Sonya Clancy, The Big Issue chairman, talks to Emily Chantiri about why breaking down business barriers to create a good company culture starts at the top.
It was the early 80s when an unexpected job offer led Sonya Clancy to leave her hometown in Tasmania and take a role in Melbourne as a recruitment manager at the Department of Administrative Services. At the time, Clancy was working in the public sector when she applied for the role. The move proved to be a turning point for Clancy, who holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science and psychology.
“I landed the job and I wasn’t expecting it because it was quite a jump in promotion,” she says. “This was my first human resources [HR] role. I stayed a further seven years and was promoted rapidly through a number of positions.”
Later, Clancy moved to a job within the State Bank, Victoria, as head of HR for a division of the bank.
“Interestingly, this was during the early 90s with the first wave of major retrenchments in the finance sector,” she says. “What struck me when people were being retrenched, was that while they received a large payout, they were devastated.
“I witnessed some of their managers behaving badly. These employees had joined the bank for longevity and security. It was at that point I understood the range of people’s emotions as well as the ability to impact this in a positive way. This became a driving force for me,” Clancy continues.
Clancy is all too aware that HR can get a bad rap. “I know that people’s views on HR are conflicted. Some really value HR, while others see it as a necessary evil. There are departments that have plenty of policies and processes, but without a good culture,” she says. “From a productivity perspective, happy and engaged staff deliver great performances. When someone leaves in a dignified way, they’re better alumni than someone who is thrown out.”
Setting an example
Breaking down old barriers towards better business cultures is very much about the leaders, says Clancy. She cites an example within ANZ, during the leadership of banking executive Brian Hartzer.
“He had a very strong focus on people and on customer satisfaction. This was at the top of his agenda. Under his leadership, the bank had a customer satisfaction rating that went from four to one; an engagement score from good to best practice.”
To create a great work culture, says Clancy, the first place to start is to look at the policies and processes in the organisation.
“Do they support the employee? Are policies written in a tone that is aligned to company culture? Or, are they written for the two per cent who behave badly, as opposed to the 98 per cent who do the right thing?” she adds. “Are your managers skilled to lead people and ignite passion in staff? This is more than handing out movie tickets. There are multiple levers that need to come together and not be condensed to one program.”
She advocates that HR must be seen as approachable and discreet. “Employees should feel they can go to HR and be listened to and actioned, while not being exposed.”
In 2014, Clancy joined Equity Trustees as executive general manager, human resources, marketing and communications. At work, she arrives at the office by 8am and describes herself as disciplined.
Are your managers skilled to lead people and ignite passion in staff? This is more than handing out movie tickets.
“I’m not an early riser, it is just discipline. Meetings consume my days and I am very considered in my work approach, but where I fall short is networking. It is incredibly important, yet somehow it seems to fall to the bottom of the list.”
What drives Clancy is making a difference to people’s lives. “I can do this at work and in my role as chairman. Throughout my personal life, I’ve contributed to my community through ways such as telephone counselling and fostering children.”
One area she has given back is through her work with The Big Issue. Clancy joined the organisation 15 years ago as a board director and five years later she was appointed chairman.
The Big Issue is an independent street magazine sold by vendors who are homeless, marginalised or disadvantaged. These vendors have the opportunity to earn an income through selling the magazine.
Since the magazine’s launch in Australia in 1996, over 10 million copies have been sold by vendors who collectively have earned more than $23 million. The vendors receive half of the cover price. The magazine sells for $7 per issue and $3.50 goes directly to the vendor and provides them with a direct source of income.
Clancy shares one of the many heartwarming stories from a vendor. “The Big Issue vendors love talking to people and making a connection is very important. One of our vendors struck a rapport and married a client who regularly bought the magazine off him.”
Other social enterprises that have been launched include Women’s Subscription Enterprise, which provides job opportunities for homeless and disadvantaged women; The Big Idea, a social enterprise business-planning competition for university students; The Big Classroom, which provides school groups with “real life” lessons about homelessness and the disadvantaged through a facilitated workshop program; The Big Lunch, which is an annual major community fundraising event held at the Adelaide Central Markets; and a National Community Street Soccer Program that uses soccer to help homeless and disadvantaged people positively change their lives and reconnect with the community at weekly soccer training sessions.
Another major initiative is Homes for Homes, launched in September 2015. Clancy says it is a very simple mechanism that creates a funding stream to support affordable housing.
“Creating awareness is what we are currently working on,” she says. “We already have a number of property developers participating by both registering their new properties with us and encouraging future owners to be a part of Homes for Homes from the outset.”
Homes For Homes works through property owners agreeing to donate 0.1 per cent of a participating property’s sale price. For example, on a $500,000 home, a tax deductible donation of $500 will go into the Homes for Homes fund.
“Significant pro bono contributions have been made from many organisations and this has been an amazing start for us.” Next, she adds, is finding additional funding to accelerate the scheme.
Away from work, Clancy loves spending time with her husband, Steven, and their three dogs.
“A big pastime is going out for dinner with Steven and talking, plus escaping to a home we have on the Mornington Peninsula.”
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