Human on the Inside with South East Water’s Bridget Thakrar

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5 min read

We’re big believers in the power of human skills. But don’t just take our word for it – the evidence for excellence powered by human (‘soft’) skills is everywhere! In this engaging, ever-enlightening series, we speak with industry leaders, innovators and game-changers to learn a little about their personal career journeys, and how human-led strategies, philosophies and cultures are proving a force for good in their working worlds …

Welcome Bridget, and thanks for stepping into the #SuccessIsHuman Spotlight!

You’re the General Manager – People & Safety for South East Water, a Victorian government owned utility you’ve been with for over 7 years now. In 1 sentence (ok, we’ll give you 3), what does your current role entail?

My team of 40 basically looks after all the human stuff in our business, from entry to exit. It’s a broad portfolio including wellbeing, engagement, development, business partnering, operational safety, payroll, industrial relations. systems, recruitment, inclusion and diversity. They do the hard stuff, I get to sit in exec and board meetings bragging about them.

In addition to your role at South East Water, you’re the Co-Founder of In the Game – a training and software company supporting SMEs to build strong cultures. You’re also an ‘Activator’ for SheEO™ – a global community of ‘radically generous women transforming the way we finance, support and celebrate female entrepreneurs working to create a better world’. How does all this work speak to your personal purpose and what drives you as an individual? 

I’m a staunch feminist and campaigner for equality. I love unpacking and dismantling the structures in work and the broader community where bias reinforces old and outdated stereotypes. The work I find most rewarding is that which results in a levelling of the playing field. For example at South East Water we took out unhelpful “primary” and “secondary” carer labels in our parental leave provisions to enable (mostly) dads to have more equal access to this precious parenting time.

SheEO was created as only 4% of venture capital makes its way to female-led ventures, so I love being part of that community to shift that imbalance. And I’ve recently been appointed to the board of Refuge Victoria which provides crisis accommodation for (mostly) women and children escaping family and domestic violence. I’m looking forward to being able to turn my skill set to that (sadly still) needed organisation. 

It’s similar with In The Game; an awesome company my husband and I started a few years ago that exists because there is so much crappy old-school thinking in business. We help fast-growing organisations to think differently about their culture and really bring their people in the game to level the playing field, demolish hierarchy, traditional thinking and build on that sweet spot of alignment and autonomy. 

So yes, there is definitely a theme in the organisations I end up being involved with, that’s for sure.

Tell us a little about your personal education pathway/s – what led you to where you are now? How closely do your formal qualifications match your current career?

Ha – well I majored in Economics thinking I was going to be the next Adam Smith and accidentally fell into recruitment, and my career in HR grew from there. I grew up on a farm in small-town New Zealand and I’ve just always loved working hard (I’ve been in paid work since I was 11, which I’m pretty sure is illegal…), and I found that the formal tertiary education scene didn’t suit me that well. In fact, after three years and as many changes in direction later, I left with ¾’s of a Degree. It took me about 10 years to finally go back and finish it via correspondence.

If you could share one piece of career advice to your 21 year old self it would be …

Practice clear, kind communication early so you can seek and give feedback often. It’s a skill I’m good at now but I just didn’t have the capability when I was younger, and can point back to many situations where it would have been handy.

Maximising the potential of individuals, communities and businesses through the power of human skills is the reason Maxme exists. Can you tell us a little about the role and / or value of human skills in your workplace right now?

They are absolutely critical. The technical side of many of our roles is changing. At South East Water we are using tools like Robotic Process Automation (RPA) to help us with this work to assess how we optimise roles, taking out the repetitive or lower value elements of the role. If you take the example of a recruitment role, so much of the grind of recruitment is being automated or streamlined, for example booking interviews, creating question guides, capability assessments etc. This leaves the human skills we are looking for in a great recruiter such as judgement, critical thinking and empathy, to help us find the best candidate. I think we will see more automation and augmentation of the technical side of most of our roles, but it will be a while yet before those human skills are at risk.

Self Awareness sets the critical foundation for all Maxme learning experiences. With that said … what’s your strongest trait / personal super power?

I’m big on goal setting, and once I set my mind to something, I throw a ridiculous amount of energy at that thing in order to achieve it. I’m a bit of a nerd with this stuff actually. I’ve got a giant OKR board (Objectives and Key Results) on my wall at home and sit down each quarter to articulate what I want to achieve and then plan how to get there. My most recent goal was to jump in the ring and have my first amateur Muay Thai fight which I did earlier this year – it was maybe the most fun I’ve had in my life. That required two hours of training, six days a week so it takes a bit of planning to carve out and dedicate that much time in and around my other work and family commitments – so the OKR board and goal setting structure is key.

And on the flip side, what’s one human / ‘soft’ skill you’ve had to really work on improving over the course of your career

I didn’t really grow up in a household where you talked about your feelings, or saw that role-modelled often. Early in my career I struggled processing my emotions and wasn’t skilled at being able to communicate how I was feeling and what I needed or wanted. As a result I would bottle it all up and then burst into tears, often. Being married to a psych is really good (sometimes annoying) as my husband creates this environment at home to talk things through and process them, even though my instinct is to usually bottle it up and run away. If I had my time again, I would practice this skill a lot more, at home and at work, so the people around me knew where my head was at.

If you could share one piece of career advice with recent Uni graduates or candidates keen to work at a company like South East Water, what would it be?

Start with values alignment. Find an organisation that you feel really passionate about and is aligned with the personal values you hold. Then find out how you can get involved or meet people from the business first if you can. LinkedIn is a great tool to directly connect with decision makers at organisations. Some of our best recruits in People and Safety have come from a LinkedIn message out of nowhere that clearly articulated why the person wanted the role and the value they bring.

You’ve been granted approval to add one University graduate to your team, but have 100 applicants, all with outstanding academic results. How do you find your perfect candidate – what are you looking for?

Wherever I’m recruiting anyone in my team, regardless of level, there are two things I screen for. The first is learning agility; can this person demonstrate that they can pick things up quickly and are OK to test, learn, maybe fail, and then move on? The second is feedback; I’ll want examples where they have recently given and received feedback in any context, home, a club, sport, community – wherever. I genuinely see feedback as a gift and my own career progression has been accelerated because I’ve been fortunate enough to have had leaders give me those gifts (shout out Leanne Wiebenga, Chis Diaz, Terri Benson and Lara Olsen).

In the words of John Dewey, “education is not preparation for life, education is life itself.”
What’s next on your #learning agenda?

We are currently looking at the technology landscape in Australia and considering how those changes might impact jobs in the future. We are learning which roles are at higher risk of automation or augmentation and researching how we can look at how best to design roles that are fit for the skills we need in the next 5-10 years. 

And in my play time in the ring, I’m testing and learning every week with the hope that one day I’ll be able to land my coach on the canvas (it will likely never happen).