As part of my series about the “How Businesses Pivot and Stay Relevant In The Face of Disruptive Technologies,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Katriina Tahka, CEO A-HA A Human Agency.
What Katriina doesn’t know about Human Resources isn’t worth knowing! She’s a creative and practical leader with a serious commercial spine, who quickly connects expertise + fresh ideas to create solutions that work. Her career has spanned leadership roles in different industries, sectors and countries. CEO + Founder of A-HA, Katriina is passionate about building inclusive workplaces where all people thrive and realize their full potential. Healthy teams with engaged people deliver both business and community success.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I had worked for many years in large corporates trying to help them build workplaces where people and profits thrived side by side. But as I listened closely to local and global conversations, it was clear to me that the innovative intentions of many organisations had become diluted/bogged down by transactional mindset and process obsession leaving little room to think differently about many common challenges. Outcomes often lost in process, real change impacted by missing the bigger picture. I heard a lot of people complaining that they felt like just a number at work and were not valued. There is a lot of cynicism about whether companies truly value their employees as people, or see them as economic units that you scale up and down as the business needs require. HR should be helping to debunk that feeling — yet too often I saw HR processes just reinforcing the feeling.
So A-HA was built on a vision of designing HR differently and not being like traditional HR.
My moment of realization or #ahamoment was that HR could and should be done differently. Imagine if every single person and company had access to great HR — what’s stopping this? Perception that employing a HR team is expensive and something only the big companies can afford to have. Perception that ‘out-sourcing’ means off-shoring your key people processes to an overseas call center, compromising on both quality and local knowledge.
I started A Human Agency with the intention of creating an agile, end to end HR dream team filled to the brim with a breadth and depth of HR capability. A team that can quickly mobilise, design solutions and partner with businesses large and small to implement, and make it stick. Everything you ever dreamed of from HR but thought you couldn’t find in one spot or afford.
HR is much more than payroll and leave management. HR is critical for agility, disruption and growth. Many businesses think they can’t afford to have (or don’t need) generalist & specialist HR resources on a permanent basis; and yet a strategic ‘people’ focus is critical for growth.
Small business employs just under half of all working Australians and contributes almost one third of private sector value into the economy. Yet 77% of SMEs do not have workplace policies & 40% don’t have employment contracts leaving themselves open to unnecessary risk.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Everyone keeps telling me that our company sounds like an 80’s boy band (and yes I know that — it was intentional!) but I still smile and act as though it’s a huge revelation.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I am a big believer in the power of sponsorship on people’s career pathways. A sponsor is different to a mentor in that a sponsor is an active advocate and coach; a person who not only believes in you but strategically uses their network and own influence to connect and promote you. I first met Philip Garling when I took on a role working for Phil as his Head of HR on a global infrastructure team. I was a bit terrified as he had a reputation for being a fiercely intelligent and commercially savvy leader who expected the same of his team. I worked my butt off, but I have never learnt so much in a corporate role in my life; and in exchange Phil has remained one of my most important mentors and sponsors and was the first person I invited to be on the Advisory Board of A-HA when I set it up. I still always ask for his view when I am working through a strategic business decision.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
A Human Agency’s (early) vision was “designing HR differently”. Human resources is so much more than payroll, policies, and procedures. Our vision and purpose has always been to intentionally design great places to work where people and profits both thrive.
Right from the start we were clear on our core values. We are values-driven and work with organisations with similar values. We are:
Conscious (inclusive & respectful)
Change-Makers (thinking differently about common challenges)
Connectors (of organisations & their people, value with values)
Commercial (entrepreneurial with a serious commercial spine)
And we Care.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you tell our readers a bit about what your business does? How do you help people?
A Human Agency (or AHA) helps businesses create human friendly workplaces where both people and profits thrive. Traditionally this would be called HR but we’re doing it a bit differently. Our five focus areas are: workplace culture, diversity + inclusion, development, capability + capacity; and we provide businesses who need hands on help with Your HR Partner.
Which technological innovation has encroached or disrupted your industry? Can you explain why this has been disruptive?
Before technology disrupted HR, the first disruption to the HR industry was the boom in Australian companies trying to outsource HR to overseas call-centres. In most cases that didn’t work and HR outsourcing then had a bad name for many years.
In the last decade technology created the next big disruption and we’ve seen an explosion in online employment template options that provide employment policies, procedures and payroll (think Employment Hero or Employsure and similar companies) at a reasonable cost and with template quality assurance provided usually by a local lawyer. This appeared to offer a more ‘local’ tech-based way to out-source HR processes. Problem is that many companies think that’s all there is to HR. Template solutions can give the impression that you can ‘outsource’ all your HR needs to an online platform and no more expensive HR skills are required. Right? Wrong.
