Episode 352: Three Elements for Growth, Change, and Strategy With Noelle Burke, Chief People Officer at ESW
Every move that I’ve made across organizations since the beginning of my career has been about a new team, a new challenge, and a new learning opportunity. I suppose I’m big on continuous personal growth. I’ve got this insatiable appetite to keep learning, and that’s what drives me forward for what I am today.
Episode 352: Three Elements for Growth, Change, and Strategy With Noelle Burke, Chief People Officer at ESW
Welcome to the Workology Podcast, a podcast for the disruptive workplace leader. Join host Jessica Miller-Merrell, founder of Workology.com, as she sits down and gets to the bottom of trends, tools, and case studies for the business leader, HR, and recruiting professional who is tired of the status quo. Now here’s Jessica with this episode of Workology.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:00:42.21] Welcome to the Workology Podcast sponsored by the Workology Council. This podcast is part of a series on the Workology Podcast, and it is focused on the roles and responsibilities of the Chief Human Resources Officer, or the CHRO. The CHRO is also often called the SVP of HR or the Chief People Officer, and it is an executive or C-level role that deals with managing human resources as well as with organizational development and implementing policies of change to improve the overall efficiency of the company. Now, one of the reasons why I started the series was because of COVID, and we continue this series moving on because there is so much mystery in this Chief Human Resources Officer role, and this role is continuing to evolve post-pandemic, which I am super excited and jazzed about. So I want aspiring CHROs to know what types of skills and experiences they need to step into a future role as a CHRO. And I want you as a Chief Human Resource Officer to hear from your peers, other Senior HR leaders, how they are partnering and collaborating with their leadership teams. Today, you’re going to hear just that. I’m joined by Noelle Burke. She’s the Chief People Officer at ESW. Noelle is based in ESW’s Dublin headquarters and leads the company’s cultural evolution and people strategy. She has more than 20 years of senior management experience at multinational corporations that include Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft and RSA. She sits on the Multiple Sclerosis Ireland Board, is a Governing Body Member for the Technological University of Dublin and is a key contributor to the Advisory Board for LIFT Ireland, which is raising the standard of leadership. Noelle, welcome to the Workology Podcast.
Noelle Burke: [00:02:31.47] Thank you so much, Jessica. Great to be here.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:02:33.72] I’m so excited to have you on. And one of the questions I always like to ask in this particular CHRO series is, you have worked in a lot of HR leadership roles in a variety of industries also over the last 20 years. Can you walk us through how your early experience led to your current role?
Noelle Burke: [00:02:54.27] Sure. Thanks. Yeah, look, it’s kind of, it’s kind of crazy when I think about 20 years of literally gone by in the blink of an eye. But I suppose I worked in a lot of a number of different industries and organizations, and I started my career as a salesperson. And actually I really enjoyed that role. And I was, I was good at it as well. But I moved into HR and I kind of restarted my career. And at the time I worked in an organization called, probably the equivalent of what you guys would know is Yellow Pages. If you remember when we used to use that pre-Google. And I found that for me when I made the transition from sales to HR my sales background really helped me to understand the commercial elements of the business. And I believe that my sales director at the time was pretty stunned and he tells me that I was the first and I think I’m still the only salesperson he’s ever lost to HR. But for me, I have no regrets. And I think having that commercial acumen, as I said, is a really important skill in HR. And it’s probably something I look for in my talent pool and my teams all the way through my career. Now, when I look at I look at that, that along with the opportunity to work along with leaders I admire. And so, yes, that’s probably how I started out. And then I guess every move that I’ve made across organizations since the beginning of my career has been about a new team, a new challenge, and a new learning opportunity. I really I suppose I’m big on continuous personal growth. I’ve got this insatiable appetite to keep learning, and that’s what drives me forward for I am today. So if I think about my time at Microsoft, we were working on cultural transformation. And if I think about my time at RSA Insurance, we were doing a turnaround story and now I’m in DSW where it’s all about hypergrowth. So very different scenarios. But for me, that’s what keeps it interesting.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:04:35.37] I love that challenge after challenge and new learning opportunities and growth opportunities. I think that’s why I love working in the human capital, the HR space as well. So another thing I wanted to ask you about, because everybody’s answer is different, but given your expertise, your experience in sales and your multinational HR experience. What skills and experiences do you believe are absolute requirements for somebody stepping into a CHRO role? Maybe thinking about somebody who is just starting out or they’ve got a few years and maybe they kind of see or starting to create a career path towards that Chief People Officer.
