In this episode, we learn about Sophia’s unique leadership journey and how it has influenced her leadership style. We also discussed the future of the jobs report from the World Economic Forum.
What does this mean for the future of work, and how does it impact career opportunities, transitions, re-skilling, and redundancies?
Today, our guest is on a mission to create workforces for the future and be a formidable force for good. Sophia Symeou is CEO and co-founder of INS Career Management, an award-winning boutique HR consultant company.
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YouTube Channel: HR Think Tank
00:00:00 – Intro
00:00:52 – Sophia’s Experience with Social Work
00:03:26 – The Value of Leadership/CEO Groups
00:04:45 – Leading a Remote Workforce
00:05:38 – Sophia’s Thoughts on the Hybrid Working Model
00:07:50 – Why Management Might Resist Workplace Flexibility
00:10:20 – The Benefits of a Family-Friendly Workplace
00:11:45 – The Future Jobs Report’s Top 10 Skills of 2025
00:13:56 – What is a Capability Framework?
00:20:24 – Managing Terminations with Dignity
00:21:27 – Poorly-Managed Redundancy VS Effectively-Managed Redundancy
00:24:41 – Why People Consider Career Transitions
00:26:14 – De-Risking Employees That Transitioned from Other Industries
00:27:45 – Fast Five Questions
00:29:36 – Outro
Q: Can we explore the earlier part of your career? After high school, you completed a social welfare course, and you became a social worker. So, I'm interested to hear what you learned from those eight years in social work and how those experiences shaped your leadership style and your business approach.
Social work is so dear to my heart.
Everything I learned in those first eight years of my work life has actually prepared me, and no boardroom in the world could be as tough as some of those gigs.
I worked as a youth worker in Mount Druitt for kids from non-English speaking backgrounds. And one of the things I learned is working with young people from those communities; you have to work with their parents. And so, I learned early in my career that you don’t always do things the way others do. I couldn’t follow the tried and true practices of youth work in Mount Druitt because those strategies didn’t work.
I learned mediation, negotiation, and how to respect, listen, and value people. And I think all of those things have just stood me in great stead.
But, the biggest thing I’ve learned is that compassion, caring, and being part of a community are critical for businesses.
Q: I noticed that you're part of a few leadership CEO groups. Can you talk to us about some of those and what value there is in being part of those sorts of organisations?
So, I joined both the CEO Institute and the Entrepreneurs Organisation in 2014, and I’m so glad I did. At the time, I was going to see which one suited me best and leave the other, but I have not been able to leave either.
I place a lot of emphasis on the importance of personal development and continuous growth. And what both the CEO Institute and the Entrepreneurs Organisation have done for me is provide me with my brain’s trust, my business partners, and all the things that I would have absolutely missed if I wasn’t a member of those organisations.
So, I believe that as a leader, you need to find your tribe, and you need to find somewhere that will support you, develop you, and challenge you to keep growing.
That’s what both of those organisations do for me.
Q: How has your leadership style changed to accommodate a remote workforce? How does remote leadership differ from more traditional in-office engagements?
Well, my team will certainly tell you that they’ve gotten healthier and they’ve lost weight because there are fewer cakes and fewer sweets.
We are still very scattered, and we all miss coming together. It’s become hard to maintain contact, but it’s so important.
Remote working requires energy, effort, and absolute determination to keep a team.
Q: I want to get your thoughts on the hybrid model and the work from anywhere approach. Do you think it's going to be here to stay?
I’ve been on record to say that there will be pushback from employers but that it’s here to stay, either way.
However, we still haven’t worked out exactly what productivity looks like and what communication looks like. So, we need to skill people up to work from and skill managers up on how to create new kinds of teams to adapt to this hybrid model.
Q: What do you think are the drivers of the resistance from management, organisational perspective? Is it purely productivity, or is there more?
I think it’s about productivity and control. Employers want to have all their staff in alignment, so they’re pushing back.