What did you do to pivot as a result of this disruption?
Policies, procedures and payroll are the basic foundations of people management — not the high impact skills and capabilities which unlock all the real potential and value in your people. Too often I had clients come to me and say “I’ve got the right document but now I don’t know what to do next”.
So the opportunity created for us was to put the ‘human’ back into Human Resources. Sounds odd I know. It’s a bit like the explosion in craft beer or homemade lemonade. There’s lots of cheaper mass produced options out there — but more people are now looking for a customized, bespoke option that feels better, to get this you need to go back to a more personalized, human friendly approach. Our innovation was that we cut the overheads out of how HR is delivered and made quality + cost both a positive feature of our offering and the way we do things.
For the first 2 years I focused on building an alternative way of delivering HR solutions that incorporated both high quality templates plus giving our clients a dedicated HR Partner (virtual or in person). Our SME client sector loved this offering and grew accordingly. We helped many start-ups grow by offering them an affordable way to invest in their most valuable asset — their people.
However my next pivot came in response to two big recent events: the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry plus the global explosion of #metoo. These two events exposed the toxic workplace cultures and behaviours that had thrived for decades across many different industries in Australia. Power and a profit-first mindset had blinded those in positions of leadership and accountability to what is morally right. The Australian Prudential Regulation Authority (APRA) found in its Inquiry into CBA that “CBA’s continued financial success dulled the senses of the institution.” APRA directly attributed CBA’s failings to its culture: “In the Panel’s view, cultural factors lie at the heart of these shortcomings”, and went on to describe a ‘widespread sense of complacency’ that has run from the top down.
This lead me to decide that there was an urgent need for disruptive HR thinkers (like the A-HA team!) to help businesses strategically address their workplace culture, starting by deeply analysing the current state including their true organisational values and behaviours plus the real state of gender equality and inclusion, and then developing an action plan for creating a modern workplace that delivers exceptional employee and customer experience.
So I decided to pivot by intentionally extending our focus onto workplace culture and behaviour as a key way in which we still help businesses to create human friendly workplaces. Our vision is now:
Creating human friendly workplaces (Virtually, in person and shared spaces) Where positive culture thrives and businesses grow
My background is as an employment lawyer and for the last 15 years I’ve worked in diversity + inclusion so this was not a new area for us, the pivot was that I decided we would turn up the volume on this critical area and focus on it. I actually had to just get brave and do what I know best.
Was there a specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path? If yes, we’d love to hear the story.
My AHA moment (and we love it when people have them!) was connecting the #metoo movement and my own experience as a junior lawyer to understand why toxic cultures still exist and why it’s time for people who can — to stand up and change them.
Flash back to the late 1990’s. I’m 20-something and nervously attending my very first job interview which was at a mid-sized respectable (or not?) law firm in Canberra. I’m proudly wearing my new navy suit and crisp white shirt, hoping to impress the interview panel and start my legal career at this firm. I can’t wait to finally put into practice all the concepts of justice, equality, fairness and human dignity I had been studying at law school. So, you can imagine my shock when the senior partner interviewing asks me “Why the F*uck should I hire a woman? You’re going to get knocked up and leave.” I was too stunned and too young to respond with anything more retaliatory than “I don’t intend to have children for some time.” The rest of the interview was a train wreck as you can imagine. But the harassment didn’t stop with me; my good friend was the next candidate and the same (male) partner asked her what contraception she was using and was she sure it was reliable enough.
Throughout my job interview the Head of HR sat primly beside the senior partner, neatly taking notes and she didn’t say a word. Presumably the other partners of this firm thought that the senior partner was the best person for the job of interviewing Graduates. If they knew what he was like they certainly didn’t stop him. He wasn’t alone in the room when he said these things, he was accompanied by a so-called expert in workplace behaviour, the HR manager, and she didn’t do anything. Yes, he was a vile man whose behaviour guaranteed that no female ever had a chance of getting a job at that firm, but he was enabled and encouraged by that workplace culture. It would have made absolutely no difference if I spoke up at the time. All that would have happened is that my young and unknown name would have been black-listed as a troublemaker, preventing me from ever getting a graduate job in Canberra, so I slunk off in my navy-blue suit to the next interview.
Looking back now at that story and knowing that twenty years on I have the knowledge and influence to change this — I decided this would have to be my legacy. I will do what I can to stop the same thing happening to people who do not have a voice to speak up for themselves. This when I think about creating human-friendly workplaces — it is critical for me that they are inclusive and respectful of everyone.
