication, and in those silos thinking you have a lot of handover between different teams to get things done, and that slows things down.
Personally, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a company anywhere who’s very good at collaboration, particularly when it comes to passing over information between multiple teams.
We were finding that as we were scaling in a traditional sense, we were losing some of those things that made us special as a company. Our agility, our nimbleness, our responsiveness, our ability to think beyond just the functional tasks that we were doing and have that sort of whole of business thinking. Those things were disappearing a little bit, or at least reducing.
A lot of the changes that we have been working on implementing through our way of working changes is to get back to that model of small autonomous teams. Cross functional in skill with the ability to take a concept from an idea, to the customer, with as much of that skill sitting within the team so they don’t need to go elsewhere.
And to try and empower that team with the knowledge and the context and the autonomy to be able to make the decisions they need to be successful.
That’s philosophically what we’re trying to do.
We’re certainly not at that point yet, but we have made some very positive steps, particularly in the product development area.
From a perspective how does Laloux’s work help, I think a lot of it is around inspiration. A lot of it is around influence of thinking.
You know, I think I first came across Laloux’s work maybe six years ago - certainly before my time at PaperCut. In many ways a lot of the resources and the guidance and the influence I’ve had professionally have been leading up to this type of opportunity. I’m so very thankful that working for a company like PaperCut - that has the courage to try something new - exists and that I’m here trying to do this work.
Matt: As you touched on there, as a company we’re going on a journey as we transition to that newer way of working. And as you said, we’re not there yet, but it’s a journey and we’re on the road.
Everybody that works here is also on a journey as well as they develop and grow at PaperCut, and I know the new ways of working is giving everyone the opportunity to have a coach, that can help them with that.
I know you’re personally very passionate about coaching. Can you tell us why?
Adam: Yeah, I can. First of all I think referring back to the changes that we’re going through, one of the things when you start to move to this way of working is that it does remove some of those predictable certainty-type aspects in an organisation. You know, knowing that you’re going to come into work and are always going to work in the same team, you’re always going to have the same people.
There are certain things people take for granted, and when you start to think around some of the ways we’re working in Product Development now, where those initiative teams are so fluid, it’s got a lot of positives to it.
But it can also be hard for people to adapt. So making sure we’re continuing to support the growth and development of our people, particularly around this idea of being able to cope with ambiguity rather than certainty - which is a really hard skill, but it is a skill that can be developed - is really important, and matched to some of those models of development out there.
So, implementing a program that helps to ensure our people are developing both professionally and personally is always an important part of what a People Experience team does.
For me, when I studied psychology, one of the most fascinating topics we looked at was around this idea of: can people change?
And the literature was mixed, but one thing that was very clear from that literature is that if change is possible, then it takes a lot of time and investment.
And from my personal experience I shared working with psychologist - my psychologist is called Dr Phil believe it or not - for the best part of almost eight years now I’ve been working with him. It was the regular cadence of seeing him and talking to him and reflecting and having that space just for me to reflect.
And development coaching is all about making that dedicated time. Whether it’s fortnightly or monthly, to really invest that time in yourself. With the support of someone who can be there to help you canvas regular feedback from the people you’re working with, which is critical. We can’t grow without feedback.
But also, then to reflect and act on that feedback.
And this is not to say the coach is accountable for your own growth and development, because as an individual you are always accountable for your own growth and development. But at PaperCut, providing a development coach to help you through that journey - to me is really exciting.
It’s that regular investment of just purely dedicated development time with someone who’s impartial. You can be completely open and transparent around what you’re thinking. Rather than thinking, “Well I can’t say this because they’re my manager and they might hold that against me”.
I really think it gives us an opportunity to see the true growth in people both professionally and personally.
And we’ve already seen some great stories, from people in the rollout in Melbourne. People who have put their hand up for opportunities, and now got those opportunities and have come out and said the only reason I had the confidence to put my hand up was because of my conversations with my coach.
And some of these people, seeing them being potentially really big cynics as to whether development coaching was just a HR buzz word thing, and to now see them actually live it and to get that experience and now grow has been … yeah. Some of the work we’ve been doing over the last six months has been some of the most satisfying work I’ve ever had the opportunity to do, so yeah.