Noelle Burke: [00:05:20.06] Yeah. So look, I think, you know, I’ve been fairly consistent in this over the last few years. I think it took me a number of years to get this kind of clear in my own mind, but look, commercial acumen I’ve talked to. So I think understanding the business that you’re serving is really important, to understand the business that you’re supporting, if you want to add value is hugely important. So commercial acumen is number one, customer focus is number two, for definite. Looking for ways to, to make, as I said, add valuable contributions to your customers. Courage, I think, is really important. I think the role of HR is to challenge the status quo if it leads to a better outcome. You know, being willing to stick your neck out on the line when others won’t be brave enough to do so. So for me, it comes back to my magic three Cs: Commercial acumen, Customer focus and Courage.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:06:04.40] I like that and I do think that we have to be really courageous to be in, in HR because, number one, so many people are unfamiliar with what we do as strategic HR leaders. But also sometimes even if you have that business acumen, it, it can be a challenge to make change or bring forth new initiatives at an organization.
Noelle Burke: [00:06:28.07] Absolutely. Yeah, totally agree.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:06:29.90] I wanted to talk about your company to team size because I always think it’s interesting. So first, let’s talk about how big DSW is, how many employees, and then about your team. What is the organizational structure? Who does HR report to?
Noelle Burke: [00:06:46.73] So we’re about 670 people right now that’s obviously made up of kind of our full time equivalents and our contractors. And we’re based in multi-locations all across Ireland where HQ is, and the US, EMEA, Northern Ireland and Singapore. And over the last 18 months, we’ve doubled in size and we have ambitions to grow to 1000+ people in the near future. And then in the HR team, we are a growing population of 16+, this stage, and sitting alongside other functions like finance, IT, and reporting directly into the CEO. That’s kind of our structure right now.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:07:18.11] Do you have payroll responsibility and does learning and development fall under your umbrella, too?
Noelle Burke: [00:07:22.94] Yes, it does. Yeah. So payroll has recently moved across from finance and L&D, and then we’re looking after real estate as well. So a number of kind of additional pieces that I think, you know, all feed into that cultural experience that an employee has from the time they joined, the time, you know, that they’re ready to retire or leave the organization.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:07:42.71] You took on this role at DSW in October of 2021. So not too long ago, I wanted to ask you, what was first on your mind as far as changes in strategy or structure?
Noelle Burke: [00:07:54.83] So coming into the role, I suppose for me what was really important and I can’t believe it’s already six months now the first priority for me was to spend time on my own team and working on their energy levels and just taking a pause and reflect around some HR care, first off. In order for us to grow and support the business on the next phase that we needed, I needed to know that the team were in good shape themselves. So, you know, honestly, I think HR teams all over the globe have taken on a lot throughout the pandemic and they’ve weathered the last post-pandemic as well and, you know, supporting leaders, supporting employees. And I think for me, certainly when I joined this team, I wanted to meet people where they were at. I didn’t want to come in and just start making changes. I felt it was really important to take that time to pause, get to know the team, understand what brought them joy, and then figure out then once I had them doing roles that they loved, how we could then move forward collectively to deliver all that we need to do in the business. And you know, in the past I’ve been guilty of not doing that. So that was really important for me. Certainly in my last two organizations to do that, and it has worked really well for me. And I think the second priority was listening to our people and, again, probably an extension of what I did with the HR team then going out broader to the organization. And I think I had, you know, maybe about 130+ one to ones just trying to get inputs at all levels in the organization.
Noelle Burke: [00:09:18.17] So understanding, you know, what mattered to people, but it was in a hypergrowth organization. What does that feel like? What are the things that they wanted me to take on board and wanted us to consider as we built out our new people strategy? And so, yeah, I think there was a lot happening with not much time to think, but it was really important to try and maintain that pause in the organization and get the inputs before, you know, kind of powering ahead with what we want to do. And so post all of that we are, as a team now we’re focused on three key things. Number one, we’re focused on making sure we have the basics right. We’ve just gone through hypergrowth, but now we’ve got to make sure we’ve got some of those basics in place. That’s critical if we’re going to scale. Number two, building out skills and capabilities for the organization. And so our organization’s changing. We’re at a different phase now. We need different skills and different capabilities. So really taking time to make sure that we’re fit for the future and then I suppose probably three then is really working on the evolution of the culture. So again, different phase and really needing to take stock of what we’re doing well and what we need to change and how those behaviors and the mindset of the organization are important to our future culture. So that will allow us to deliver on that very ambitious business strategy. But it is important to take time to work on that. So they’re kind of my three things. I work in threes. Have you noticed?
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:10:42.42] Threes are always a good number. It’s easy to absorb and it’s just those odd numbers. Things don’t get lost if it was like four or six.
