In this podcast episode I chat with Liam Hayes, Chief People Officer and an experienced  Change Sponsor at Aurecon. Aurecon is a global engineering company, with offices in 28 countries and I have been fortunate to work with Liam. We met to discuss some of the themes in my upcoming book.  In Chapter One of my book Conversations of Change – A Guide to Implementing Workplace Change, I establish that there are four change adventures that people might be facing.


Liam’s story can be read in the book – available now here.

Adventure 1:

You do not know what the change is to be. You do not have any internal change resources. You do have budget.

Adventure 2:

You do know what the change is to be. You do not have any internal change resources. You do have budget.

 Adventure 3:

You do know what the change is to be. You have internal change resources. You do have budget.

Adventure 4:

You may or may not know what the change is to be. You have no internal change resources. You have no budget to hire anyone.


In this #changechat we talk about the “adventures” Liam has had, his experience in working with change managers, what his hot tips are in leading change, and the future of change practitioners.


We also reference the work he has led in redesigning the future skill set of Aurecon employees which can be seen in this clip

Jen: Hello everybody. Welcome back to the #changechat podcast. A number of the listeners will be aware that I’m in the current process or the midst of writing a book called, Conversations of Change, A Guide to Implementing Workplace Change. The audience that I’m writing this for really are managers who are looking to introduce change in the workplace and has been brought about by the type of calls I get from coaching clients saying “I’d like some help in, helping us, guide us through this change.” And I thought how timely it would be then, given the kind of queries I’m getting about it, is to actually have a change chat with a real-life leader of change in industry. In full disclosure, this is one of my clients who has hired me into the business. We’re going to see how game he is in terms of actually being really truthful about change management consultants and contractors in the workplace. But a very big welcome to Liam Hayes, Chief People Officer at Aurecon.

Liam: Thanks, Jen.

Jen: Liam, thanks for coming in. The first question I’ve got for you, when was the first time you put your hand up to lead a major change? And what was that experience like?

Liam: So the first time I led a major change was working for one of our predecessor businesses called Connell Wagner. And at that point a new CEO had taken over, the previous one had retired. And the organization really hadn’t gone through any major change in at least 10 to 20 years. And the new CEO had a vision in terms of the future of the organization and embarked on really a business transformational project. And as part of that I was asked to lay the culture / change stream that worked across the other functional bodies. They were looking at anything from organizational structure to leadership to business strategy.

Jen: So that’s really in at the deep end. That’s as big as a change as you’re going to get to be asked to lead. In the book, one of the things I’ve grappled with is how to distinguish between organizational change management and change management which is often more aligned with the project phasing. How much you have to find that change is, did that come to you as an organizational change management piece or did you see it as more a discrete change process?

Liam: Yeah, it looked certainly was an organizational change piece. We really tried to shift the whole organization and not looking at just one particular thing. Everything, systems or processes to org structure. So they are different to a more recent change management project that we’ve had which, you been working with us on, which was the implementation of our new global HR system, Workday which was very discreet around one piece of work. Whereas I go back to the Connell Wagner one, it was a very large program of work that was set to go over multiple years and we’d engaged IBM business consulting to actually come and help us with that change.

Jen: Right. So prior to that piece of work kicking off, what had been your knowledge of organizational change?

Liam: Very little. Probably what I learnt at university but really when I went through university, organizational change in HR add business degrees wasn’t really a topic. So the extent of my knowledge was really through reading books out of my interest. But I really learnt a lot in that first change program that I did and was lucky enough that the consultants that I worked with from IBM and from some other organizations really mentored me and was really lucky that they were experienced change professionals that had been there and done it before with larger organizations and really took me under their wing and I got a lot out of that. I think you can read books which help in terms of learning from other people’s experiences. The problem I found with a lot of books on this topic is they’re very theoretical. And I think change has to be very practical. And then through you’ve been through an experience and come work alongside others that have done the same, you kind of learn as you go.
Jen: Which adventure does this belong to, if we think about what we framed up in the book?

Liam: I think it was Adventure 1. Everything about both that and also a more recent Workday change resembles Adventure 1. Albeit with the Connell Wagner one, we knew we wanted to shift the organization. We knew the types of things we had to do to shift the organization. But we really didn’t know what that looked like. We had an idea. But when we started it, we really had to work out what were the things we’re actually going to do and then that how did that impact our staff. Likewise with the Workday one, we knew we’re implementing a new HR system. That’s all we really knew and particularly because Workday use the agile methodology in terms of implementing their system, we were really discovering what the impact of the change was going to be as we were going and design the system and then obviously working with yourself then the other change practitioners that we had in the team to say what does that mean in terms of how we communicate, how do we train staff.

Jen: I guess it’s interesting because Adventure 1 being that you don’t know what the change is per se but you’ve got budget and you’ve potentially got resources there. For me they would find that really uncomfortable, the fact that there is this ambiguity and uncertainty around what the final stage is. Did you find it that way or does it become something that’s more empowering and liberating because you can be more creative with it?

Liam: I find it more empowering and liberating because you can be more creative. I think sometimes the danger with change or transformational projects, if you’re going with a fixed mind view in terms of what the end outcome must be, it does limit you in terms of possibly coming up with better ways of implementing the change. And we certainly, with Workday, we learnt along the way. We knew the end goal was to implement one global HR system across the business. That was really our end goal. And we had a budget to do that. We had a team in place to do that. But we didn’t know the design that was going to look like and one of the things we went into that project saying was, we actually, in a lot of cases wanted to start with a blank sheet of paper because we had processes and systems that had been in the business for a long time, we didn’t want to take bad processes and put them into a new system. So I actually think it’s better starting with that mindset of, yes you’ve got something you have to deliver but how you deliver and what that looks like you really should keep an open mind. And particularly is you want to engage with wider stakeholders in the business is very important in terms of helping co-design that.

