Leaders of Influence: Angela Murphy
In the second of our “Leaders of Influence” interviews, we speak to Angela Murphy, EGM of HR at Challenger about her career. Angela is articulate, high-energy, self-aware, confident and considered – everything you would expect in an exceptional professional. Remember her name, we think this won’t be the last time you hear about Angela.
Please tell us a bit about your career
I am the Executive General Manager at Challenger, where I have been for four and a half years after spending eight years at Westpac. I began my career as a remuneration and compensation specialist at Mercer and have moved into generalist HR positions in recent years.
Each time I have made a career move, I have specifically sought to gain a new experience, to increase the degree of challenge, or to round out a skill set. For example, when I moved from consulting to corporate, I was looking for the opportunity to work with centralised HR teams and leadership teams. I wanted to learn, first-hand, how organisational decisions are made; the total sum of elements that had to be considered in order to make good decisions – I discovered that I loved it, working with people who could inspire, teach and stretch my skills.
That characteristic – to push personal, team and organisational capability, to always try and do better, in a respectful environment – really defines my career. I think I have had to work hard and set goals specifically because I was never the best at anything. Being second best makes you reach, to see what is possible.
I did an undergraduate degree in Arts with Honours in History and then did my Masters in Commerce, majoring in Finance. That taught me there were lots of things I enjoyed; it didn’t matter all that much what I did, it was about the effort that I put in and the corresponding rewards at the other end.
I have found that as you progress in seniority, the specific content of your expertise becomes less important than your ability to engage the people around you, earn their respect and to provide them with clarity of purpose. That is, leadership skills and the ability to create a respectful achieving environment become crucial in achieving success.
Who has had a big influence on your career and why?
I very deliberately started my career at Mercer, in a consulting firm, because I like change; I wanted exposure to diverse industries and to be in what I believe is an accelerated learning environment – in consulting, you get to sit with senior people a long time before you would do in a corporate environment.
At Mercer, there was a principal, Arlene Wherrett, who was very encouraging and supportive. She thought I had a unique skill set and made sure I knew. Arlene’s attention and teaching gave me a lot of confidence at a formative time. She taught me two things that have proven crucial to my career. The first is vulnerability. Arlene occasionally let me see her being vulnerable, which showed me mistakes occur and do not equate with failure and that humility is an integral part of great leadership. The other lesson Arlene instilled in me was to deliberately and mindfully learn the differentiation between a consultant and principal, so that I would know which skills I needed to acquire in order to progress. Amongst other things, she taught me to observe how to win the work rather than do the work. In other words, how to bridge the skills and therefore organisational gap.
I have since taken that lesson into every role: what is it that my boss is doing and how do they do it well? I always think about the skills I need to develop for the next opportunity and the things that differentiate the current role from the next. You build your career by strategically building your skill set.
What are you passionate about?
Helping others: individually, as a group and organisationally to learn to push the boundaries around what’s possible. To help someone go outside their comfort zone; figure out the things that are holding them back and how to push things to another level. It’s more than just what you achieve, the how is also crucial. The world is changing quickly. It’s important to apply new lenses in order to respond appropriately. What does the new context demand, what is needed, what do I need to do differently to help overcome a challenge, what does this situation demand?
Why is it important? It’s enormously rewarding for the person who has pushed through to the next level.
How do you define excellent leadership?
The important elements: engagement, communication, clarity, etc. are all covered in books and I absolutely agree with them. For me, the big additional differentiation in a great leader is someone who has self-knowledge and retains their self-esteem in the context of that knowledge, because humility and empathy as a leader are then possible.
What has been the greatest challenge in your career to date and what has it taught you?
I actually didn’t realise I was really challenged till I got to the other side… I took a new role in which change was the primary mandate, but that need for change was not evident to the team I inherited. I therefore stepped into a situation where I needed to make a difference in the face of enormous change resistance that ranged from apathy to obstructionist. I found it difficult because I was used to getting results, but instead, I spent most of my energy, every day, just to be heard by my own team. It was hard to smile every morning knowing what was waiting for me at my desk.
The lessons were tenacity and resilience make a difference and that sometimes things get worse before they get better. You really need to stick at things and go the full circle. At the time it felt as if I had to put a rod up my spine every morning. Like all challenging experiences, when I got to the other side, it was rewarding and energising, and I am so glad I stuck at it.
What do you see as the disrupters facing HR practitioners at this point?
That success levers of the past - what was useful, what makes a difference - changes. I am curious about the future of work. For example, people are working later in life, so how they choose to participate is starting to be challenged; people want to come down the career ladder as well as go up, it’s no longer fixed. You must look at how people work now with a different lens; technological, legal, contractual and industrial environments are all changing and the power and control of employers are very different. How do we address challenges that are no longer linear?
Given your consulting background, what would your advice be to HR consultants who want to become true trusted advisors? Consulting is a really tough, competitive business. One of the things I realise being on the other side is how much competition there is amongst providers. I really believe that dignity in response and consideration is crucial, so one of the challenges in my role is balancing that respect to suppliers with my deliverables. If I saw every consultant who called me that’s all I would be doing every day, so instead, I rely on the recommendations of my peers.
Word of mouth is very very powerful and so my advice to consultants is to choose your client partners well. The reputation you build from the outcomes you achieve with someone well-respected and networked in the market is invaluable. I say this because the first thing I do when I need a new supplier is call a contact for recommendations. I also think keeping up the connection is important once you have done a piece of work, so you are top of mind the next time around. There are consultants I catch up with once or twice a year, and I always walk away from those meetings feeling good about the relationship and shared ideas.
What would you like your legacy at Challenger to be? There are two related outcomes. Firstly, to maintain the highly engaged, high-performance and collaborative environment we have at Challenger as the organisation grows and for that rarefied culture to endure past the current leadership team.
Secondly, and I keep coming back to this, how do we push it to another level of high performance, what does the next level look like and how do I do my part in taking us there?
The two things are clearly related. How do I do leave things in a better state? In part, by working with and on the group of next-level leaders. There are some questions I constantly ask myself: how do we, the current leadership team, teach them to take the risks they will learn from and how do we give them the formative experiences that will realise their potential? I work on pushing the current team to delegate authority, engender self-awareness, continually holding a mirror up, collectively and individually… to go to that next, better place.
In some exciting news, the Challenger team won Australian HR Team of the Year (<1,000 employees) in the Australian HR Awards last Friday night (9th September 2016). Big congratulations to Angela and her team!