This is the next big fight between employers and employees.
But, when people have called me to ask for advice, I tell them to think through what they’re not getting and brainstorm ways to get what they’re missing instead of just resisting. So, I get them to think about whether people actually need to be in the office to fix what’s not there or could it be something else within the entire business structure and processes? If they have a good reason, after analysing the situation and having discussions with staff members, to have people in the office for some time or full time, then so be it.
But unfortunately, about 50% of managers and employers still operate according to the mindset that they need to watch exactly what their employees are doing.
Q: What role do family-friendly policies and benefits play in achieving this goal of creating workforces for the future?
In terms of family-friendly meaning, we are looking to see if our staff have children or elderly parents that they need to care for. But it also covers your life too. For example, maybe you’re part of a debate team, and you need to get to those meetings.
It’s whole of life flexibility. Business and community need to work hand in hand.
If I had my druthers, I would have had unlimited leave.
I am still a small business. But nobody who was in need ever had to ask for leave. I believe it’s this flexibility that gets the best out of people because it’s respectful.
Q: The top skills and skill groups that employers see as rising in prominence in the lead up to 2025 include groups such as critical thinking and analysis as well as problem-solving and skills and self-management such as active learning, resilience, stress tolerance, and flexibility. I'd love to get your thoughts on why we see these skills as the important ones for the future?
I’ve taken that research from the World Economic Forum and looked at research done by many other agencies and organisations, and we’ve come up with our 10 top capabilities as well.
And I think the reason why they’re important is that the world is moving fast and jobs are moving fast. People who have been successful or have had success in their career aren’t necessarily because of the skills they have but instead because of their attributes.
So, flexibility, problem-solving, analysis skills and the ability to adapt to change are all attributes that make the difference between somebody being able to move easily.
And because we don’t know exactly what jobs will be around in the future, building those skills and capabilities means that people can move from one type of job to another far easier.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit more about what a capability framework is and what role it plays in this particular challenge we're talking about now?
The capability framework lists the core behaviours, attributes, and skills that everyone across an organisation will need.
So it looks at what the organisation needs in terms of:
- customer service, and
- other attributes.
And then, the frameworks seek to identify the behaviours that you would be exhibiting if you had those skills. It similarly recognises that not all jobs need those skills and attributes at the same level.
INS had its own capability framework, and it was a fairly simple one. This is because the framework aims to guide your development and allow you to recruit people based on exactly what your organisation needs. So, any organisation can use it, regardless of its size.
What’s more, it allows you to have performance discussions based on behaviours, not esoteric information. So it gives you concrete data to tie in every aspect of your people management strategies from entry to exit.
The capability framework is a really good way to re-skill and redeploy workers.
I’ll use an example.
So, we worked with the New South Wales government to introduce the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). At the time, disability services were run by family and community services.
With the introduction of the NDIS, a lot of those services went to the non-government sector. So, a great number of staff were moved into that sector. But it also meant that a high number of staff would be displaced because there were no jobs for them.
I had actually written a paper and the NSW government’s capability framework. There’s lots to be improved on in the framework, but it’s a really good framework when comparing it to many others. The problem is, they haven’t capitalised on the framework to the extent that they should.
So I had written this paper, which looked at how they could use their capability framework to create mobility for the development and management of large scale restructures.
Shortly after I had written my paper, they actually called for tenders (although not because of my paper). But, we applied, and we won the tender to work out what to do with all of the displaced disability services staff.
I don’t want to talk about the number because it would probably embarrass the NSW government. But it was a large number of staff.
And so, we developed a mobility program using the capability framework and designed over 100 work-based practical (not psychometric) assessments that sought to identify what each person’s title or skills were, such as a policy officer, and what they needed to do.
We then used that to match people from family and community services to roles across the public sector.
We ended up saving the NSW government a great deal of money in redundancies and recruitment.
