<img height="1" width="1" style="display:none;" alt="" src="https://dc.ads.linkedin.com/collect/?pid=222996&amp;fmt=gif">

17 min watch with captions and full transcript

Denise Hanlon is known in the industry for being an HR rebel. During her time at Vocus Communications, she didn’t shy away from orchestrating no-nonsense values that earned her some looks. The result? A play in our Rebel Playbook!

In this interview with Debra Corey, Denise shares her tips for:

  • Using values to thread an organization (or organizations) together
  • How to hire for awesome
  • How to build HR policies and programs around the 99%


Denise leads like a rebel by:
  • Having zero tolerance for muppets
  • Not screwing the customer
  • Playing to the highest common denominator
  • Having a crack
  • Letting people keep their awesome cape on
Our favourite quotes:

The starting position is when you come to work for Vocus you're automatically awesome. No questions asked, otherwise we wouldn't have hired you.

We [have] to challenge ourselves all the time, as an HR team and an executive team, to remember that we gotta keep playing to the highest common denominator.

Denise's interview:

DEBRA COREY: Hi there, I'm Debra Corey and I'm the co-author of Build it A Rebel Playbook to World Class Employee Engagement. I'm here today with Denise Hanlon, who is going to talk to us about how you be a rebel when it comes to purpose, mission and values, specifically values, and I absolutely love the play that is in the book. I use it all the time...

DENISE HANLON: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yes.

DEBRA COREY: When I do workshops and it might be tame in Australia, but when I talk about it in the US and the UK it's very, very rebellious, so you can let me know if it's rebellious in Australia also.

DENISE HANLON: I think it is actually. Yeah, yeah.

DEBRA COREY: It is? Good. Nothing like putting on the spot.


DEBRA COREY: Great. Well I know you're no longer with Vocus Communications, but to set the context so you can explain it, maybe can tell us a little bit about the company?

DENISE HANLON: Sure. Now Vocus is a telco, telecommunications provider, and I joined two and a half years ago. It was a 200 person operation, founded here in Australia with huge growth ambition and within two and a half years it went from 200 to 2500 employees.

DEBRA COREY: Wow, that's growth.

DENISE HANLON: It is growth.


DENISE HANLON: Things moved pretty quickly and we had to smash together a few things actually, so moving at that pace helps you prioritize, if nothing else. But when you're adding so many companies together, so many people together, the biggest challenge is threading us all together.


DENISE HANLON: What is that we have in common? And so our values was the answer to that question. Your question was are they unusual for Australia or are they rebellious? They are actually, yet a lot of people feel affection towards them and actually admire the fact that they're so pragmatic and use everyday language, and that's exactly what we found internally as well. Everybody, regardless of which company they'd come from originally, it was easy for them to associate with the values, so that worked exceptionally well.

DEBRA COREY: I like the starting points. If I think about the why you did it, you did it to, the way you explained it was perfect - thread.


DEBRA COREY: To thread your organizations together.


Y: What made you think that you couldn't take one from one business or from another business? What made you think that you needed to completely shake it up?

DENISE HANLON: Well, we did in a way take things from the original businesses. The Vocus side of the business, kind of talk about the business in two halves, because the business that it is now is a merger of equals.

The Vocus side of the business embodying the values a few years ago, so pre my time, and they'd come up with a group of values that meant something to them. And then two months after I started, we bought a business and I guess we kind of... They had values, but they were fairly traditionally, integrity and teamwork and all that kind of vanilla, arguably motherhood statements. And so they absolutely fell in love with their values and said, "Yep, we're in. We're in for the whole." Then when we came together with the other, the company with which we merged, they had some things that they held dearly, but they hadn't really evolved into values, documented understood values. But when we joined together as forces, we had a great conversation about what are the really important things that the Vocus part of the business doesn't want to lose and similarly with M2 group, the other business we merged with. And so we came up with a version of them that includes some of the old from both. "No muppets" for example comes from the Vocus side of the business. "Don't be a dickhead" comes from the M2 group from the business.