Noelle Burke: [00:10:50.94] So I think for me I can remember three. Yeah.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:10:53.67] Yeah. Well, I love that you’re, you’ve taken a pause. I mean, man, it has been crazy for, for HR leaders these last two years. And so to have a new head of HR come in thinking that as a team member in HR, I’d be like, Oh, gee, we’re, we’re going to, we’re going to just have to hit the ground running, change everything again. But your approach to me sounds really smart, and it’s allowing you to get insights and feedback from your team, which is going to lead to better, hopefully, programs and those systems and processes that you’re talking about. And maybe they won’t leave.
Noelle Burke: [00:11:39.52] I’m hoping. I’m hoping. I think for me, you know, I think, look, it’s, for me, what’s really important is that people love what they do. You know, and I often ask people on a Sunday night, how do you feel about coming to work on a Monday morning? It’s a really telling question. And the answer obviously is telling. And if you’re enjoying what you do, that makes, you know, everything else feel so much easier. So that, they were some of the things we talked about as a team. We’re not perfect, we’re not done, we’re not right. We’ve got everything solved, but we have a connectedness that I think is really important and they know that as a leader, I care. And, you know, when I think that has become very apparent in the pandemic and the world post-pandemic, that, you know, the whole person is so, so important. So for me, yeah, absolutely I do. And I care. And I think, you know, you’ve, we’ve had a chance to see, you know, much more of the authentic self with everybody working from home and inviting us into their homes, you know, in a way that we hadn’t been there before. So I think it allows you to, to operate from a really good space of understanding that whole, whole person much more now.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:12:41.20] So important. And I think that employees can appreciate that a lot more because what they see on the news are the stories of the leaders that don’t care and don’t take that time to, to build those relationships with their team.
Noelle Burke: [00:12:58.27] It’s been tough. You know, it’s been, it’s been a heavy night. There’s been lots of lightness, too. I would say we’ve as a team, we’ve had some, some fun and some lightness. But yeah, you’ve got to acknowledge just kind of where people are at right now and, and create the hope for the future. You know, we can, we can do this and everything’s easier when you’re doing it with a group of people. Find your tribe and everything is easier.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:13:21.04] Agreed.
Break: [00:13:23.09] Let’s take a reset. This is Jessica Miller-Merrell. And you were listening to the Workology Podcast and it is sponsored by the Workology Council. We are talking in this episode about the Chief Human Resource Officer role at a multinational corporation, and we’re talking with Noelle Burke. She’s the Chief People Officer for ESW.
Break: [00:13:43.19] The Workology Council is a mastermind community for HR leaders. We are a group of HR professionals with a common goal to succeed by leveraging the influence, resources, and expertise of others on an annual basis. This will be the HR business tribe that you’ve wanted to be a part of for your entire career. Learn more and apply at WorkologyCouncil.com.
A Balanced Workforce for DEI
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:14:09.74] Can you talk about your perspective on DEI and how that impacts your company’s culture?
Noelle Burke: [00:14:14.36] Yes, one of my favorite topics, I think, look, any organization, for any organization, it’s vital to have difference and diversity and, you know, it widens your views, provides us with alternative opinions and different approaches. And a balanced workforce brings a broader range of skills, perspectives and experiences. And that helps ESW or any organization meet the diverse needs of customers. Here in ESW, the last count I did, and I think it’s probably even got up since then, we had about 27 different nationalities across the globe, and I think we’re making this continuous effort to celebrate and promote this. And certainly, for me, I think our people feel a sense of belonging and being able to bring their full selves to work. And inclusion means, you know, that you’re impacting, I suppose, you know, their well-being and the way the relationships are formed and how they’re engaged in the workplace. So really important for me anyway, for our organization and I’m seeing it with our leaders right the way across to have that inclusive behavior. And I think like every organization, you know, there have been some pressure points and we haven’t always role models the exact leadership and inclusive behaviors that we should, but we’re working to understand where we have those biases and what we can do to make that better and better and better each day. So more work to do. But certainly it’s, it’s an intent. And there’s, you know, this real drive behind being really inclusive and being more diverse.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:15:40.22] I love that. And I was having a conversation with a friend of mine actually yesterday, and she’s going to be on the podcast here soon. And we were talking about measuring diversity and things like culture. And so her perspective is really interesting. And so I wanted to ask you, how, how are you measuring a positive culture? Or like positive diversity, equity, inclusion programs within an organization? How does, what does the moving the needle look like in terms of measurement?
