Jennie Mead is Chief People Officer at Aptitude, a business delivering software solutions that equip organizations to drive efficiency, empower teams and unlock growth potential.

For HR Heads‘ latest CPO Spotlight, Jennie spoke with Jen Gaster about her career, challenges within HR and how to tackle these issues.

Jennifer Gaster  
Hi, I’m Jen Gaster from HR heads and today I am super excited to welcome Jennie Meade, Chief People Officer from Aptitude software. Jennie, thank you so much for joining me.

Jennie Mead  
I’m really pleased to be here and to be sharing some of the experiences that I’ve had with those following you at HR heads.

Jennifer Gaster  
You’re so kind to take the time.
Jennie, I’m going to jump straight into your role as Chief People Officer at aptitude.
Tell me, what was your journey like to get into that role?

Jennie Mead  
Oh, to get into the role, it was quite interesting actually, because I was working previously at a company called CloudFactory, which is in the AI space in technology and I was actually approached to join the role at a time when actually I was thinking a bit more about what my next move was going to be.
With any organisation that I join, first and foremost, I will look at the culture of the organisation.
Is it aligned and can I work with it?

Obviously, for me, the senior leadership team and the CEO are important, as well as am I aligned with the industry of course, and everything else.

And there’s a few other bits and pieces, but fundamentally does it align with my flexible working and what I need to do as a mum, as a wife, as a daughter, etc.

So that was quite critical for me in terms of what I was looking for and how I got to Aptitude, but super excited to be with Aptitude and we’ve done a lot in the last year and I tend to focus on scale-up when the organisation’s in scale-up mode. There’s lots of transition and transformation happening at the moment, which it’s great to be part of as we’re very busy.

Jennifer Gaster  
You’ve worked in the software sector previously. What is it that draws you specifically to that sector?

Jennie Mead  
I really like the fast pace, so I actually started my career back in the day when I came out of the university in the software industry and I got great exposure because I went into a graduate program for quite a large software company (before going into HR) of actually doing client support, implementation and training on the software.

So started to see the end-to-end life cycle of a software house. I was in the industry for about five years, came out of the industry, then went back into it again and really love it. Now what I love about it is the fast pace – you can’t stay still at all.

Jennie Mead  
And I really like to see what we call the Horizon two, Horizon three planning, which sometimes absolutely blows my mind.

And when I’m hearing about the technology that we’re working towards. The experience when I worked back at Converges back in the early 2000.

It was at that point they were starting to develop software because it was a billing solution software company, focusing on how you were going to pay for things using your phone.
I could not believe at that point in the early 2000s, we were thinking about, you know, the idea of going to be able to buy a can of coke using your phone.
I mean now it is 2nd nature.

Jennifer Gaster  
I don’t carry a card ever, now I just I only use my phone. It’s crazy.

Jennie Mead  
It was crazy, but we were talking about that as a company back in 2002.

Jennifer Gaster  
20 years ago, yeah.

Jennie Mead  
And yeah, it and that, that’s what’s really exciting about it. So yes, I love it.

Jennifer Gaster  
You’ve worked previously in different sectors, you were an HR Consultant with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

You probably couldn’t get much different, but what was that experience like?
And what did you take from that that perhaps you still hold on to today?

Jennie Mead  
So my time with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, I did when I was actually working in Australia.

Jennie Mead  
Aside from the fact that it was really, it was quite cool in my 20s to be working for a media, television and radio organisation in a country that I actually didn’t know who the talent was because it wasn’t like the BBC.

I would stand next to people in the lift and not even know how famous they were in Australia.
But, I would say the biggest experience that I took from that is employment legislation and the way in which you operate as an HR professional in Australia certainly was very, different to how we were operating.

Jennie Mead  
So when I was working there in 2003, the Chartered Institute of Personal and Development had only just become chartered in the last couple of years.

They never had anything like that over in Australia, so for me, going over as a chartered, I think it helped management to know I was MCIPD at that time.

Jennie Mead 
I went over and everyone was like, what’s that?
How can you be charted in your profession as an HR person?
Because they didn’t have anything like that at the time.
And actually, the environment in which I worked was very much akin to what I’ve been learning about on my degree.

That was in environment in the 1980s and 1970s in the UK, very highly trade unionised, but very different in the way in which the employment legislations worked.

Jennie Mead  
And you have to remember that for us in the UK, and there’s certainly in the early parts of 2000, we went through quite a lot of legislation changes that they just didn’t have in Australia.
The only thing that they were really advanced on I would say is health and safety in Australia, but everything else was still being learned about.