DEBRA COREY: Oh really? So that wasn't from Vocus?


: Okay.

: That wasn't from Vocus. And "Have a crack" is brand new.


: "Don't screw the customer" was actually Vocus, the original Vocus business as well, so it really was this acknowledgement that we're bit of a The Brady Bunch.

DEBRA COREY: It's a lovely blend. It's a really nice blend of taking the best from everybody and then I like that one is completely new.

DENISE HANLON: Yes. I don't know that we were particularly purposeful about that, but that's just how it turned out. Probably one of the funniest moments in my career, I was having a discussion with my internal communications person about defining a muppet versus a dickhead and it's a conversation I didn't think I'd ever have.

DEBRA COREY: No, no and could you do that?

DENISE HANLON: Well we did.


DENISE HANLON: Yeah, yeah, we did.

DEBRA COREY: Okay, alright. Yes.

DENISE HANLON: We certainly did. But look, it's just a way to have a conversation, but because it's such everyday language and it's a bit Australian, it's a bit cheeky, it's just people could associate with easily, I think. We're proud of it. Because you post something on LinkedIn for example, and typically it attracted quite a bit of attention. "Love your values, love your values," and so it's really sense of pride for people to be able to go to barbecues and say, "Yeah, we've got dickhead in our values. We put it in our annual report, it's on our website. We're a listed company." That was pretty cheeky.

DEBRA COREY: Well that's where I've heard about you, because somebody, exactly what you said...


DEBRA COREY: They posted it on LinkedIn.

: I remember.

DEBRA COREY: And I called you up out of the blue and it's like, "You have got to be in the book, because it's so good."


DEBRA COREY: Can you maybe talk individually about them, 'cause they are such lovely, cheeky values. The first one, about the muppets, I love that.

DENISE HANLON: Well, and that's probably the one that I have the closest relationship with and actually it formed pretty much everything we did and the way we did it in the HR team. It's clever company "No muppets. We're awesome people," and then it kind of goes on to talk about other things. For me that's about... The starting position is when you come to work for Vocus you're automatically awesome.


DENISE HANLON: No questions asked, otherwise we wouldn't have hired you.


DENISE HANLON: Unless you prove yourself otherwise, but essentially you're awesome, you're clever, we don't have any muppets here. When you think about that as a starting point, that changes the way, certainly from an HR perspective, you construct policies or procedures or systems or processes, it's like, "Well how will we design this for the highest common denominator, the people who are awesome, versus typically, sadly, creating policies in case there's a muppet who does something wrong?"


DENISE HANLON: And became a hugely liberating way to approach the business. HR became very well regarded in terms of being able to assist people to be great, continue to be great, rather than going out looking for people who are muppets. That's my absolute favorite.

Have a crack, it's an Australianism. Just have a go at something, have a crack. I think the beauty of that one in particular is that it's easy to use in a sentence and it was often... I found myself as a leader of a team of people using it. "Yeah, that sounds good, just go and have a crack." So just roll of the tongue without even necessarily being conscious that it was of value. That was our way of saying, "We don't know, we're making this up, we're moving so fast, we're smacking things together in systems, just if you think it's a good idea, knock yourself out."

DEBRA COREY: And it give people permission, as you said, using a common language.


DEBRA COREY: If it works, it works. If it doesn't, you giving it a crack, you're giving it a go.

DENISE HANLON: That's right, what&#39;s the worst that can happen?


DENISE HANLON: Yeah. I mean, "Don't the screw the customer" is... It doesn't really need a lot of explanation.

DEBRA COREY: But it's more unique that a lot of them. A lot of companies have something about the customer.


DEBRA COREY: Respect the customer, treat the customer.


DEBRA COREY: Yours is just to the point, it's truly honest.

DENISE HANLON: Well it is to the point. I think Atlassian might have pipped us though, they've got... They've upped the ante on the...

DEBRA COREY: Oh, okay.

