HR Detox – Caroline Vanovermeire

Summary
In this episode, we speak with Caroline Vanovermeire, EMEA Director for Talent Leadership and OD at Dentsu Aegis and founder of Effra Consult. She’s a trained Psychologist and Coach who is passionate about people and helping employees stay on top of their game. She talks about how she balances work and family life and especially how businesses would really flourish from doing an HR detox.

Caroline Vanovermeire

Caroline’s passion is for people to be more fulfilled at work resulting in businesses that flourish. For her, this means spotting opportunities to create workplaces that are more in tune with people’s needs and by turning what is common sense into common practice. As a team member, with Melinda Gates as her inspiration, Caroline is playful, positive and collaborative on the one hand and results driven on the other. 

Her boundless energy means that her weekends with her family are equally packed and spent on a tennis court, beside a football pitch or actively supporting Sense, a charity close to her heart.

Troy Blaser (00:05):
We are excited to introduce our next guest, Caroline Vanovermeire. She currently works full time at Dentsu Aegis their EMEA director for talent leadership and OD. Caroline is the founder of Effra consult and as a trained psychologist and coach today we have the privilege of getting to know the woman behind these different work personas. Titles aside, she's also known as Caro who has a clear passion for people, whether it be in the workplace or in the charities she supports, but ultimately she looks forward to spending time with her husband and driving her son to football practice. So without further ado, here, to provide insight on her journey up to this point and how employees can stay on top of their game with purpose and with feedback. I want to welcome Caroline to our podcast today. Caroline, it's great to have you with us.
Caroline Vanovermeire (00:55):
Thank you for having me.
Troy Blaser (00:56):
I'm excited. I look forward to our conversation today. You know, maybe just to start, I gave kind of the broad bio, but tell us a little bit about your background. You know, where you're from, what brought you to where you are in your professional life?
Caroline Vanovermeire (01:11):
Well, you will quickly pick up on my accent. I speak "Flenglish". I am a Belgian, but I have been living and working in the UK for almost 20 years now. Yeah, I should say I'm Brexit ready because I'm holding both British and Belgian passport now. I crossed the channel 20 years ago and that was thanks to ENY human capital solutions and I was really the lucky one to be asked to set up the business for them in the UK. Lots of challenges even I'll have to say from the first week upon arrival because the person who brokered the deal was made redundant. And so I had to build the business case for what I was asked to come to do first and foremost. And I felt also very responsible to make this happen because I had actually convinced my boyfriend, ms not my husband, to come over with me to London. I couldn't believe that he was still proposing to me after that time that you went through with me. We actually successfully managed to grow a multimillion pound talent management business with a very healthy double digit EBITDA and it's still going strong actually today cause my successor has been in charge and done superbly till his retirement very recently.
Troy Blaser (02:24):
So you got the assignment, you thought how lucky you were to get to go to the UK and then a week later they said, now tell us why you should be doing this again to make the case all over.
Caroline Vanovermeire (02:35):
And, and then I have to say the divide that we sometimes feel nowadays with Brexit, what's already alive 20 years ago because I was referred to as the European, the continental and they quite right, you know, the Anglo Saxon business model. This is, you know, it's got similarities but there is sometimes also vastly different on how business is done and you can't just cut and paste immediately translate. You know, you have to really think it through more in a wholeheartedly new business model. But luckily I didn't realize it at the time when I say yes to this opportunity, but as I said, I hold both passports now, so I thought of coming here for three years, but they can't get rid of me anymore.
Troy Blaser (03:16):
You must've liked it. Yeah. If you've been there for 20 years and wanting to get the British passport as well, you, you clearly you, you've enjoyed your time there and relish the challenges that I think it sounds like you faced as you've got that off the ground, so if I understand right, you also have set up your own business as well. Can you tell us about that business, what it is and what you do?
