Angela Ryan has worked as an International Human Resources leader across the globe in various sectors and developed a strong view about making a valuable impact as a leader.
Q: What events or people have impacted your leadership style most?
HR is an interesting profession because the scope of HR is incredibly wide and, unlike other professions, it’s not as clear cut as, say, being a CFO, where there’s clearly defined parameters of the job. [Your experience] depends on the context you’re working in, the leader you’re working for and your personality.
I try to bring the “human” back into human resources. HR has really flip-flopped; we’re expected to be great operators, great bosses, great business partners, know data, know social media ... the demands of HR are increasing because the world of work is diversifying. The reason I’m in HR is that I fundamentally love the constructive potential, enabling people and organisations to reach their potential.
Q: Your sense of purpose comes from constructing potential in people and outcomes. Has this always been your sense of purpose or has it developed over time?
I’d say it’s been formed over the years. You can’t always identify potential in others (or yourself) when you’re too young.
It started from my own narrative. During my first job as a lawyer I realised my learning disability was going to be a big barrier for me. It wasn’t going to be the right career space for me. But I also felt the idea of potential got capped pretty quickly and by incorrect metrics. That’s when my interest in potential began building because I knew my potential hadn’t been identified.
A lot of this pull has been intrinsic. I’ve always been incredibly curious, always focusing on what’s next. The biggest shift I’ve been able to make over the past five/six years is learning how to hold the space better and not only thinking about what's next. I’ve done that with the benefit of three coaches over the years, all female. One of my coaches encouraged me to move to Asia when the role came up. At that time, I was not confident about moving to another part of the world, not knowing anybody. Because she saw this in me, I am also paying it forward: there are a number of young female HR practitioners that I mentor.
Q: You’ve been very reflective about your journey. How have you used these reflections when making difficult choices?
You need a level of self-awareness to decide what’s important to you. There have been times in my life I’ve made a decision between family and career and chosen family. I’m raising my kids to be brave hearts, being brave and bold with kindness. This is how I myself operate in an organisational setting.
Q: Because you’re so clear on what’s important to you, does this help you be brave and know how to stand up for it?
This is something that comes with age and seniority. I didn’t speak up as much when I was younger when things weren’t being done properly. Now I will always stand up if I see people being treated in a way that I don’t think is right.
Everyone wants to feel acknowledged, respected and that they matter. In organisations, especially when they’re downsizing. It’s easy for people to feel like they’re just a commodity or number on a spreadsheet. If we are in a situation where people need to be managed out, I insist we do it with grace and they leave with dignity. We don’t want anyone leaving on their knees.
Q: Is it about choosing purpose over profit?
It’s possible to choose both. You have to be able to hold the duality in organisations. In HR, I always talk about how you hold the duality of individuals and businesses. Sometimes these things do conflict, but you have to be comfortable holding both.
Q: What have you learned from leading others throughout your journey?
The type of conversations I’ve been having with colleagues is trust-built. I trust them until they give me a reason not to. I don’t micromanage and I’ll give them very clear direction and anticipate them to get on with it. I lead by example by acting with integrity, doing the right thing, being curious and being part of my team. When you’re clear with people about how you expect them to behave, people will self-select and I don’t think I‘ve had anyone opt out of selecting. I take my job very seriously, but I don’t take myself seriously. It’s okay to make mistakes. It’s how you learn.
Q: So you’re inspired by a culture where there’s clarity and where mistakes are okay?
It’s more than that. Inspiration can be intrinsic and extrinsic. An organisation can dampen people’s sense of purpose and inspiration very easily. There’s an interesting debate about whether organisations can give people a sense of purpose if they don’t already have one.
People need to understand the bigger picture and why their input and contribution matters in that kaleidoscope of what they’re doing in that organisation and contributing to the community. The role of leadership is to be able to articulate that.
Q: Can you only articulate purpose in leadership by connecting to yourself?
The big requirements of leadership today are building social connections within the organisation. We recognise so much of the importance of people’s experience in the workplace, how that impacts their performance, clients, customers etc. People have a biological need to be a part of a tribe, to be included. Leaders can set an example by connecting with people on a personal level.
People need to be comfortable being open and not caught in the expectations of their role or job title. The sense of community in organisation and trust in teams is very important. Once you have that as an ecosystem, you can start guiding people in the direction of the business.
Q: What are the biggest challenges to building community within the workplace?
People don’t know how to build these social connections. So much of the way that management has evolved has been about managing the outcome rather than creating the connection with someone - my profession has a lot to answer for. Within this role, I’m responsible for 55,000 people. There’s no way I can build a personal relationship with everyone but managers within teams need to find a way to personalise and individualise their team members’ experience when they come to work every day. What I’m focusing on is helping managers know how to build social connections and giving them the tools to do it. Because once you can do that, the magic starts to happen.
Q: You’re currently part of a global company with branches in Asia, Turkey, Eastern Europe, Netherlands. How do you know within that whole system that what you’re doing is on track and stays on course.
We use metrics which are created by focus groups conducted with people globally, e.g. engagement survey focus groups, which are a good baseline of where we are right now. As I visit the hospitals, I sit down with as many people as I can to get a sense of people’s experience coming into work. We’ve also decided to focus on patient feedback. If we are creating strong good relationships with our people that’s built on a sense of trust, then that’s what our patients will be experiencing from them
One of the big differences for me coming into healthcare is that people already have a good sense of purpose. You don’t become a nurse because you want a glamorous life or to earn lots of money. They’re the backbone of a hospital, with continuous day to day interactions with patients.
I did a focus group with the nurses, asking them, “If you could go back to being 18 again, how many of you would still be on the career path of being a nurse?” A significant majority of people put their hand up to say: yes, they would. Quite often, by the time people are in their mid-30s/40s, the allure of their profession has worn off. They might be thinking about something different, they might have gone into a career because of family pressure. The fact that so many people still want to be a nurse shows that their sense of purpose is bigger than what the organisation does. Their purpose is simply caring for people.
Q: How do you stay energised and connected to yourself?
I’m a continuous learner, which is why I’m doing the doctorate. It enables me to keep fresh with what I’m doing.
I’ve learnt over the years how to balance my energy. I spend a lot of time in quite deep conversations with people. I’m better now at managing my own wellbeing, spending time with myself, my kids. I carry two phones, a work phone and a personal phone, and I leave my work phone at home over the weekend. Having boundaries is important.
Q: What would be your advice to people who don’t have that clarity or those choices that you had?
You would need a level of introspection that may not be comfortable for a lot of senior executives. I use a lot of neuropsychological tools when working with senior executives now: getting the person to take me through their narrative, understanding why they made the decisions they made at critical points in their life, personally and professionally, and understanding the lessons they were taught and the values they had before they even entered the workplace and even became a leader. Once they’ve done this introspection, they get the clarity. You can’t give people a sense of purpose or values. The way we operate right now is more focused on what we do than who we are. I bring them back to who they are and how that’s affected their choices.