Jennie Mead  
And so it was quite nice for me because I was able to go over and put my learning and my experience, both from an academic perspective, but also the first years of my career, to good use and they were all wowed by it.

Now I think it would be very different place, but yeah, I really enjoyed it and the fact that you get to live in Sydney was brilliant.

Jennifer Gaster 

And you reference there, your academics.
You’ve completed a number of certifications and you were lucky enough to study at Stanford University.
How important is CPD to you as an individual, but also within your team and driving that knowledge thirst through the HR space?

Jennie Mead  
Yes – it’s so important.
If you don’t do CPD, you’re never going to keep up.
And I think there is a phrase that I use: “you never graduate from the School of Self Learning”.

Jennie Mead  
If you, or any leader, no matter what level they are at in the organisation, have to continue to learn all the time because we’re in an ever-changing environment as it is.

So whether it’s technical learning, that’s one aspect of it, but also learning how to actually lead and engage others, particularly in a changing world, it’s critical.

So if you take coming out of the COVID pandemic, people are asking how do we get him (working in the office or remote working) to work well.

You need to learn to be able to do that, and I think that sometimes organisations that just do massive U-turns on these sorts of things, rather than asking the question, how are we going to do it. We must get this right because I personally think that 10 years from now, certainly 20 years from now when my son goes into the world of work, it’s going to be a very different world of work.

Jennie Mead  
So that has to be a learning drive and I think there’s a lot of work that I’ve certainly done with the leadership team here at Aptitude around leading in a digital world. It is very different to leading in an office-based world and you just keep having to try and continue to learn to do that really. I think we have to be intentional about it.

Jennifer Gaster  
I’m certainly seeing there’s a real void that’s come about around leadership and management capability. When you’re not present in the office and you’re not seeing behaviour in the moment it is difficult to manage.

When somebody is scheduled to be on screen with you and they put what I call their ‘game face’ on, they are saying ‘I’m fine’, but actually they might not be fine.

But they can hold it together and be fine for that hour’s meeting and then go away.

I think the human resources function has a long way to go in really improving what is on offer from a management and leadership capability perspective, I don’t mean L&D purely for HR, I mean but for all of the line managers that exist in the business and really getting them to be tip top at their role.

 Jennie Mead  
They do.
And I again buy into the philosophy that everyone is a leader.
So we have this idea that you are a leader of self no matter what career level you are and you have to be given the skills to be able to do that right the way up to the leader of business. We have developed different leadership programs that we’re trying to pull the content together now so that we can we can deal with that at each level.

Jennie Mead  
So that actually when you’ve got a graduate that comes in who may be operating in a remote or hybrid way, they have a certain skill set and you’re right with the HR professionals, we need a different skill set to be able to deliver that.
We need to be able to manage communities of people in the digital world, and that requires a different skill set to actually the employee relations that we learn all about years and years ago.

Jennifer Gaster  
Yes, as a technical piece, it’s the emotional intelligence that is needed.

Jennie Mead 
Yes, we’ve just come out of mental well-being month as many of us have, and that’s the piece that actually to your point, you turn your screen off but how do you know how that person is really feeling? The only way you can do that is by developing trust and being open.

Jennie Mead 
So how do organisations think about that and foster that?
Because they may be saving money by not having as many office spaces and downsizing their footprint. But they shouldn’t just take that as a complete saving.
They should be investing that to make sure that the right systems are in place to be able to lead, and the right leadership training is available and the connection points are as well.

Jennifer Gaster  
So I think that’s a massive opportunity for HR.
What else is on your agenda for the HR function and specialism to drive and deliver over the next few years.

Jennie Mead  
I recently attended a networking event and one of the conversations that sparked was how do you think about skill sets in a remote world?

So this whole idea around what we will need in the technical space that operates on a global platform.
You can’t just rely on where you’ve got company entities moving forwards. I think the whole approach to talent acquisition, where you go and get talent and how you engage that talent (in terms of contractually engage them without having to spend a huge amount of money on setting up company entities).
The global employment organisation is one that I think HR professionals are going to have to get their head around in terms of managing very small pockets and numbers of people in multiple locations.

Jennifer Gaster

And the complexity of it and all the different legislation that goes with it is not insignificant

Jennie Mead 
And the community piece as well. So, the technical aspect of it is necessary, absolutely. But how do we do that effectively?

So location strategy, how you go and get the talent two to five years from now, how are we making sure particularly in the technical industry, but I think any industry and so I think that that has to be front and foremost and if I think back to 2022 and what was on the list around retention and engagement regardless of the fact that we’re seeing in the macroeconomic environment at the moment, this is still a challenge.

It’s the most bizarre.

Dare I say the word recession at the moment?