DENISE HANLON: Yeah, the word "screw." But it speaks for itself, it's just kind of, they're the ones who pay, pay the money and just if you're a sales guy don't do a shitty deal that you know isn't right for the customer, just because you're gonna get a commission out of it. That had been around for a little while. 'Cause the last one, "Don't be a dickhead: sounds a bit rude, not everybody internally loved it either by the way, so we're not a henogenesis group. It was essentially about respecting each other. It gave us permission... The way I used it was just like, "Oh, I think you just registered on my dickhead scale then." That's a nice... well I think it's an Australian way, at least of saying-

DEBRA COREY: It's a safe way of saying it.

DENISE HANLON: Just saying, "Oh, hang on, did you just kind of, I don't know, insult me or put me down, or not think to include me in a conversation?" Whatever is appropriate, but it's, again, that's a way to cut through, rather than respect, or integrity, or honesty. So don't be a dickhead about it. "Oh, right, am I being a dickhead? Hm, okay, you're probably right."

DEBRA COREY: It cuts through, gets right to point, and that's what's so nice. You waste so much time trying to figure out what someone's saying.


DEBRA COREY: Do you have some examples? You talked a little bit at the beginning about how you used it in HR.


DEBRA COREY: How else did you used the other ones in HR as you integrated them, embedded them into your programs?

DENISE HANLON: Yep. Yeah. Well, and because they're everyday language, we could use them in actual written communication form. For example, our welcome documentation for new starters was, "Hey, welcome to Vocus, you're already awesome, otherwise you wouldn't be coming to Vocus." We actually used this language in other businesses as what is a legal document.

There's a lot about tone of voice and the way we communicated that the values absolutely lend themselves too. But otherwise, for example we had, and I may have spoken about this previously, we came up with an idea for health and wellbeing offer to our staff, because we had... One of the companies we had did something, and another company did nothing, and another company did something else. We came out with an idea that we'll give people some money in a form of a gift card to use for heath and wellbeing purposes, whatever that meant to the person.

There was all these conversations internally, in my team, because it's a bit of a leap for HR people this kind of thinking as well, "Well, how do we know that they're gonna spend it on the right thing? We better make them produce receipts-


DENISE HANLON: And then what if somebody in our team has to check it off and it's like, "No way," that brought a lot of administration, for what benefit?


DENISE HANLON: So we said, "Knock yourself out," to the employee population. "It's meant for health and wellbeing. If that's a bike or, if that's a pair of shoes for you, if that's a babysitter because you wanna go out and watch a movie with your partner, knock yourself out." Because we don't have muppets.


DENISE HANLON: So this is where the value's part comes. Because we don't have muppets we're gonna trust you to... And yes, somebody will probably do the wrong thing, but most people would do the right thing, and that's who we're gonna play to. So that's a simple example of how instructive that value is, or was, and how easy it is for people to trip themselves up and actually impose rules and process, in case there's a muppet.

We had to challenge ourselves all the time, as an HR team and an executive team, to remember that we gotta keep playing to the highest common denominator.

DEBRA COREY: I think whether you have it in your values or not that  should be something that every HR team has an internal HR value, because I think you're right. If you are going to engage our workforce, we have to remove some of these muppet type HR policies and programs that we do.


DEBRA COREY: 'Cause we don't know who it's for. It does not help the organization at all.

: That's right. The one guy who did something wrong five years ago.

DEBRA COREY: Exactly, exactly.

DENISE HANLON: I think that&#39;s a real challenge for the HR community, and that's sad that that's the case. 'Cause we have an informal conversation in HR, and an HR person will go, "Oh, that would be so liberating, absolutely I agree with you a 100%." Yet the conversation typically comes back to... Maybe there's a bit of legal influence there as well, you know the lawyers are kind of, "But this could go wrong."

DEBRA COREY: Yes, yeah.

DENISE HANLON: Yeah, but it isn't likely to go wrong. Probably not.

DEBRA COREY: That one percent. I'll probably misquote it, but there's a quote in the book from Patty McCord from Netflix, a huge rebel, and it says something about, "Our employees would sue us less if we didn't piss them off so much."

