A People First Approach: MiQ’s Hannah Cooper On What It Means To Lead With Empathy

A People First Approach: MiQ’s Hannah Cooper On What It Means To Lead With Empathy
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In preparation for B&T’s Women Leading Tech awards, we’re speaking to some of the industry’s most inspiring female leaders. Hannah Cooper is MiQ’s Director of Advanced TV & NSW Holding Groups.

Cooper spoke to B&T about her leadership strategy and the importance of putting empathy at the heart of everything you do.

B&T: What steps can tech businesses take to ensure that they are supporting female leaders, and that they feel there is a space for them in the industry?

HC: There are so many ways we could look at this, and personally it is a topic I am very passionate about and have personal goals to help in this space.

If we first go down the route of inclusion and diversity, that’s one of the most important factors that we need to consider. Within that, there are multiple different ways we can look at it. For example, we need that representation at a leadership level, and that’s something that I’m really passionate about. For young women, if they’re coming up in the industry and don’t have some female leaders to look up to in their own organisation, it makes it a little bit harder to fight for that spot and fight for their position.

It’s very important to have that representation in the leadership team who are actually making decisions for the business.

That then dovetails into recruitment and talent, and we hear a lot of the time that the pool isn’t very even when it comes to male and female candidates. So, how the tech businesses look at benefits to attract more female talent – whether that’s things like parental leave cover, perks like health cover – is really important.

Another important factor women at a senior level have to consider is the role they play at home as well as in the business. Women often have two roles if they have a family or planning to have one and flexibility is then a huge thing that the tech business can get on board with, whether that is being able to shift your hours or physically where they will carry out their work.

Knowing you’re in a business that supports that level of flexibility means that you’ll see more females fighting for those leadership roles, knowing they can balance the pressure and the family life at the same time.

What do you think are the most significant obstacles facing women in tech, and do you have ideas about how to overcome them?

 That’s a big one, because it’s going to be very different depending on the organisation. We’ve learned things from last year, both the pandemic and the global social events we’ve all experienced.

We need tech businesses to be having the conversations amongst the organisation on these important topics and having these conversations lead from the top is very influential as to the businesses culture and energy. I am seeing this happening not only internally but with our partners over the last few months. Before it could be easy to brush over where people were short on diversity or where people were potentially a bit male-dominated. Now, we are seeing each individual more comfortable sharing their experiences to help others learn.

At MiQ, we enlisted a Global Head of Inclusion and Diversity to be part of our board plus building out a team around her to help across every region. So, it is tangible actions at a global level that are helping pave the way locally, and is encouraging those conversations because in the past, it was all too easy to throw a blanket over it and move on.

I’ve seen in the last year, more and more women being comfortable having those conversations at work around this topic versus before. It could often be seen as taboo or you’d worry you would be judged, or you’d get that stereotyped – all laddering up to the fear it would limit your career projection.

The more that companies are focusing on these social issues that are happening outside the workplace, it brings more of a people focus within the workplace. It opens that door for people to be comfortable to share everything that’s going on in their lives, what’s important to them and how they’re potentially not feeling safe or included.

So, kind of like igniting a cultural shift in the workplace?

Definitely, 100 per cent! And I think it was something that the tech businesses did well – most of them are global, which I think is really great to build a diverse culture. So, take the bushfires. That was a significant tragedy for us at the start of last year, and being part of a global business, in the US and the UK, the head offices got behind that cause here, and were very happy to donate, to throw their weight behind it to ensure us Australians felt heard and acknowledged.

We in now Australia have had the opportunity to do that in the reverse. When incidents happen globally, you can really pull on that network and then reflect on how you’ve reacted in your own office and your own country. A bit of self-reflection goes a very, very, very long way.

One of the things MiQ Australia did was these sessions called listening circles. When events happened like Black Lives Matter, we engaged some of the people in our organisation and sat down and had a space where people weren’t judged, and they could ask questions. It was to help them to try and understand the cause of the problem and how other people were feeling marginalised, without feeling like they’re going to say something wrong in the workplace, and then be judged for it, or seen differently.

I think a lot of people are worried about saying something and it being a mark against their name and maybe affecting their future in the business, so creating safe spaces is an amazing way of having those conversations.