And, at the same time, we proved that this process works. So, now, the NSW government realises that mobility is the way forward in terms of development instead of losing people who have good knowledge and skills.
Dignity means telling people what you can tell them. There is always confidential information that you can’t tell everyone, but there’s a great deal you can tell people.
So, if you share information and communicate, you can give people the opportunity to apply for roles transparently. And then, if they don’t get the role, you treat them with respect – you don’t just shut them out the door without recognising their contributions or allowing them to say goodbye.
There are many ways to treat people with respect and dignity.
I have done many large scale restructures where we’ve had to make thousands of people redundant. And I hold fast, communicate, communicate, communicate. And when you’re done communicating, communicate again.
Q: In your experience and what you've seen, talk us through what redundancies done well effectively look like versus when it's done poorly. What are the key differences between the two outcomes?
Firstly, you need to plan. If you’re going to restructure, sit down, and do your planning before making it public. You need to work out what’s working and what isn’t and what you want to come from the restructure and what kind of roles you need.
And then you do your consultation as early as possible: tell them what the restructure entails and make sure to stick to a timeframe. Take the time you need but don’t prolong the process.
Unfortunately, if you’re in a unionised workplace, things can end up taking more time than necessary because negotiations with unions get prolonged. But that’s usually because you haven’t consulted properly and you’re not engaging in protocols.
I remember doing one restructure, and there were prescribed times in the award to consult. So I got all my ducks in a row and had my meetings. And, of course, the union tried to stretch out the negotiations. Eventually, I just set a deadline. They had ten days at that point, and I gave them another ten days and said that was it.
But I had actually already included that in my plan. So good planning is what makes all the difference. And then communicate with the staff, unions and stakeholders.
If you aren’t sharing the necessary information, hardly communicating or communicating in contradictions, then that’s what I would call a poorly handled restructure process.
Q: I want to talk about the article that you wrote for the ABC about career transitions being possible at any age. What factors cause people to consider and then undergo a career transition?
There could be many and varied reasons. For example, they’ve been made redundant, or they’re just choosing to move on. Others retire and have the opportunity to do something they’ve always dreamed of.
We’re currently working with a few people in the legal industry, and they’re seeing the changes happening. And so they’re going through a process with us to work out what their transferable skills are and how they might apply that.
So they’re kind of saying to us, “Yeah, I’m in an industry. I can see the writing on the wall. I need to kind of work where I’m going.”
Q: Some employers may consider people who have recently transitioned out of any industry into theirs a risky candidate. What can employers do to help mitigate some of those risks?
Firstly, we would help the person identify the transferable skills to show how they might move. You want to be able to know that the person has the capabilities. They may not know your particular policies, but that’s where work-based assessments are really useful.
So in the assessment stage, if you bring somebody in who fits your organisation in every way but just doesn’t have some of the core skills, you create a development plan for them.
And you sit down with them and say, “You know what, you’re a wild card, and this is what we’re doing. And we’re going to do it. And within this period of time, and if it doesn’t work out, no hard feelings.”
We did that with one of our facilitators. She had no facilitation experience and turned out to be one of the best hires we had ever made.
- What was your first job? My first job was with Revlon on the factory floor. My first professional job was as the social worker for Rainbow Lodge in Ruby Ridge.
- What’s something interesting that is not on your CV? I probably do anything for charity. I’m a charity junkie. I’ve jumped out of planes, walked over coals, dyed my hair green, and even walked on glass. So, you want me to do something, attach a charity to it.
- What advice would you give your eighteen-year-old self? It’s going to be okay. Believe in yourself. Be less defensive.
- What book is a must-read? War of the Worlds by HG Wells – the original. From a social commentary perspective, it’s extraordinary.
- What’s a job for the future that doesn’t exist today? A robot ethicist. If you think about the future, we’re going to have cyborgs, AI, augmentation, and so many other things. So, we’re going to need somebody to help us traverse the ethics of all of that.