BabelChat: Amanda Marks Talks Mediating and Freedom of Expression

HR is changing. What does it look like for employees today? In this week’s BabelChat, our People and Culture Manager Amanda Marks reveals all.

For many, HR is the sheriff of an organisation, summoned at the first whiff of indiscretion, corporate handbook cocked, a coil of red tape cracking like a whip.

Amanda might know her way around a whip when the occasion calls for it, but her general view of HR couldn’t be further from this. Where some see employees, she hears people. Where others hear policy, she sees personality. She knows the handbook but not from a position of reading anyone their rights; to her eyes, a company’s guidelines are in place to enable people, not restrict them, to support the team, not oppose it. These core values have been baked into her over years of service and, as she reveals, well before then.

How do they help her to bring out the best in us at BabelQuest? What role do a company’s values play in unlocking the full potential of its people? And as the needs and pressures of the modern workforce continue to evolve, where does HR fit into this? I had the pleasure of catching up with Amanda for the answers to all these questions and more.


Thomas Brown: Where did your HR journey start?

Amanda Marks: I’ve always been interested in people, all my life. When I was nineteen I had six counselling sessions and as soon as those finished, I trained as a counsellor myself. I’ve worked in all kinds of roles over the years, including a fun job doing lots of travelling as an export sales manager for a publishing company. But something was missing. I remember my manager turning to me and saying “I can't do any more than I've done for you," which was upsetting at the time because I loved working in that job, with those people. That conversation prompted me to realise I needed a career change if I wanted to be truly happy. 

Around the same time, the husband of a friend of mine was setting up a business. We were in the kitchen, talking one evening, and when I explained about my current position he asked me: “So what do you want to do?”. I said that I loved working with people and had always fancied a career in HR. He said he was setting up a new company and needed HR. It felt like a risky move, but then I thought to myself: “Why not?”. So I leapt. I had to learn everything from scratch but I absolutely loved it. I've never looked back.


What had held you back from working in HR before then?

I remember early in my working life having my integrity challenged because my personality, which is to be fun, sometimes even rebellious, was seen as being unprofessional. One manager actually dissuaded me from making the move to HR because of it. That still annoys me. It’s true, I’m not traditionally corporate, but I’ll always have the highest ethics and integrity when it comes to looking after people both from the employee and the employer perspective. I bring that to every conversation I have and as a result people know they can trust me and that I’m listening. So many people issues could be avoided if we just listened to one another. It always amazes me the effect that really listening to someone can have and sadly how unusual that it is for many to be truly heard. I believe I gain trust easily because I’m my authentic self, something which took me a long time to feel comfortable with.


You’ve been on the HR scene for a long time now. How has the landscape changed? 

More people are starting to take that people-first approach. You see more HR roles positioned around people and culture these days. Businesses are realising that to get the best out of their people, they need to understand them better. What do they want? What are their triggers? What are they trying to achieve? In that sense, HR are almost mediators, finding the right fit between a business and its people and helping both parties to benefit and grow. It’s a much more holistic way of looking at the future of the industry and our people.


How might that impact the way people engage with HR?

I’d like to say that people’s perceptions of HR are evolving too and that it’s becoming easier for people to engage with HR going forward. I’ve come across many people who’ve said “I don’t trust HR” or “HR is on the company’s side”. I understand that, but the truth is great HR works for both parties. I’ve worked hard to shatter those misconceptions by being trustworthy and encouraging the same from the teams I’ve worked with, but trust isn’t something you can just switch on. It takes time and consistency, doing what you say you’re going to do.

If you have that people-first approach, it’s very important that you maintain it, but it isn’t easy. As small companies grow it’s inevitable that there needs to be more structure, more process and it can be hard to retain that “same team” feeling when your employees no longer know who everyone is. It's really important for HR to work closely with the business to always be aware of the impact of growth on its culture and work hard to retain it as much as possible.


You’ve mentioned trust a few times now. Can you tell me more about what it means to you?