Caroline Vanovermeire (03:37):
Yeah. I indeed founded Effra Consult that was about five years ago. It operates as a collective of people which really shared beliefs around HR and business. It was also made my cure to my midlife crisis and not really ashamed to admit either that I needed a full 40 years to have the confidence to say to myself, from here onwards, I'm going to practice HR. Really in a way I believe it should be done. So that means rather uncompromising and to my surprise when I shared what these beliefs were that I really held very dearly around HR and business. I was surprised how it resonated with fellow, well let me call them outsiders in HR and also with business leaders and by the way the name Effra is the river where my house is built on and what we basically do. We go into the, in the current also of individuals and teams and organizations to make them successful and happy.
Troy Blaser (04:35):
I liked that image to take the river and apply that to your work as well. So a midlife crisis and what do you do? Start a new business that I'm sure kept you quite busy. You mentioned how your uncompromising beliefs resonated with fellow outsiders in HR, but what do you mean by outsiders?
Caroline Vanovermeire (04:55):
I would say that HR is not necessarily always experienced as a very commercial function and I love business and I am also very fond of people and interestingly I'm not always getting that impression for people in HR either. This might be a big generalization, but to me HR really is about doing all things people to boost business performance and shall I share a little anecdote? I have this senior executive that once said to me that I was wasted in HR and I think he was referencing to my commercial approach and I felt a little offended. So I knew the person meant it as a compliment and I was really sad because I realized what a long mission we collectively has as as an HR community to be seen for what we truly are and what we are in my view are experts on managing a core asset. And I think for most businesses that's even representing decor assets because it's also the biggest cost on the balance sheet. So I, I'm thinking if you don't put a commercial thinking person in that role, then the business executive who actually appoints you is all but commercials. So in a way the irony isn't lost on me.
Troy Blaser (06:17):
You said it took you 40 years to really have that confidence in the way you want it to practice HR. So I want to learn more too about these uncompromising beliefs that you've developed over your years inside of HR. What are some of the principles and these beliefs that you've developed in your consulting?
Caroline Vanovermeire (06:37):
Yeah. Well, so from my previous answer, you gather probably that I'm absolutely madly in love with business and I'm also very fond of people. But what I really see in most businesses that they really would flourish even more from actually doing an HR detox. What I mean by an HR detox is a de-clutter exercise, throwing out all the unnecessary process. You could call it doing a Marie Kondo, right? And for me that goes hand in hand with another belief that I hold dearly. That is, um, what we do is not rocket science. Right? As a matter of fact, all we really simply need to do is putting common sense into common practice. We of course need to simplify, but a simplification is to me, not the same as simplicity. And that's it's, it's linked to another belief that I have and is that some things indeed need to be simplified, but we should be in no illusion that ultimately you are dealing with something very complex.
Caroline Vanovermeire (07:43):
And I like it actually. That's the fun of it, right? To embrace all that richness rather than throwing out the baby with the bottle water under the pretense of keeping things simple. So therefore I think what we as HR people should always do is asking why questions? Why are we doing things right? What are we trying to achieve here? What, what does the output ultimately, by the way, that's another one. I feel that we sometimes are two inputs rather than output food. Cause so I really believe we get also more satisfaction and, and the feeling of what we do that matters by really delivering a concrete output. And I think that will give us personal purpose, but I think that will also help our brands. And no one will question any more why we need to have that seat around the table. So to sum it up, if you really bring it down to what the HR needs to do, it's securing the engagement of people. And I think if you throw in too much process, what you're basically doing is the polar opposite. Your alienating people from the deep connection that they could have with the work they do.
Troy Blaser (08:49):
Having those employees be engaged is absolutely critical. I agree with you. As you were talking about, I was reminded of one of my wife's favorite sayings. She uses it to describe me sometimes she says that it's simple but not easy. Something can be simple, but it doesn't make it easy to do or to achieve. So it seems like you have a lot on your plate. You're, you're a director at Effra Consult, but you're also working full time at DAN. You're a mother and a wife and I'm sure you're just, you've got a lot on your plate. How do you keep all of that going? How do you keep all of those balls in the air as you juggle them?
