Interview by:
Martin Burns

Nina Pollard heads up the Talent Acquisition function at Coles Group in Melbourne, Australia. She has crafted her own unique journey and knowledge base across HR. Nina’s career has been diverse, seeing her commence her career within Talent Acquisition, through to Remuneration and Reward, Project Management, Business Partnering, Leadership and Diversity & Inclusion. Outside of this Nina has also pursued her passions, using her entrepreneurial drive to help with her family’s small businesses. Nina is a high energy person dedicated to aligning business outcomes to positive experiences across professional and personal careers.

While establishing herself as an HR professional, Nina has continued to pursue further study, work and volunteering in her spare time. Nina completed her undergraduate degree in 1999 majoring in Political Science and subsequently stepped into her first recruiter role in the US. Returning to Australian in 2001 and a role on the Telstra Graduate program in HR, Nina completed a Graduate Diploma in HR & Employee Relations and finished her Masters of Applied Commerce at the University of Melbourne in 2007. During this time, Nina also worked with the family-run vineyard and cellar door growing her commercial and entrepreneurial skills.

In 2008, Nina moved to Brisbane to work for BP Australia, working at Bulwer Island Refinery and later as HR Manager in Melbourne, and ASPAC D&I Manager for BP. Since returning from maternity leave in 2015, Nina has led a large teams in Talent Acquisition with National Australia Bank, followed by a Chief of Staff role at the Bank, before accepting her current leadership role.

We caught up with Nina recently, to get her perspectives on hiring, including managing a hiring surge in response to COVID-19.

Tell us more about you - how’d you get where you are now? How did you get into your career?

Where to start. I started sort of an academic life early on, then into the political science side. Did the internship in Parliament, went down that path. Kind of early on, I realized politics wasn’t for me.

I came to the US around that time, to Virginia, and landed an HR role. Really loved it. I went into a HR role after returning home, while pursuing HR a graduate degree. I worked in recruiting, then went to other roles, but kept coming back. Getting that broader experience across HR gave me a perspective about how TA becomes strategic.

I find here that there’s not often the respect, either way, for the value both sides bring. I find that when the two sides come together, it’s powerful. I often find that when I come into a role, that’s the case. I have a real passion to come in and level that at a peer-to-peer, level the playing field so both sides can undertand each other, and partner.

How do you do that? What's the trick?

A lot of it’s about credibility. About meeting people where they are, speaking their language. And then bringing TA in to them and helping them see the value. And, lifting the capabilities of the TA team

How do you level them up?

There’s two sides to that equation. The first is to set the expectation and mindset that they’re there to be strategic, it’s not just about delivery. Giving them training on other parts of HR, about the system. Teach them how they fit into the system, that it’s more than just coming in and turning some cogs. It’s also about prepping them - step-by-step, so they can grow over time. Also, bringing in role models. Bringing in people who are already “there” and having them model. Sometimes you need to hire a ringer.

What sort of impact has COVID-19 had on hiring at Coles?

At a macro perspective, in early March when it started to become reality, we saw people go into hoarding mode. We literally, we could not get toilet paper onto shelves fast enough, it was compounding the issue. We had plenty in our warehouses, we just couldn't get it onto the shelves. Our stores started screaming at TA to help. So, we grabbed our interns and scaled them up to help supplement our efforts. At the beginning, we hired 7000 people in two weeks - the next 5k came in over the next 3-4 weeks. We’d been at 115k employees prior, so we were looking at a 10% increase in headcount in just over a month. It was intense.

How did you manage that?

We had 500k Australians apply in 10 days - we usually get 1 million over the course of a full year - so managing that volume was key. We use Traitify, to help manage volume, and filter. They've been excellent to partner with.

To keep the volume going at speed, we ran programs. For example, “family and friends” where we skipped steps, literally took referrals and had them starting the next day. That took nimble thinking to navigate through the process. Building it as we worked it. Fascinating.

