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Forging A Path With Conviction

Maximus
5 minutes Reading Time

“I’ve come to understand that fear and excitement are two sides of the same coin and if I have a chat to myself, I can turn fear into excitement”

–  Emma Hogan, Secretary for Digital and NSW Department of Customer Service

At the time we speak, NSW is many weeks into its 2021 lockdown, due to the rampant COVID-19 Delta variant. Hogan is modest about the role she has played as a leader, but it’s clear how important her kind of courage has been during this time. Moving from a long-held HR role in media to being the Secretary for the NSW Department of Customer Service in the NSW Government was another courageous move…

 

Brent Duffy: Let’s begin with the past couple of years, and how you came to be Secretary for the NSW Department of Customer Service in the NSW Government.

Emma Hogan: I came into government in the role of Public Service Commissioner, and I remember at the time thinking, what a big role, because you’re essentially the CEO of an independent agency. It’s about 150 people, and it’s far-reaching with a lot of legislative powers. I had a lot to learn! Then I was given the opportunity to come into this secretary job, which is deeper than it is wide. The Public Service Commission tries to hold the secretaries to account for workforce strategy across all of government, whereas when you’re the Secretary of the Department you are just focused on your 10,000 people. I had a big transformation gig to do. I came into the role in October, the Black Summer bushfires started in December and life was just never the same again. We had maybe had a three-week gap between the bushfires and COVID-19 starting and it’s been crazy ever since.

 

BD: How are you coping?

EH:  You deal with the situation you’re in, I feel very, very connected to the purpose of what I’m doing now, in a totally different way to when I was in the private sector, which has completely surprised me. I know that we will look back on this time and we will have played a part in history. There’s a real purpose in not just the day to day of helping the citizens of New South Wales get through this, but for my team, making sure they know the important role they’re playing and making lives easier.

 

BD: You have young children as well, which adds to the juggle, doesn’t it?

EH: My stepdaughter is 14 and she’s with us half the time, now homeschooling of course, and a four-year-old, who’s in daycare. My toughest day this year was when the Premier and Dr Kerry Chant announced to the public that school attendance rates were at 3 per cent and they wanted to see childcare attendance get down to the same, and if you can take your children out of childcare, you should. I’ll be honest, I just fell apart. I felt like I had to either stand down and bring my daughter home or stay in my job. That was a difficult day, and a lot of people working with me were in similar situations and it felt like it could be the straw that would break the camel’s back. But we just talked with everybody on our team about how everyone needs to make individual decisions about what’s right for their family. For us, we live in a low/no-case area, so I’ve kept her in and we’ll just keep an eye on it. Maybe I’ll need to take her out at some point. But it was tough. Parents everywhere feel the burden of guilt if you leave them in because you worry you’re putting your children in harm’s way, if you take them out, I’ll be letting my team down. So you’re in a no-win situation. We just tried to support everybody as much as possible no matter the circumstances they’re in. We’ve extended deadlines, swapped work around, and are all doing the best we can.

 

BD: Emma, there’s a pattern that whenever you have a crisis in confidence, you step up.

EH: I step down first!

 

BD: I think it’s a slight step back, then, and then a big step forward, and it’s those moments where courage counts, because you’ve actually had that, ‘Can I do this’ thought and then you bravely take a massive step forward. You’re at your most courageous when you’re questioning your confidence.

EH: Yes, that is true. I’ve come to understand that fear and excitement are two sides of the same coin and if I have a chat to myself, I can turn fear into excitement. It’s the old stuff that shows up, the imposter syndrome and all of that. But now being in this role, the CEO of 10,000 people in a government department, in the middle of the COVID-19 crisis, working closely with the Premier and other ministers – it’s surreal. It’s not at all where I saw my life going. I’ve learnt when I’m excited and scared, it’s a good combination and I do my best in those circumstances.

 

BD: Can you describe your leadership style in this time of crisis?

EH: Firstly, I’ve got a great team, they do a lot of the heavy lifting. I try my best to communicate. I have a town hall once a month that everyone from across the state can join, and from 10,000 we normally get about 3000 live attendees and those staff who are on the frontline can watch it later.

I’m big on direct communications: I ask people to email me directly with ideas for what we can do differently or better, and people do that. If someone takes the time to write to me directly, I answer personally, I never delegate it. I try to keep the engagement and the empathy as high as possible. The day that I felt really impacted by the childcare statement, I knew a lot of other people were, too. We quickly put out a video and I said, ‘don’t panic, I don’t want to see any resignations or standing down, we’re going to take our time to understand what we can do about workloads and leave options’. I try very hard to be normal and human and transparent, not someone who sits in an office who no one knows. I’m not afraid to say, ‘I got that wrong’, and I’m not afraid to say, ‘I’m feeling optimistic, but it’s tough’. I get a lot of feedback from people who thank me for acknowledging them. The kinder you can be in circumstances like this, the better. I get rubbish feedback, too! But mostly it’s about letting my people know that I see them and we really are in this together, and we’ll do what we can to make it better. And we follow through with that.

I would say that I think it’s easier to take more risks in a crisis because everything that the public requires is so urgent, and barriers get removed, decisions get made, money gets spent. It’s easier to be more courageous in order to achieve something that in normal times would take a lot longer.

“If you look after your people, they will look after the rest.”

– Emma Hogan

BD: When you look back on your leadership journey so far, can you identify things you’ve learned or qualities within you that are critical for your role right now?