Caroline Vanovermeire (09:28):
Well, first of all, all the roles I'm fulfilling really are actually giving me energy. I feel really blessed. Um, and at the same time, I think they make me more balanced and lightly also more bearable because I think if I only could concentrate on one of them, I think I'm pretty intense. So I want to acknowledge, Dentsu Aegis Network because it takes a lot of courage for a company to trust an employee to also contractually agreed that they continue a business. They are obviously operating from a real abundancy mindset. Right? And that they're very skillful systemic thinkers. They immediately could see the benefit of allowing me to keep my skills relevant through also being involved in other businesses and thinking with them of their challenges and their opportunities, which then may be eventually become relevant to DAN too.
Troy Blaser (10:24):
So when LearningBridge started collaborating with you, it was on a program, can you explain that program? Tell us its name and maybe what it's about?
Caroline Vanovermeire (10:35):
Yeah, sure. It's called, it's a mouthful, Leading in Digital Economy. We started five years ago. So in the fifth cohort, it's got approximately about 40 participants. All of them being high potential, high performing individuals who are in mission critical and business critical roles or successors to these roles and are all client facing. And the learning experience is really built around three core contents. First of all, the leading self. And we borrow an analogy here from hyper Island, which we collaborate with them as we do with LearningBridge on, on this program. And they always say, you know, think of a plane when they explain to you the oxygen mask, right? You have to first help yourself before you can help others. And I really think that's right. That's leading self, leading yourself first. Becoming a great leader is so important before you can actually be a great leader to others.
Caroline Vanovermeire (11:36):
So self-awareness, maturing on your personal leadership journey therefore is for us very fundamental to the program. And that's why we make use of the 360 at LearningBridge and also the coaching to enable that level of self awareness coming true. And then apart from leading self we also have two more pillars. So the second one is then building on from that leading others. And that's not just in the formal sense of reading direct reports, but more in the sense of a networked organization where you need to people in programs or projects or you basically lead through influence, not control. The analogy that I always use for this is the Hollywood model because in Hollywood, you know, basically people come together to make a movie, right? That set project. And once that's done they move on to do bigger and greater things. And I think that's also how we shoot a retail.
Caroline Vanovermeire (12:32):
We engage people through business projects, right? So some projects last a few months, others you need to engage people for a number of years. Right. And the inspiration that I had for that was an article that I read five years ago and it was talking about 2020 which I realized we were now, and it did say at the time 50% of the workforce will be flexible. And if you don't operate in a project based manner, right, then you have to make sure that people can operate more in an influencing rather than controlling style because there will be lots of processes automated and therefore at times all we need will be the super specialist skills, which we don't need all the time. So leading others is not just the people that are just on the payroll directly reporting into you. They're all people with various levels of types of engagement and involvement with the business that you ultimately need to have super engaged around the project that you're leading. Last but not least is also of course about leading clients because in my humble view, I truly believe that employee and client centricity really goes hand in hand. By the way, at Dentsu someone said the potential of our people is the potential of our business. And I think as an even more eloquent way of saying employee and client centricity goes hand in hand. And ultimately all we do in that program is ultimately also leading therefore clients and ourselves through change and innovation.
Troy Blaser (13:58):
I love it. You talk about the important concept of the second pillar of leading others and you know it's really true that it's not just in a work environment that we need to lead others, but we may have different networks in a neighborhood or in a family setting where we have to lead others not through direct orders or a direct reporting relationship but through influence. Right, and persuasion and so those skills can apply in in lots of different settings in our own lives, both professionally and personally. So it sounds like really a fantastic leadership development program. Are there some parts of it that that are unique or unusual that you might not see elsewhere?