And, I'm one who's never let a crisis go to waste: we took the opportunity to look at our processes and turned them on their heads, turned them in a nimble way, some of those changes will be baked into our process going forward. One of the ideas I had was to use PR, the normal way, getting out into the media to say we’re hiring. We went to the CEO to make the case: “We need this volume, and it’s a great story”. It’s repositioned our employment brand, as well as our internal brand.

I’d used video in the past, prerecorded. We introduced it here as the pandemic hit, and it’s worked really, really well. The flexibility for store managers has been fantastic. But, also, there’s the safety piece, people don’t need to come in and clean each time.

We decided to use Vieple, a Testgrid product - it's a Melbourne assessment company. I rang them on a Friday morning, said “we want it now, can we integrate asap?” We integrated a video interviewing platform by the afternoon.

With IT, it was just a conversation with the CIO. The whole business was attuned to the need to support us. They literally dropped everything in an afternoon to make it happen. We all knew what we had to achieve in the crisis, and the entire organization rowed in the same direction. In that moment you can see what people can achieve. It was an amazing moment in that crisis. The TA function was standing up the most. And the organization supported it. They’re now talking about the TA function and what we did. The follow-on impact has been amazing. We’re introducing Success Factors now, and there’s now a chance to really push influence and get deep adoption across the organization of product. Our strengthened internal brand is really helping there.

What are your thoughts about bounceback hiring?

What I’m noticing there was a volume in back office roles, prior to this. Part of it is the time. We now are flooded with options. Then, the difficulty is making those choices. Now’s the time to dial up that talent mindset (for the organizations that can), to hire top talent. It's good to have choice again. With the new awareness of job security, we've become more attractive. On the table, to manage volume, we’re looking at things like assessments. We need to step into the conversation to talk about future proofing, being more strategic in our talent approach.

It's interesting. My husband is in surgery. They can’t get nurses back because the government pays more. So it's uneven. But we're feeling really good about where we are as a hiring organization.

Nine Questions

What question do your executives ask you the most, and why is this topic important to your business?

Our executives love to know what’s happening in the external market. It’s important as the talent pool is relatively smaller here with degrees of separation low – having a pulse on what is happening helps us complete for great talent.

What is the most important quality/skill you look for when hiring a new recruiter for your team?

I focus on attributes that are hard to train and differentiators for success in the role in TA – so things like for a recruiter to be able to think ahead and be proactive in their approach is a massive game changer to the roles.

What do you wish vendors understood before they contact you?

Ha! I get so many each day, I wish vendors knew how many we get and how we will approach them when we do a market scan when we need a new service.

What industry blogs and publications do you find most valuable?

I try to read broadly; I prefer evidence based research and white papers that update thinking and knowledge on topics related to Talent and Leadership

What do you think is the biggest threat facing the talent acquisition industry today?

External threats from hacking to data in our ATS is a threat facing the industry – undermining our ability to confidently and confidentially capture the right data at the right time

Where do you see the talent acquisition industry in 5 years?

It’s an exciting time to be in TA because the technology is evolving so quickly. I’m hopeful many process elements will be automated and so the role of a recruiter becomes much more of a talent advisor to leaders than process management.

If your talent acquisition budget doubled tomorrow, how would you spend the additional funds?

Ultimately, we’re selling a product – in this case, it’s a company, a culture, a role, a leader. So, with that in mind, I’d invest more heavily in the employment brand, brand assets and the candidate experience from first engagement to first 90days in role.

What is the most difficult role your team is recruiting for right now? What makes it difficult?

Like many businesses, we’re desperate for diverse digital capability in our teams – so is every company in Australia! Our universities haven’t yet caught up to business demand for technology, digital and data analytics skills needs in corporate Australia.

How do you stay sane/ maintain balance?

I’m a great believer in maintaining a disciplined approach to daily habits to maintain balance and high performance. These include exercise, sleep, exercise and fun – every day.