Noelle Burke: [00:16:10.55] Yeah, I think again, look, I think we’ve probably got a bit more to do in this space, but I think, you know, for me, the true measure of culture is and you’ve heard this time and time again, you know, how people behave when nobody, absolutely nobody is watching, you know. And for me, you can go to all your classic measurement styles, you know, but if you want to really understand the impact your culture is having, you need to look to your people, your community. In my mind, and, you know, I believe certainly it’s a privilege to be in that role as a leader, influencing and impacting on people’s experience day and day, and, you know, having the opportunity to support others and growing and developing and seeing how they operate then within the organization, you know, on that, on those, those new learnings and those new growth areas, I think for me these key indicators of the high levels of engagement and participation that you see. So definitely you will have early kind of leading indicators around, you know, are people showing up to whether it’s town halls? Are they showing up to trainings? You know, all the different things, all those wellness programs, all those type of things, that gives you a really nice read and my mind anyway of culture.
Noelle Burke: [00:17:16.01] And yet it doesn’t appear that you’re measuring culture, but you are you’re trying to see what are the messages that you’re getting out of that. And I think certainly for me, you know, if you also want to see the impact your culture is having on how much people care, you’ll know then are they willing to go that extra mile? And I think certainly, as I said, trying to be humble around, we’ve done so much, we’ve done so much so fast that there is definite learnings for us. We’ve made mistakes, but we want to learn from them. And some of the conversations I had with people, you know, when I talked about the 130 people that I’ve spoken to, they shared with me some of the things we got right and they shared with me some of the mistakes that we’ve got to learn from because, you know, those growing pains continue to be painful if we don’t fix them. So I think for me, when I said back to the leaders, do the leaders enjoy the role? Are they really doing a role that allows them to help people to grow and learn and flourish in the roles they’re in? If not, they probably shouldn’t be in a leadership role.
Noelle Burke: [00:18:13.25] And I think certainly a company that grows up fast can, can have, you know, some of those leaders move into positions very fast without them really thinking it through and understanding whether they want to be there or not. So I think a company like ours, going through that period of high growth, there’s a risk, as I said, that people fall into leadership roles. But I think, you know, having them revisit some of those questions now as we start to move into our next phase to understand, you know, are they loving what they’re doing? Are they enjoying it? And then I suppose, look, another indicator, you know, is obviously your referrals and your retention. You know, Culture is a key attractor for talent. People don’t leave jobs, they leave managers and they leave bad cultures. And so I think for us, you knos, we will measure with pulse surveys and the cultural and kind of, you know, health of the organization, but for me, I’m much more concerned with, you know, that to me is a lagging indicator and I’m much more concerned with the leading ones. How does it feel? What are people, you know, saying and doing? And, you know, I think that gives you a really good impact of the positive barometer, I suppose, of the culture in the organization.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:19:16.26] And I love that you have spent all that time with all the one on ones to, to start in your role. And then additionally on top of that, the pulse surveys and then the metrics that can help you kind of make some changes and take different approaches along the way.
Noelle Burke: [00:19:34.14] It’s really insightful. So, you know, you get great nuggets from people when you chat.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:19:39.12] Yes, you do. And. And they want to share. They really do. They really do. How has your role at ESW been different from previous leadership roles in HR?
Noelle Burke: [00:19:49.98] Yeah, you know, it’s funny in lots of ways. It’s very similar. I’m still in a people business and I suppose, but some of the key differences have been that state of hypergrowth. You know, the pace that we’re growing at the speed of execution, you know, we’re sprinting and sometimes you can, it can, it can be fast-paced, but sometimes it can feel chaotic. And, but you know, with that comes lots of excitement, lots of adrenaline and, and continuous learning. And I started this podcast by talking about being a lifelong learner. So for me, that hypergrowth piece has been really fulfilling because that’s, that’s where I’m getting that continuous learning. I’m learning every single hour, every single day. And I think, look, in this type of an organization, what I’ve learned and why it’s different, I think is my property, my key strength has been to not get overwhelmed and to remain agile. So I think that’s important. To keep in my eye on the destination and the wider vision for the future has been really, really important. And so when I do that, it allows me to manage the sprints and the marathon at the same time. And I think that’s, that’s probably the key difference that I would see coming in at this stage of our maturity curve in ESW.