Caroline Vanovermeire (14:36):
Well first of all, I think the setup might be a little bit unusual and before people thinking this is a sales speech, I honestly hand on heart can say that I'm super grateful to both LearningBridge and Hyper Island, my two partners that we're working on this program because they really never showed up as a classic supplier and we really work together as co creators in the design and delivery and also in the continuous improvements through the various iterations. Because wouldn't it be ironic if we say leading through change and we keep all the contact and the concept of format exactly the same that you know, that's not the case of course.
Caroline Vanovermeire (15:18):
So other collaborators that are also part of that ecosystem are the coaches and program facilitators. We have also internal and external speakers and we actually don't call them speakers. We call them Igniters. And actually we carefully choose actually the language we use as well for the different elements because we really believe that it reinforces the learning experience and leading in the digital economy. Therefore and it's like a running joke amongst us. Anyone who there's to refer to it as a program needs to give a pound to charity. It can be also a dollar because we really want it to be a learning journey and experience. So yes, it's called a programmatic component to it, but we truly, genuinely believe if participants reduce the interactions to just turning up to, to our learning sessions, by the way, not webinars but learning sessions, right. They will not get half of the learning that they could have. And we have older people who come through it who stay connected with one another, who elect future participants who stay connected with the Igniters, with the mentors, with the tools, the content from LearningBridge from Hyper Island and through the program. Ultimately what we want them to do. and I said program. So I own a pound to charity. I just noticed fundamentally we really hope that they learn to discover how they best learn and, and just being able and learn how to stay sane and healthy and happy leaders and human beings I think is ultimately the objective of our learning experience.
Troy Blaser (17:06):
Absolutely. So Caroline, you mentioned earlier as you were describing the learning journey, LITD you mentioned that it is also something that changes as you get feedback from participants and from those who are part of the program. And it sounds like you added a unique twist into the program with some yoga. Can you tell us a little bit about that experience?
Caroline Vanovermeire (17:29):
Yeah, that's right. We added yoga. It was actually introduced by one of the participants. He is a trained yoga teacher and by going through the experience, it inspired him to create what he calls now desk yoga. And we literally did it. We did yoga at our desk during one of our live sessions and actually the the senior executive who was one of the Igniters in that module took part as well. And we use this to, to explore people reaction to change because when we did the desk yoga, some immediately embraced it. They loved it. You could tell, right? Because we always have our cameras on, you know, so everyone sees one another, right? That's also due to have the connection. Others you could see with very hesitant and others you could tell as well that they were looking around a little bit on an influence on others. We're thinking, right? By seeing them doing like these unusual moves at their desks and all ultimately learned how important it is to come out of your comfort zone and get into a learning zone and to embrace something new. Something unusual, you know, when you inside the new mindset, right? Which ultimately then helps you to be the best you can be. So if anything after that, we absolutely ensured that all participants were never feeling comfortable from that point anymore and always operated in their learning zone. So yeah, we continued doing desk yoga.
Troy Blaser (18:56):
That's where the growth occurs when you're out of that comfort zone. Right. And into the learning zone. Even that senior executive was able to have a probably a little bit of discomfort during that experience to take part in the desk yoga and that's fantastic.
Caroline Vanovermeire (19:09):
Oh yeah. He didn't know what was happening. No. You know, you could see it on his non verbal communication as well was looking at me as well. You didn't tell me that would happen and what do I do now? But yeah, surprise indeed.
Troy Blaser (19:24):
But I love how you took feedback from participants and were able to incorporate that into the learning experience. Tell us a little bit about other ways that you've used feedback, not only to create the learning experience, but how are you using feedback to measure success of leading in the digital economy?