EH: I had a long career working in HR roles, and what I’ve loved about transitioning to being the CEO, leading my department, is I’m not spending all day trying to convince everybody about the importance of people. I can actually make that my number one priority and I have done that. The feedback I most get is how much I communicate with the team. I focus very much on improving people, processes and practices. I genuinely believe, and it has been proven to me time and time again, if you look after your people, they will look after the rest.

I’m 47, and if I reflect now, I think one of my strengths, albeit that I didn’t know it at the time, is that I’m a learner. If I see something good, I try to take that on, and if I see something bad, I say OK, maybe don’t do that. After 20 years working in HR, you’ve done all manner of 360-degree feedback exercises, so you get to know yourself pretty well. I’ve had some amazing mentors along the way, and I spent a long time in my career coaching leaders on how to engage their people. When I became CEO myself, I got the opportunity to do that myself and put it into practice, which is also how I came to work with Maximus. I don’t think it’s obvious to people that you could transition from HR to customer and CEO, but actually I think that’s been my biggest strength.

 

BD: Was it obvious to you or was there a period when you doubted it yourself?

EH: There was a catalyst. I’d been working with Foxtel in HR for seven years, and I loved it, but I felt like I’d gone as far as I could in HR and done all the things I’d wanted to prove to myself.

 

Hogan recalls the story of telling then Foxtel CEO Kim Williams of her dream of learning more about management and studying at Stanford University Business School, but of her fear that she would be ‘the dumbest person in the room’. She recalls that Williams, with whom she had a close relationship, responded, ‘You’ve had this great career and you’ve been promoted and promoted and constantly praised and now you’re letting your 16-year-old self-drive your 35-year-old self and what you’re capable of, and it’s boring!’ Hogan says she was at first offended, and then realised that meant there was probably some truth to his comment.

 

EH: I didn’t finish high school so going to a big American university was something I had to prove to myself, so I applied for the six-week residential executive program. It was amazing. Everyone’s in jeans and a T-shirt and once you’ve introduced yourself, no one really remembers who does what. I spent those weeks on a level playing field with all of these amazing people from all over the world – and for what it’s worth I wasn’t actually the dumbest person! I discovered that I had a lot more to say than I thought. And because I’d spent all that time in HR at Foxtel, I was sort of trapped. I wanted to stay in the organisation, but I didn’t know how to spread my wings. I realised I never commented on anything outside of my remit, because I didn’t feel that was my place.

At Stanford, I could try having all sorts of opinions because nobody knew me, no one had me in a box, and I got to play a bit in a safe space, and it was an absolute game changer. I came home with a huge amount of self-belief and I said to my boss, ‘I really want to stay, but I need to do something else.’ And to everyone’s surprise, I also started making comments on topics outside HR!

 

A colleague’s resignation opened up the opportunity for Hogan to move into the role of Executive Director of Customer Experience, initially in an acting capacity, but ultimately taking the role officially.

 

EH: I had the courage to go to Stanford despite my doubts and it totally changed the way I saw myself and the way I thought about things, and when I took the customer job, that changed things again.

 

After two years in the customer role, Hogan told a subsequent CEO, who was also a mentor, that the business restructure should include removing her role. She’d been with Foxtel for more than 10 years and felt it was time to move on. She was pregnant with her daughter when she briefly took another role that, in hindsight, she knew at the time wasn’t right, and came to a mutual agreement not to return from maternity leave.

 

EH: It was all very amicable, and some of the board members rang me – and it was good because I got more time with my baby. When I have the courage to back myself, even when I’m scared, as I was applying for Stanford, and as I was when I took the job as the Public Service Commissioner, it works out. It’s when I don’t listen to my gut, and I operate from a place of deep fear as opposed to excitement and possibility, things fall over.

 

BD: Then an Executive Headhunter called you about the vacant government role…

EH: Yes, and I said, ‘What the hell is a Public Service Commissioner and what do they do?’ It would never have occurred to me to look at government. They said, ‘You say you want to be CEO, you’ve said you want a customer digital focus, you’ve said you want to try something different and you’ve said you would only go back to a HR-type role if there was something incredibly different about it, and this is the biggest HR role in the NSW government and in fact the southern hemisphere.’

I went through the process, I was very concerned, I tried to withdraw a few times.

 

The night before the final interviews of five candidates, Hogan told the recruiter she thought she would formally withdraw. They convinced her to go for the experience, and that as she was one of the only external candidates, it would also be useful for the government panel if she were to go ahead with the interview, but they’d be told ahead of time that she was unsure about taking the role. She agreed to go ahead.

 

EH: Because I had nothing to lose and didn’t think I really wanted the role, I was quite brave in the things I said I would do differently. At the end they said, ‘We hear that you have concerns about government’, and then proceeded to give me lots of confidence that those concerns were unfounded. When I walked out, I rang my husband and said, ‘I think I accidentally nailed that!’ I got a call that night and I was the preferred candidate, but the next step was to meet the Premier, ‘so you can’t be in this wishy-washy lane, you have to decide’.

My husband was once an executive coach and told me, ‘You’re coming at this from a place of fear; write down everything you would do with it if it were awesome!’ So, I did that, and I got really excited. I got the job, transitioned into this role as Secretary two years ago, and I’ve never looked back. It’s been the most amazing thing I’ve ever done, and I’ve found working in government to be the greatest privilege of my career.

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  • Conviction
  • Courage
  • Emma Hogan
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