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Rachel Walker DistFHRNZ

What was your first role in HR, and what role do you currently have?

My first HR role was with Gough Technology in Christchurch as a Human Resources Consultant after I left university. The business had never had an HR role before so we learned together, built all the basic people management tools and I became a strategic advisor to the business. I went on from there to hold a range of HR roles, including General Manager (tier two) roles around the country.

Now I work as a self employed contractor leading transformational work in Wellington, and much of my work has been directing or leading national programmes for government or not-for profit agencies. My current and recent contracts have been for the New Zealand Red Cross and the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), which is part of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC).


What led you to a career in HR and the position that you are in currently?

I was not really sure what I wanted to study at university, so I studied what I found interesting and that resulted in a double major in psychology and education, without wanting to be a teacher. For my Masters degree I majored in Industrial Psychology, which at the time was the closest thing to a degree in HR. I was interested in the human behavior aspect of business, and the importance of understanding the motivators and attributes that make people and/or change successful in the workplace.

I always feel there is an element of being open to opportunity and knowing what makes your heart sing. I came to realise that what I enjoyed was working in a practical environment, where things are made or done that make a difference to others. This started out as manufacturing and construction businesses, and once I discovered the opportunities to make a difference in nationally impactful public sector projects, I was hooked. After 10 years as a contractor, I have been fortunate enough to get to know a lot of people and be approached by people asking me to do work for them over and over. My current contract is for a client I have worked with repeatedly over the years, something which makes it so much easier to work together.


What do you like about working in HR? 

I like making a difference, doing people centered work that makes it easier for others to achieve what they need to do, and unsticking problems or navigating situations that add to the complexity. I enjoy being part of something that makes a difference to the lives of New Zealanders. I like that its often possible to understand the needs of a person others are finding challenging to work with, and the difference that can make to the outcome we are after.


What role/s have you enjoyed the most in your career?

The highlights of my career have been in relation to emergency management. I was asked to take on a couple of pieces of work with NEMA that have been the most rewarding work I’ve done. The first was to establish the New Zealand Emergency Management Assistance Team (NZEMAT), which provides a capability that can support a lead agency in an emergency by proving them additional expertise they need to respond to that event. This was a huge, time constrained programme and involved identifying people around the emergency management sector with relevant skills, but most critically of all, a way of working with others that would be effective. This meant selection processes and designing and holding 13 day residential (semi-austere) camps to finally select the right people. Going on to see the difference having NZEMAT in place has made in actual emergencies has been amazing.

The second “highlight” would be the role I was asked to take in the initial national response to COVID-19. There is a HRNZ webinar on this work, but in short I supported finding and inducting people from across government to work in the National Crisis Management Centre in early 2020, and then led the establishment of the business unit within DPMC that carried on beyond that time. The experience and feeling of connection to the national response was so humbling, even if I didn’t get to go home for 4 1/2 months.


Do you have any specific career highlights?

The work with NEMA obviously, but I’ve led other major projects like the closure of the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority and the largest change programme in the history of the New Zealand Red Cross. I’ve been fortunate to be asked to be involved in some large scale and impactful projects, and I realise not everyone can say they have worked in the Beehive or with some of the people I have. I look back and can’t believe I’ve had some of these opportunities and look forward to what else I might be able to be part of in the future.


What career advice would you give to someone early on in their career in HR? 

Understand what makes your heart sing about the work you do – find the type of organisations you enjoy and understand why you work in HR. Don’t specialise too early within HR, take all the opportunities you can to understand the context you are operating in, how the pieces fit together and how you can bring your unique skills to the table. Look around you and understand the “why” of situations, views people hold etc, they are key in being able to make a difference. And never forget to add more value than you take away every day – don’t focus on theoretical “best practice HR” that won’t work for your organisation, look at what will make things better for others and that they can buy into given where the business is at today. Otherwise you will make yourself and the HR function a nuisance to be avoided rather than an enabler.


Please describe your journey towards becoming a Distinguished Fellow. How was the experience? 

When I first moved to Dunedin in 2006, I didn’t know anyone in the area and so joined the local Wild South branch to meet people, eventually becoming the Branch President. Somewhere along the way I realised I wanted to be what is now a Chartered Member and then I was encouraged to become an elected member of the National Board. Over time I was elected Vice President and then President (at the time the President was automatically also the Chair of the National Board, a huge workload). In 2011 I was made a Fellow, and at the end of my term in 2016 I was asked to help develop the chartering programme.  Being honoured with the award of Distinguished Fellow was a surprise and I’m humbled given who else has this designation.


Are there any goals or projects that you are currently working on that you wish to share? 

For my sins I am currently the first female National President of the Royal Agricultural Society of New Zealand, the membership body that supports the A&P shows and agricultural breed societies across the motu. We are coming out of years of cancelled events and also looking to our centenary. Its an exciting thing to engage our people, taking a positive approach towards ensuring the organisation is relevant in the future yet still holds its history close.


As a highly experienced and valued member of the HRNZ community, we'd like to know - what do you love the most about HRNZ, and what value have you gained as a Distinguished Fellow?

HRNZ has been a huge part of my career experience – its where I met people I value enormously, learned skills and had opportunities (such as escorting Dave Ulrich on his visit during my term) that don’t otherwise come along. There is a huge knowledge base in HRNZ, both from those who have been around awhile and those with a newer or different perspective, so I’d encourage people to keep close to the organisation as one of the best ways to resource their learning.