The COVID-19 code of conduct

Dr Jane Gunn

12 minute read

ANU College of Business and Economics (CBE) alumna Dr Jane Gunn is the Partner in Charge of KPMG Australia's People & Change practice, where she leads large-scale change, organisational design and program-management engagements within the defence and government sectors.

In addition to her vast experience in leadership development, Jane holds a PhD in organisational behaviour and strategy from The Australian National University (ANU).

In this interview, she discusses the fundamentals that help organisations succeed, the various opportunities COVID-19 provides and the skills she gained as an ANU PhD candidate.

Q. Can you tell us about your career path and what led you to the role you're in today?

Throughout my career, I have worked in a combination of people-strategy and corporate-strategy roles. Having started my career in human resources (HR) strategy and policy, with a focus on learning and development in Queensland Railways (now Queensland Rail), I went on to a variety of HR project roles in both Australia and England, before moving into consulting in the early 2000s.

I’ve always been interested in helping organisations optimise the performance of their people. I fundamentally believe that organisations will only succeed when there is a clear alignment between the business strategy they are pursuing and the people strategies and policies, workforce management and leadership practices they employ. My career at KPMG started in 2007, while completing my PhD, and I had a career break for just under three years to work in a senior executive role within the Australian Public Service Commission, an invaluable experience that gave me insights into the challenges and pressures of working in the public service. I became a Partner at KPMG in 2014 and took up my role as national lead of our People and Change practice in 2019.

Q. How has the COVID-19 pandemic redefined the consulting industry?

In my experience, COVID-19 has provided a remarkable opportunity for consulting firms to demonstrate the agility and client focus that is always important, but never more so than when our clients have had to deal with the COVID-19 crisis. In my part of the business, we are responding to an increased demand for supporting our clients in transforming their organisations. This may be through adopting new ways of working that we are all now seeing are possible, responding to changing customer behaviours brought on by COVID-19 restrictions, or organisational transformation and reform that is focused on taking costs out of the business. Of course, digital transformation remains at the top of many of our clients’ agendas. COVID-19 has absolutely reinforced the importance of digitally enabling activities that don’t have to be done by human beings. The often touted “future of work” is upon us. 

COVID-19 has provided a remarkable opportunity for consulting firms to demonstrate the agility and client focus that is always important, but never more so than when our clients have had to deal with the COVID-19 crisis.

Q. What leadership styles have proved to be most effective in navigating organisations, large and small, in times of crises like COVID-19? 

It is tempting to think about leadership during a crisis as lead-from-the-front decisive and directive leadership; leadership that assures people that everything is going to be fine. However, I think what COVID-19 has shown us is that leadership during any uncertainty and ambiguity is more about leading in complexity.

In our work, we talk about leading as being about using influence to bring about change and adaptation, so that organisations and the people within them can thrive. We’ve had that definition at the front of our minds for some time because we, like many others, were observing that the world we live in can be characterised by the acronym VUCA – volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. You can’t get a situation that more aptly fits that definition – the sheer fluidity of the health impacts, the emerging nature of the virus, the requirement for human behavioural change, the heightened emotions, the fear. All of these factors interact in ways we cannot predict, are connected in ways we cannot map, and, perhaps most tellingly, are highly emergent, rather than planned or stable.   

For me, leading in the complexity that is COVID-19 has three key elements.

Firstly, in an uncertain world, leaders must help people navigate the complexity and ambiguity inherent in the pandemic, rather than seek to solve people’s problems or assure them that “everything will be OK”.

Secondly, to lead is to look ahead and out into the world, as changes in the environment continue to emerge – seeking out the opportunities that might occur because of COVID-19 and helping people feel able to embrace new ways to work, to be innovative.

Lastly, leadership is really about creating the conditions that enable our people to continually adapt. There has been some commentary recently about how, in this environment, creating hope is a big part of how leaders can create the environment whereby people can adapt as they need to in response to the current situation and continue to feel like they are of value.

Q. The Australian Government has announced the higher education relief package for Australians to upskill and retrain. How will this initiative have an impact on the talent management strategy of organisations in the short and long-term? 

Quite separate from the obvious positive impact on the higher education sector itself, the development of short qualification courses at low price points can be expected to provide further options for people who need to change their careers or career focus as a result of the downturns in industries that are particularly affected by the pandemic. While I haven’t seen the figures, I anticipate that many of these courses will be helping those who have found themselves out of work as a result of COVID-19.

From an organisational talent management perspective, I think there are a couple of different impacts.

Firstly, COVID-19 has reinforced what we’ve known for some time – commitment to learning and the ability to adapt and change career focus or even whole career paths is a part of our world where change is a constant. This initiative, along with the many micro-credential initiatives provide real, practical options, backed by reputable institutions for organisations to point their people towards. While I personally don’t think these will replace the need for the knowledge and disciplines that are built through traditional degrees, it does provide accredited qualifications to be completed in a much shorter timeframe, providing fast up-skilling in specific job-related skills. For example, we know that building data analysis skills has become critical across many fields where it previously wasn’t a big requirement. Employees can now enrol in a six-month accredited course to build these job-ready skills. Organisations can curate these course options and help guide their employees to build their skills to further their careers.

Secondly, when considering talent acquisition, I think employers will increasingly look to understand whether candidates have pursued these short courses or other micro-credentials as an indicator of a candidate’s commitment to their own learning and up-skilling.

At ANU, apart from the depth of knowledge I gained in my topic area, I learnt the ability to get clarity on a problem or an opportunity and seek to solve it in a logical and disciplined way.

Q. How did your PhD at ANU prepare you for your career? 

I think the most important thing I learnt from doing a PhD at ANU, apart from the depth of knowledge it gave me in my topic area, was the ability to get clarity on a problem or an opportunity and seek to solve it in a logical and disciplined way. It’s been really important, however, to recognise and adapt my thinking so that I don’t need quite the depth of evidence or the rigour of the research process, to make practical decisions. In fact, sometimes in business, gut feel is appropriate when you have to make a decision quickly. Sometimes there is no time for gathering evidence to support a decision and, as I keep reminding myself, that’s OK.


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