Jen: In terms of your experience, so you’ve started off with that experience quickly with IBM and the consultant and you’ve had in-house change practitioners at Aurecon. You’ve bought people like myself in as externals. How would you categorize your experience with working with change practitioners? What’s the value in it? What’s the challenges? What’s the frustrations? Where’s their benefit?

Liam: Mine’s been positive and it probably goes back to my Connell Wagner example of having people that were not just here and interested in terms of helping us implement the change but actually helping building my capability of change, that they saw that their role would come to an end at some point but this change of transformation would continue. So that was a really positive experience for me and I think it’s probably helped me in terms of that being out to, I’d like to think good change practitioners that kind of work within the business because I know what good looks like. You hear a lot of horror stories in terms of change programs and you’ve mentioned in your book, Jen, in terms of 70%, 80% of change has failed. I think there are people out there that promote themselves as change practitioners but I do think there’s a big difference between someone that may have worked once on a change project that’s part of a team and someone that is a trained change professional that has worked on a number of change projects and they are the people you’re really looking for. And I think that’s where sometimes maybe the change practitioners get a bad reputation because people, telling themselves as change practitioners when they’re really not.

Jen: It’s definitely one of the challenges to the industry. Let me put you on the spot, because you are in a unique role as the chief people officer. You have done some really super interesting, exciting work around defining future-ready capabilities of your people. And I’ll link the listeners back to the Aurecon. Actually it’s really interesting, so I think that tells that story really well. What do you see of, in terms of future-ready and change capability, where does that, are we going to look towards making change practitioners extinct because that should be an in-house capability? Does that continue to be a role for change practitioners? Are you expecting all of your line managers to be really good change managers? What’s your view at that macro level?

Liam: I kind of look at that from the point of view of HR practitioners, as well, that ultimately we want to build a leadership capability and have leaders that are good in terms of leading people and leading change. I don’t think that necessarily does away with change practitioners or HR practitioners because a role in some sense becomes more strategic because we become the coaches to these people. You actually, in your book, Jen talked about change agents and change champions, that actually those people that we do need to be communicating the messages and driving change just become good at it. But they’ve got a day job. So they’re not going to be able to have the time to be able to think about what does this whole change program look like? What are the different touch points? Who do we need to engage with? I think hopefully over time, what we’ll find maybe in five to 10 years that more changes succeed than what they do today because we do have more people in business that understand change and therefore become drivers of change. I think where we’re going in terms of looking at future-ready capability and so forth and using design thinking as a way to help shape what that looks like for us. I think there’s an opportunity for design thinking to come into the toolkit of change practitioners that will be really beneficial to them and to the business.

Jen: It’s interesting because I think one of them, there’s a chapter later in the book about discussing one of the challenges for people in understanding practitioners and their toolkits is that we have such a diverse toolkit. So you will find change practitioners are really synced in design. You’ll find others who are very strong on their structure and their methodologies and stuff like that. But it’s then how do you determine what the right practitioner is for your engagement? How do you go about that? How do you scope out what type of change practitioner do I need?

Liam: Probably now, I’ve been looking for a change practitioner that’s less structured because I’ve seen the value of design thinking and how we’ve applied it in the business. And also, I think that a lot of the projects that we’re doing require more of an agile approach than a structure approach. I think sometimes the structure approach leads to limit thinking and ideas. But that’s opposed to a point you had, no doubt there are still projects out there that require more of a structure approach to them.

Jen: Okay, so if you’ve gone out for lunch, a networking lunch, sitting next to someone who’s just said that they’re about to introduce a major change in their organization for the very first time, what’s going to be your advice to that person?

Liam: Hire a specialist change person if you don’t have one. Because I think too often organizations fall into the trap of looking at say, yes, we’ve got this change project. That we’ve got a project that we need to deliver and yes, now I’m into those change and that person right there has got some spare time. Let’s get them to lead the change. And I think that’s why we see such a high failure of change projects. It’s because we don’t get the right people leading it. And so if you have a major change project, yes there is a cost. But the greater cost is failure. So invest up front and put a change person in place. Because I think you’ll see the real benefits in terms of a more successful ad hoc greater chance, the more successful outcome.

Jen: I love that message. What are the hallmarks of successful change based on what you’ve done?

Liam: So for us, if I look at the Workday project, obviously user adoption, which really a key there. And not just user adoption but the user experience. So we were coming off platforms that were very outdated. The user experience was not great. It was one of the key reasons for us making there such an investment in a new system. So for that project it was very much about, we could go out and survey the business and say, how do you experience using this new system? And if that was positive, which it was, then we’ll need to live it in terms of what we’re looking to achieve. There are obviously other things in terms of consistent data and so forth but those things more benefited HR or leadership in terms of reporting. For us for 7,000 staff across 26 countries it was, did they actually enjoy using the system? Because if they enjoyed using the system then we could get them to do the things we need to do around updating skills and experience or doing a performance involvement, et cetera.

Jen: Excellent. Liam Hayes, it’s been a pleasure to have a change chat with you. Thank you so much for your time.

Liam: Welcome. Thank you.

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