Caroline Vanovermeire (19:41):
Yeah. Thank you for asking that. Yeah. We are not just satisfied with the instant feedback, like the big thumbs up at the end of each live session. And yes, we are very proud of course to say we have triple attendance rates on virtual learning sessions compared to the industry standards. And yes, we do still have a hundred percent endorsement ratings at the end of the six month learning experience. But, but we want more, we want to really measure real personal growth. We want to see higher engagement scores with their teams, want to see increased revenues and margins and clients' satisfaction. And that is why we are first ensuring through the onboarding sessions that are happening before the formal kickoff of the learning experience that participants are really understanding that what they put in into the learning experience, they will get out. So they need to really create and prioritize attending learning sessions and ensuring that they consciously apply these insights in their day to day jobs.
Caroline Vanovermeire (20:43):
So hence we used the 360 up front to really these learning objectives, which were first degree to [inaudible] the rationale why they were chosen or endorse to attend to learn and experience. And this in itself helps also to ensure that the line leader is fully endorsing that they make time for their learning or anticipate for instance projects where they would be able to apply the learning. And if they don't, we encourage and support the participant to, to be that positive change agents and how their own line leader to mature on their very own leadership journey in that regard. So we also check in how much of the learning, for instance they share it with colleagues and in order to support that we also have created a learning site and it contains all the content that participants are exposed to and are playing with or the homework or the reflections that they made as well.
Caroline Vanovermeire (21:37):
So in that sense, the feedback and the learning and the insights in that they have as well. We all give back and share and finally we all ask if any of the pitches or the client delivery projects were influenced by being part of the learning experience. And we have numerous examples actually where this has been the case. For instance, we were the first movers regarding sponsoring of the fortnight e-gaming tournament in one of our European markets as a result of the, of the learning experience. And another example is one of our participants actually presented a business case to set up a consulting business within one of our markets. And it turns out that that is one of the most profitable parts of that market now. So we are very, very proud of that. And also realistically, you know, in times of cost-cutting, which we have experienced as well, a defending fault for attending this program was always ring fenced and protected. And I think that means a lot. So we, we see does this feedback from the business.
Caroline Vanovermeire (22:43):
Exactly. Exactly. And then of course, you know, the biggest endorsement and feedback you get from alumni, right? Alumni that you see, you know, being promoted to take on bigger critical roles and that they are also sending their own Hollywood collaborators. Right. I should say, as, as future participants. So recently we've been asked as well, because this is a, you know, happening Mia responsibility. I've been asked as well by global brands to broaden the scope and to allow them as well. So we soon we'll have the challenge of operating across different time zones as well. We take it out to as a compliment and for all these reasons, we are very proud that that ecosystem has managed to achieve that powerful learning experience.
Troy Blaser (23:28):
It's amazing how feedback can come in a lot of different ways and you listed several of them, but knowing that the funding for the program continues, it's protected from cost-cutting, knowing that they're asking the businesses, asking you to grow the program, to expand it beyond Europe into parts of the world is really, like you say, it's a compliment and it's probably something that you should feel really good about as you receive that kind of feedback for the program.
Caroline Vanovermeire (23:56):
Well, thank you. And as I said as well, it's, it's the ecosystem. If I would have designed this five years ago, I knew it would have never come to what it is now. So you constantly need feedback because you need the input from others too, to broaden your own horizon. So I'm a big advocate of different sources of input, welcoming, embracing feedback. At the end of each cohort, all the members of the ecosystem give feedback. And the feedback isn't always about what, when, well, the feedback is, Hey, how could we make this even better? and I genuinely think that is what made it, what it is today and why it has remained its relevance in a context that has vastly changed. So yeah, I'm very happy about it. Very proud of that as well. But at the same time, very humble to realize this is not something you achieve on your own works.
Troy Blaser (24:51):
Sure. Well, Caroline, it has been my pleasure to get to know you and get to know a little bit more about what you're involved in in particular with this program. But I've thoroughly enjoyed the conversation. Thanks so much for your time and for the ideas and thoughts that you've shared with us today. I appreciate it.
Caroline Vanovermeire (25:09):
It was a super privilege. Thank you so much for having me.