Noelle Burke: [00:21:02.41] And it’s, it’s fabulous. You know, the rewards are big when you make small changes, the rewards are big. You know, so it’s certainly been really enjoyable in the last six months, but hard, you know, and lots of hard work too. But I have to say that that, that has helped me day and day, and working with people that I enjoy as well. You know, and just people wanting to make a difference has been just really nice because people have been very honest, very straight and talked about, you know, where we, where we want to be. So we’re all aligned behind this great big ambition to move the business forward. And there are days when we fall out of alignment. But ultimately, you know, some people have been part of this journey from day one. And when you hear their story and you see where the organization’s come to now, you know, we’re 1.6 billion business now. I’m just blown away by, you know, some of the stories from, you know, the kind of day one, month, one, year one, and to what we’ve become now. I just think it’s a fabulous story and it’s a success story, which is lovely to be part of now.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:22:01.63] Last question I wanted to ask you was talk to us about your approach to the alignment of cross border culture within your organization. Because you said 27+ nationalities, how do you manage or handle or help people feel welcome in such a complex cultural environment?
Noelle Burke: [00:22:22.87] You know what, I think in the ideal world you’d have one team culture globally, but I think the reality is that, you know, you have subcultures happening no matter where they are. Subcultures and countries, subcultures in functions, subcultures in, you know, styles and approaches. And I think what we’re trying to do is recognize those subcultures that allow you to, you know, to, allow them to exist. And allow for local differences but at the same time, as I said, harness and combine people around a long term vision that we have so that there’s something that we’re aspiring to be in the future and that that allows us to get behind that. We probably again, and you know, I think our cultural journey is, is relatively uncharted at the moment. We’ve got a bit more to do in our cultural journey and for the next phase. And I think, you know, that will be around getting us set on a very clear set of values that we want to have. So we have some values and now it’s probably time to revisit and see are they the right ones for the future? In one way, I think the world that we’ve been in, which has been hybrid, has allowed a very level playing field. So if I think about speaking to some of the employees who are at different locations when they’re not in HQ, they used to in the past, maybe feel like they were missing out on something.
Noelle Burke: [00:23:33.28] But now having this hybrid world and certainly working in the way we have has leveled the playing field a lot. And so it’s also allowed teams to travel much more. So you travel daily to different countries and different locations where in the past that wouldn’t have been possible. You can do that now online. So I think certainly, if I think about our cross-border culture, I think has been definitely a very positive thing what’s happened in terms of just how we’ve had the world post-pandemic has changed. And I think for us, I think we’ve got more work to do to really ensure that we’re focusing on, you know, trust, respect and really good practices in terms of, you know, how we’re going to build that out for the future because we’re getting bigger, we’re getting broader, and I think it’s really important. And to use technology as an enabler, but also to make sure that we manage the right behaviors leading with those, those right mindsets and approaches in everything we do in this space go forward.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:24:29.65] You’re right, the environment for everyone is the same. They have been at home remote, looking through the same webcam to the same screen. Honestly, I feel like this is an important topic also because increasingly I’m getting feedback from our community that they are going into new countries and new areas because of the remote world and they’re not sure how to handle these challenges. Noelle, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us. Where can people go to learn more about you? Maybe apply to work on the ESW HR team? Where can they go to to do all those things?
Noelle Burke: [00:25:08.74] Thanks. So I’d love to hear from people. So I’m on LinkedIn, as are my team and equally we have an ESW.com for its web page. And if you click on ESW.com, company, careers, you will be brought straight to the careers page. We have a ton of roles open right now. I think there’s about 87 roles open and counting, so we’d would love to see applications come through, but equally happy to have any conversations with anybody around the cultural fit. So please reach out and I will make sure that myself or one of the team connects with you to have that conversation.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:25:40.35] Awesome. Thank you again, Noelle. It’s been a pleasure.
Noelle Burke: [00:25:42.84] Thanks so much.
Closing: [00:25:44.19] It’s really interesting to delve into how a role like the CHRO whose experience connects them to strategy and operations of the overall business. It’s also interesting to see with this interview with Noelle how that has expanded outside of the umbrella of traditional HR. The CHRO doesn’t just lead HR within the company. The company depends on this leadership role to set standards and benchmarks for everything from company culture to employee engagement and connection, and that is growing in importance, Noel says. And I agree that small changes can make a big impact. This kind of seems opposite of what we see in the media. I feel like there’s always some story of a comeback kid where they made this drastic change. I, however, like Noelle, am advocating small changes to help elevate an organization. It doesn’t have to be a crazy, long-winded or complex new program launch to be effective, and I appreciate for Noelle taking the time to share her experience with us today. And I want to thank you for tuning in to the Workology Podcast sponsored by the Workology Council. This podcast you’re listening to is for the disruptive workplace leader who’s tired of the status quo. Things are different and we’re talking about it. This is Jessica Miller-Merrell. Until next time, visit Workology.com to listen to all our previous podcast episodes.
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