Because, ultimately, we’re linked, right? We’re in everybody’s household at the moment, we’ve seen everyone’s bedrooms and living rooms. We have been able to separate our lives for so long, but last year has brought those two worlds completely colliding, and employees and tech businesses can’t ignore the impact that the outside world is having on the people within their business.

How do you ensure that you have screen-free time?

Because I started this new job in November I had a lot of onboarding and upskilling quite quickly, so I have had a lot of screentime over last few months. But having screen free time also comes down to the leadership team I work alongside. MiQ values family first, and being a global business you would think that would be a hard value to replicate at scale but I have already seen it time and time again. Even something small like everyone in the Australia office saying good morning (often in fun gifs or sayings) to each other on our team Slack channel.

For example, I had a massive week last week, lots of screen time, and some great external and internal projects and then I hit Friday and was exhausted, and my manager said to me “You’ve capped out for the week, take the afternoon off – go do yoga, go to the beach, do something to look after yourself.” I got a little teary! It is one thing for you as an individual to understand when you are at capacity but for your team to recognise it for you shows the empathy within the business.

So for me, you can’t take screen free time if you feel like you’re not in an environment that allows you too, and I feel that’s the most important thing. Again, that’s facilitated by the leadership, their behaviors and the work environment they set for the organisation.

It’s about the safe environment that the employer is creating. A complex decision facing all tech businesses at the moment is working out the right hybrid work situation for their employees and the bottom line. At MiQ we’ve sent out a survey to our workplace in Australia and asked: how do you want to come back to the office, how many days, and what would make you come back for example. Then as a leadership team, we’re going to lead with those people insights and decide a plan of attack from there.

We’re really leaning on the people to help us make the decision of what means free time and what means face to face, because it’s very important to have the balance of the two.

What do you think are the successful foundations for leadership?

 It’s a massive balance of people and commercial, because I think over the last year we saw that it’s easy to be a leader when things are going well. I don’t think it’s a surprise to anybody, but when pipelines and bookings are being stripped away and the team are struggling with their mental health, a good leader is somebody who then puts the people first.

In the past I have taken the Enneagram personality test – and I am a Type Two, so by nature a helper and for me, how you communicate with empathy is super important. So is understanding people’s communication styles and what’s going to work for them and what’s not. That makes a massive difference to how people are going to react to you as a leader.

Unpacking and understanding your employees’ personalities, even based on something as simple as a test like that, means knowing what triggers some people and how they like to be communicated to. It’s a massive tool for being a great leader.

The other one I alluded to is empathy. I personally have come to the realisation that what I thought a leader was, through playing team sports which is the dominate, decision maker with all the answers, is not often the case in the business world. Really, it’s the complete opposite. Leaders are there to look after the people doing the job, rather than controlling the job themselves. Meaning they don’t have to have all the answers or be the smartest in the room but in turn have a level of EQ that allows for empathy, self awareness and self actualisation.

I love having people in my team that I can learn from, it makes for a challenging work environment and pushes everyone to be their best self. Collectively, that means we come to a better outcome both for the people and for the business.

Do you have a woman in tech hero?

For tech in particular, it would be the amazing creator of Canva [Melanie Perkins]. I listened to her on the podcast How I Built This with Guy Raz, and they interviewed her on and how she built Canva and, essentially, the way she wanted to run the business was that not everyone would report into the one CEO.

Instead, different departments are run like their own business, all running and operating separately. Meaning you have a smaller decision-making team and ideas don’t get held up with the death by committee issue.

The way she approached business is really different and really unique compared to traditional tech start-ups and meant taking that progression angle means her success has been limitless.

Do you have any advice for future leaders in tech?

Something I’ve really grown with is investing in myself a little while back. I started with a business coach, and I cannot speak highly enough about having somebody external to the business you work in helping you with those bigger career and family decisions. That’s something I would definitely endorse.

If that’s a route people can go, then my advice is definitely seeking out mentorship – and mixing it up! Not just thinking you have to have a female mentor if you are female. I’ve had a mix of both. We need men to be allies, and it’s great to have mentorship from different perspective to talk about issues and back and forth on them. It gives you a great base understanding to lead all types of individuals in the business.

Thank you to our wonderful Women Leading Tech sponsors!

 

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