Interview with Coates Hire Executive General Manager People and Safety – Gail Symons

Gail took on the role of EGM People and Safety in January 2020, walking into a bushfire crisis meeting in her first hour on her first day, followed by floods and Covid. It has been, as we all know, a year like no other. Following a large scale organisation design exercise and restructure in May, Gail’s role was expanded to include Corporate communications (internal and external), Media and Sustainability.

Gail, please give us an overview of the transformation journey that Coates Hire is on.
Coates Hire is driving an end to end transformation in order to gain market share and move closer to our customers, while also creating new services and innovative solutions to add to our general hire business. We have a growth agenda, and people practices and cultural transformation are at the heart of that. The transformation includes reviewing our operating model, organisation structure, tiering our approach to our customers, and a brand refresh, to name a few areas. The transformation is also focussed on business and organisational efficiencies.

With the word ‘transformation’ so widely used in modern HR vernacular, how do you differentiate true transformation from normal change management?
For us, transformation means the scale of change, level of disruption to what has been there before and is something that shifts the core DNA or shape of what has been there before. It also means that the change is significant enough that the organisation cannot return to what was before; we have been consciously thinking of transformation in these terms.

As someone well known for garnering the sponsorship and support from your CEO, what has been the key to influencing at that level, both at Coates Hire and more broadly across your career?
Worrying about the same things the CFO worries about. Speaking the language of the business, having as much skin in the game as every other leader at that level and pragmatically solving business problems. Putting our customers at the heart of all we do and making it easy for them to do business with us in the People function. It’s amazing how much influence we can have when our customers realise we really care about what matters to them. I’m also told ‘you put the human in human resources’. I’m not quite sure what that means but I think it may mean speaking plainly, being down to earth, relating to leaders on all levels as a person……A CEO I reported to once told me ‘you are not a cardboard cut-out, keep it that way’, so it probably also means being real and authentic.

What will be the measure you use to assess the success of this transformation program? Do you think there is more than one way to do that?
It’s in metrics that indicate customer advocacy and business growth, measured in market share, meeting EBIT and revenue targets and meeting the objectives of the strategic plan, which we called Team25.

Has the Covid-19 Pandemic slowed the pace of transformation down at Coates Hire?
Not at all. Like others, we have taken the view of ‘never waste a good crisis’ and the pandemic has been a trigger to energise the transformation agenda. The disruption has enabled a different way of looking at our operating model and the ways in which we work or run our business. Of course, because Safety is in my portfolio, there is an intensity about responding to the ever changing landscape of Covid, making it one of the hardest years of my career. We have received positive feedback from our customers and employees for how we handled the Covid situation.

In building teams to deliver disruptive yet sustainable change in organisations, what are the key attributes you look for when hiring for your own team?
I have recently put together a new team of GM’s, I can’t believe my good fortune when I see them together! They are amazing. I looked for people with learning agility, resilience, being change agents themselves, tech saavy, with commercial acumen, who are subject matter experts in their field. This means they are able to gain credibility from the business quickly, and mostly a cultural fit with the new vision for my team and Coates Hire. The work is intense, often untidy and requires grit, so I knew we also had to be able to have a laugh along the way.

With the increasing popularity of tech start-ups as highly sought after places to work, how do Australian institutions like Coates Hire compete for talent?
A drawcard for us is that we are a fully owned Australian business, with good pedigree, well governed and ethical. A great CEO and being part of a genuine end to end transformation are the other drawcards. We have an award winning digital transformation underway and whilst we are not “cool” like a tech start up, tech people have an opportunity to do some innovative (for Coates Hire) work. Our Engineering Solutions business is leading edge on a world stage in terms of the solutions we offer (yes, engineers do get excited by our hydraulic shoring solutions ). We are working to tell more people about our two growth businesses, Engineering Solutions and Industrial Services, as they are forward thinking. We have significant shortages in our mining and resources related activities and these are for core roles like Fitter Mechanics, rather than for people who are attracted by tech start-ups. I was pleased to hear a speaker at a recent launch of our RAP say in her speech that while Coates Hire is a ‘big business’ we act like a small business with many localised initiatives around the network. This could be appealing. My team certainly feels like a start up!

Casting your mind back over a successful career leading large HR functions, what has been your greatest lesson along the way?
Be thoughtful about which CEO you work with. I enjoy enduring relationships with good CEO’s and MD’s and good work can be done when they believe in the value of people and culture. Always walk in the shoes of the business; my ongoing goal has been that if you are in a room of business people, someone walking in should not be able to tell you are the ‘People and Culture’ person. I have always been grateful for the amazing people who have mentored me along the way and some of their pieces of advice are alive with me each and every day. I thank them. It also helps to have come to the function from a non-traditional route as that has given me a different way to think about how I lead the function. Oh, and never take yourself too seriously!