So, how are things going with this new direction?
We are busier than ever! Culture change takes time so we’re going to be busy for awhile. I believe that 2021 will be our biggest year yet.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started this pivot?
I got invited to be a guest speaker at an event called “D*ckheads at Work” at Belvoir. It was a sell-out. The moderator asked the audience to share their stories of the biggest “D*ckheads at Work” they had experienced and the response was phenomenal; apparently everyone has worked for a really toxic person or in a really toxic workplace culture some time in their lives. No wonder people are jaded about traditional HR.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during a disruptive period?
I recently completed the VIA Signature Strengths profile and ‘Leadership’ was my fourth or fifth strength, not the first. I believe that the critical strengths a leader needs during a period of disruption (is not to focus on themselves) but to have a mindset driven by intellectual curiosity, to assess the current circumstances and then have conviction in making decisions about the direction to take; a good leader needs to seek out and listen to the opinions of your team as diverse thinking is definitely needed and a good leader shouldn’t think they solely have all the answers. Also be open and communicate frequently so your team knows what’s happening, understand their role and contribution and can have confidence in the direction you’re headed. Finally — care. You have to care for what you are doing, your people, care for your clients and create a good outcome for everyone. I will be proud if my legacy is to have improved the lived experience of many people at work and helped them feel valued, respected and included.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
Be vulnerable, share what’s going on for you, what you’re worried about. I’ve had a few teary moments in front of my team and they know when and why I am worried. But then I very quickly dust myself off and we all focus on the solution. Don’t wallow around in fear and negativity. I am a very positive person so I tend to get creative and find a new way forward if we hit an obstacle — then it becomes fun again! I get very fired up when I am thinking about how we can do something differently.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Listen. Listen to your customers, your team, the local and global news. Then think it through and respond. Don’t think you have or need to have all the answers. If you’re a small business owner make sure you stay connected to other tribes of entrepreneurs to be able to have these discussions with like minded people. We think disruption comes from machines and technology — the real disruption starts with the mindset, thinking, idea that a person has about how to change things. Technology enables the solution — but it all starts with a human.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make when faced with a disruptive technology? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
The biggest mistake I have made (only once — never again!) and seen other businesses do as well, is to have a great idea and invest heavily in developing it to get it near perfect BEFORE doing deep customer testing via a pilot to gather feedback. If you truly believe in your idea, you have to take some risk and go to market with an early/beta concept that is not perfect and be prepared to work really damn fast once you get your customer feedback to iterate and respond. There’s no point aiming for perfection (in your own mind) if no one else ends up being on board with your vision.
Ok. Thank you. Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to pivot and stay relevant in the face of disruptive technologies? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Listen [as above]
Listen. Listen to your customers, your team, the local and global news. Then think it through and respond. Don’t think you have or need to have all the answers. If you’re a small business owner make sure you stay connected to other tribes of entrepreneurs to be able to have these discussions with like-minded people. We think disruption comes from machines and technology — the real disruption starts with the mindset, thinking, idea that a person has about how to change things. Technology enables the solution — but it all starts with a human.
2. Be brave
Have intellectual curiosity, cognitive agility and make sure you consider multiple data points to avoid tunnel vision. If you want to be able to look over the horizon and pivot you need to not over-trust any singular opinion (even your own). Think Kodak.
3. Trust in yourself
You have a superpower. Figure it out and then trust yourself. Self-confidence takes a while — though I am not talking about arrogance. If you are going to lead your business then you do need to consult widely but then trust yourself to make the right decision. My second pivot was a return to doing what I do best and I had veered away from by listening too much to others and not sticking to my guns when I knew what the right thing to do was.
4. Surround yourself with great people
Either set up an Advisory Board and make sure you have a mentor or sponsor who will guide and advocate for you. I specifically selected each one of the AHA Advisory Board members based on the different opinions, industries, skills and capabilities I wanted to be able to draw on to inform the business’s growth and strategic direction.
5. Know your legacy
Be clear on what you want your leadership legacy to be and how you are going to live that each day and what your big goal is. Not sure — read ‘Legacy’ by James Kerr. He shares how the All Blacks turned themselves around following a disastrous losing streak.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“The Mountains are calling and I must go” John Muir
I love hiking, mountains, skiing and a challenge. This quote has always stirred me. It represents taking on challenges, climbing over any obstacle and more importantly knowing when you need to disconnect from work and go and recharge the batteries so you can be strong again. If I don’t get out of the city into the mountains regularly I start to be less effective because I am not rested and clear headed.
How can our readers further follow your work?