Andrea Bell Interview – Winner of AHRI Dave Ulrich HR Leader Award

Andrea, you started with Freehills in 1996 intending to stay only 18 months.  Over the years we’ve heard that sort of career planning from many HR practitioners entering legal firms as they were viewed as very conservative and not leading edge enough in HR terms. 

You’ve completely turned that viewpoint on its head with your innovative work and have done it in some style!  We’d like to hear a bit more about that journey.

When I joined the firm I was completing my Masters of Commerce (Human Resources and Organisational Development) and intended to move to a new industry once it was completed.  I found the culture of the firm compelling from the outset and also found the development opportunity of working with such a skilled HR leader as Adele Brady, a really phenomenal opportunity.  Adele was highly regarded within the firm and HR had a very influential seat at the leadership table.  The leadership of the firm had an appetite, which continued to grow over the years for investing in and innovating around culture and performance.  Over these years the performance of the firm grew and the work we were doing directly impacted that.

The quality of the work I get to do has always been what has driven me. Having been approached for other roles over the years, I realised few organisations were doing the type of innovative work that we were doing. The opportunity to foster a culture where high performing people maximise their potential has always been compelling for me.  I have felt valued by the firm and able to influence business outcomes.

Whilst we know many HR people don’t like to be in the spotlight, you have done some pretty special stuff to be honoured with this prestigious award. Tell us about that work.  How did it all begin and what was the journey?

After my first maternity leave I returned to work part time in what became an Organisational Development group.  This was some of the best work of my career.  I had the opportunity to work on developing organisational structures and governance post-merger, for example working with McKinsey on a leadership program that underpinned cultural transformation, embedded coaching within the firm, developed best practice approaches to performance discussions, competency development, leadership succession, and diversity.  There were also a range of other initiatives that led delivered engagement levels benchmarked in the global organisational high performance zone, a leading employer brand and an award winning client experience through our employees to our clients.

When I decided I was interested in developing my broader business strategy and expanding my leadership skills, I was given another opportunity within the firm to move into the HR Director role.  I had also worked on the merger of Freehills and Herbert Smith with the opportunity to do more amazing change and HR strategy work on the global platform.  Since the merger I have worked on developing newly merged firm values, design and implementation of new global performance and remuneration strategies for partners and now staff, global competency models and leadership succession strategy.

One of the criteria of winning this award was the ability to be innovative and ahead of the field.  That’s a position many HR people talk about but find difficult to put into practice.  What have you been doing that was out of the ordinary but resulted in great outcomes for the business?

Over the years we have built a commitment in this firm for taking on projects and initiatives that deliver high performance.  Greater appetite for experimenting with new approaches has been built on the back of earlier successes and over time we have built our reputation and our ability to implement change that supports performance.

I think people are surprised to hear we are a law firm which invests in leadership, use Appreciative Inquiry as a common change tool, run mindfulness programs, prioritise the development and embed values and develop much of our own tools and programs through the expertise we have developed over the years.  We are always looking at new ways to support the firm to achieve its objectives.  These objectives centre around being a leading global law firm and to do this we have to create a leading workplace where the most talented people want to be.  In a mature market, this requires innovation, experimentation and risk taking and an ability to build the confidence of the organisation in our approach.

You have proven yourself to be an outstanding HR leader.  What does that mean to the business……and from a personal perspective what does it mean for you?

I am very appreciative of being recognised in this way.  This really has been a team effort.  Over the years the quality of the work we have been able to do here has attracted some extraordinary people to our HR team who have collectively achieved some fantastic business outcomes.  All of this has been achieved through close collaboration with leaders across the firm.  An award like this recognises the quality of what is a team effort.

Andrea, people look to leaders for inspiration!  If there was one message you could send out to your peer group in the HR community what would it be?

I think to be a trusted advisor, our technical expertise is a given but it’s our deep understanding and commitment to the business and compassion for its people that enable us to differentiate ourselves.  I think we are at our best when we step away from “HR for HR’s sake” and focus on finding the best solution for our organisations while holding our technical expertise lightly.

Many thanks to Andrea for talking to us.

Click here for more interviews in our HR INSIGHTS series.