Trust is everything to me. I need to work with businesses and leaders who I can trust. Going back to that export sales manager role for a moment, it was hard for me to sell academic textbooks because up to that point I’d never read one! You’ve got to believe in your product, and it’s the same with HR. If I'm trying to sell a business to a new candidate I need to be able to believe what I'm saying. If I’m trying to sell the virtues on why a candidate should be put through I need to believe in them. Equally, with leaders, I've worked with senior teams before who say their values are X, Y, and Z but they don't practise those values themselves. 

When that happens, I’ll always challenge them. They need to be able to trust that I’ll do that. Trust holds up a mirror to us all. As somebody once said to me, it’s important that you don't smoke your own dope. We all need to be exposed to the reality of ourselves. Be truthful. 


How do you help a company to course-correct its values?

It's interesting because some leaders talk about values and some talk about behaviours. I see the two as closely entwined, with values shaping the behaviours you want to see. I’m always disappointed by companies having values for the sake of it. Or for employees not to know their company values. A value has to be meaningful to you and your organisation. If you don't behave like that as a business then don't say that you do. Find values that do reflect how you and your people behave and how you really want to be known as a brand.

If you’re a ruthless, sales-driven, money-hungry organisation, be proud of that. You're ambitious and you want to succeed and that's fine. There will be people who are very attracted to that. The way BabelQuest’s values were written, and the way they filtered into the job adverts, really spoke to me because it felt authentic. At first, I almost couldn’t believe them! But having worked here for almost three years now and having embraced our culture code, I can see that they really do give a flavour for what we're like and that's so powerful.


Where can businesses look for a steer on their values?

I think your values need to come from the top, at least initially. That’s the approach we took here at BabelQuest when we refreshed ours a couple of years ago. It's important for your founders/owners to understand what they want to be known for as a starting point. People need some direction and they need to know what the business stands for. Your instinct might be to do a survey and ask everyone what they think. But that won’t work if it doesn’t align with what the business wants. So start with the senior team, find out what they stand for, and challenge them on it. Is that really how you behave? Can you give me an example? 

Then when you’ve identified some common values, send them around to the rest of the team, or hold a workshop, which is a great way to get everyone involved. Ask everyone “do these resonate with you? Do they describe how you behave? Is anything missing?” 


How has hybrid working impacted companies’ cultures?

We’ve seen a real shift over the last few years of businesses having to cope with the idea of flexible working but there’s definitely been a move back to more structured ways of working across a lot of businesses in recent times, and it’s not all driven from the top. A lot of people I speak to are incredibly lonely working from home. I can see a breakdown in cultures and the sense of community that comes with being together in an office. I personally know I miss out on having that team around me, bouncing ideas around and hearing what's going on. It's a feeling of togetherness that technology just can’t replicate. We've all grown used to not having to commute and the ease of working from home. I’ve always advocated for giving people a choice. I think that’s very important, and hybrid working still offers some flexibility.


After all these years, you sound as passionate as ever about your people and your work.

I can’t imagine ever growing tired of people. Everybody has a story. When I think about words like “community” and “company”, they’re all about this idea of coming together and listening while those stories are shared. That’s the togetherness I was speaking about. That’s what a company is, when you get down to it. There’s something very primal and powerful about our need to connect with one another. To find our tribe. That’s how trust is formed. I love the freedom that gives me to talk openly with my colleagues. I welcome feedback and I’m tactful enough to know where professional boundaries sit, but I do feel in my working life I'm able to be 100% authentic and for me that's the most important thing.

I get a buzz out of working with people. Seeing people. Coaching people. I love helping them to be better versions of themselves. Building their confidence. Understanding what they can achieve. Helping them to shape that, little by little. Challenging them when they're stuck or not taking accountability. Being supportive. Knowing what the business wants and what the individual needs and weaving the two together. In an industry known for policy-making and procedure, I’ve found a freedom of expression I never had before, and that’s magic.

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