DENISE HANLON: Yeah, right. That's right.

DEBRA COREY: It is true.


DEBRA COREY: Yeah. We're just afraid of the whole legal side, what are they going to do. But yeah, legal things.

DENISE HANLON: Yeah, it just exhausts me to be honest.

DEBRA COREY: Definitely. And actually, you did tell me that play.

: Yes.

DEBRA COREY: I could only pick one for the book.


DEBRA COREY: But the good news is that one's on the website.


DEBRA COREY: Rebelplaybook.com, so people can read about that one also, 'cause I love it. It was so easy and your employees engaged with it completely, didn't they?


DEBRA COREY: They must have loved that.

DENISE HANLON: Yes, absolutely and somebody said on, "What if somebody goes and buys a carton beer with it or whatever?" Well, you know what, if that's how you get... If that's wellbeing to you, it's on us. Enjoy. That's a little bit different, we think that's a little bit rebellious and in a way.

DEBRA COREY: I think if you had done it any other way, your employees would have thrown your values in your face ...

DENISE HANLON: Absolutely.

DEBRA COREY: And said, "Wait a minute, I'm not a muppet. Why you have all these three step process."

DENISE HANLON: That's exactly right. Although, some employees said, "Aren't you gonna check up on me? Aren't you gonna order...?" No seriously, we cannot... Presumingly we cannot help ourselves but to almost limit ourselves as humans. Look for the rules, look for the things that we can't do.

DEBRA COREY: Definitely.

: Rather than take for granted the opportunities just to go and have a crack.



DEBRA COREY: If you have any tips for anybody, either in respect to the values or the second thing that we talked about with being brave, with policies and HR procedures, what would you tell people to do? How can you inspire people or give some words of wisdom?

DENISE HANLON: Oh gee, I don't know. It just seem so obvious to me. It's hard to come up with some inspirational comment, but I'm a grown-up and I'm a grown-up outside the work. We've got homes, we've got families and we make big decisions every day. I don't expect that to change when I come into the workplace and I think it's unfair if we treat people anything less than a grown-up in the workplace. I think we just need to continue to challenge ourselves. "What would we do if this person was awesome?" is my little motivational speech to myself. That's all I can encourage others to do.

DEBRA COREY: I think it's great, because I've heard somebody say this before you. You hire someone who's awesome and as soon as they walk through the door, it's like almost they take this cape or something off and they're no longer awesome.


DEBRA COREY: And how can that change when you walk through this virtual door? It just makes no sense.

DENISE HANLON: Exactly. We put them in boxes.


DENISE HANLON: And we hammer them down with policies and we just limit people. It doesn't make any sense from a number of angles.


DENISE HANLON: Yet, it's typical, sadly.

DEBRA COREY: Yes, it is. We need to be brave and challenge ourselves as to why are we doing the types of things we do and let people keep that awesome cape on.

DENISE HANLON: Yes, exactly.

DEBRA COREY: Definitely.

: Highest common denominator. Aya to that.

DEBRA COREY: That sounds great. Well thank you very much. You definitely inspire me. As a matter of fact, when we spoke the first time, I went out and did a couple of things different in our wellbeing program.

DENISE HANLON: Is that right?

DEBRA COREY: So you've already inspired me, so I'm sure you will inspire many more people.

DENISE HANLON: We call that stealing where I come from. It's all fair in love and war.

DEBRA COREY: Okay, it's between friends.

DENISE HANLON: Absolutely, knock yourself out. Yes.

DEBRA COREY: Yes, yes, it's called "Taking the best out of things."

DENISE HANLON: I can't wait to read the book to do a bit of taking of the best, yeah.

DEBRA COREY: Well thank you very much and I really look forward to hearing all the great things you do in your new company.

DENISE HANLON: Yes, me too.

DEBRA COREY: And new plays.

: Thank you.


DENISE HANLON: Thank you very much.


: Thank you Debra, it's been great.