It’s not like 2008.  I take the UK as an example where we went into a recession, we saw hiring freezes. We also saw pay freezes and bonuses not being paid.
That’s not happening at the moment.

Jennifer Gaster  
On the contrary, I’m dealing with wage inflation and it is defining the talent space. That’s a huge challenge.

Jennie Mead  
Yeah, the war on talent is still there.

So that’s the balance I think and that’s a round table discussion that is very alive at the moment as to how we engage and engage a community where actually all employees are looking for some very different things themselves.

Jennie Mead  
So I think those are still topics of mine and how do you lead in a digital world, how do we connect people with purpose in an organisation and communicate with them as well.

Jennifer Gaster  
And what specifically do you look for when you hire into your team?
What makes the candidate have The X Factor for you?

Jennie Mead  
First and foremost, that cultural alignment has to fit because that’s a really big part for me. Some companies need a disruptor in amongst it, but I do think that cultural alignment is key. 

To work with and trust that person to be able to get on and do, I very much take the approach of empowering others so that again, looking at somebody who actually takes initiative and will put forward ideas that will be transparent and open and honest with me as much as I am with them.

Jennie Mead  

I like the challenge up as well as provide challenge and support too.

Jennie Mead  
And I think that for me, somebody coming in who has that growth mindset and always wanting to keep their finger on the pulse because actually to you know people who really want to do the CPD, they know what’s going on, and come with ideas.

Jennie Mead  
That’s what’s fresh, because I’m one of these individuals that like to have a team that actually debates and brings forward lots of ideas and we learn from each other.

Jennie Mead  
That and somebody who’s willing to get on and do what we need to do in HR and do it in a way that’s human and kind.  I think some of the things that we’re having to do at the moment as professions are not without challenge in this economic environment, you can always do it with human touch and kindness and empathy.

Jennifer Gaster  
I’ve got a a son, at the moment he’s 16 doing GCSEs, and I keep saying to him, these results don’t define you. He’s a good student and he’ll be fine, but actually, the kind of man you grow into with human qualities such as kindness, empathy, emotional intelligence -that’s what defines you and I think it’s certainly for the generations coming into the workplace, we can’t lose sight of that.

Jennie Mead  
I think what’s important, as I said earlier, for me is that flexibility.
It’s the way forward because particularly if you’re working in global organisations you need to be flexible.

Jennie Mead  
It’s really important to get that balance.
I don’t want somebody who’s going to be coming in and then burning out because they can’t get that balance. We have to work together to be able to do that.
So that’s important for me.

Jennifer Gaster  
Jennie, you’ve been so kind with your time so my last question is what advice would you give an aspiring CPO? They’re in HR and their career is established but they aspire to be in that number one role. What advice would you give them?

Jennie Mead  
The technical aspects of being in HR is really key and I’ve always given advice on the technical side of it to try and get as much breadth as possible because and you can get as much experience as possible in using as you know, what will the academic stuff – then that’s great.

My always advice on that is don’t always take it as textbook because if I just take agile project management for example, the way you apply it into an HR organisation, is very different to how you might apply it elsewhere whether it’s HR or in different organisations.

It’s got to be applied in a way that fits from a leadership perspective.
I fundamentally believe that it is really important to invest in getting certain leadership skills and I don’t mean management skills.

I mean leadership skills – how you hold yourself accountable right the way up to how you look at somebody – you have to be intentional about doing that.

Jennie Mead  
One thing that I’ve really found that’s useful for me, certainly right the way back in my career is I always set key milestones and by the time I’m xx years old, (I always did it by my age) but, by the time I was xx, I wanted to be doing this, by the time I was this I want to be doing that. I still do it now.  I think you have to be really intentional about what you want to do and then work your way back.

Don’t just let it happen by accident.  The way that you become a CPO is to really think about actually what is it that you want to achieve?

When do you want to achieve it and how are you going to work back?

I always get somebody who’s going to hold me to account with that, whether it be a mentor, a professional mental or a friend, that’s actually going to keep you accountable to what you set out to do.
And that’s my biggest piece of advice.

Jennifer Gaster  
We’re quite similar because I always work with the ‘where do you want to get to?’
‘Where are you today?’  and ‘How many stepping stones are there and actually, what’s the gap?’
Identify the gap analysis for yourself and then do something about it.

Jennie Mead  
Yes, the technical experience is really helpful and getting that experience is great.
But to be CPO you need to lead in an organisation. I have a team of people that really support me in doing that, but I have to be responsible of working with the CEO to make sure we have the leadership capability right the way across the organisation.

So I have to make sure that I understand, what is that product? What is it the global technology team do, what is that market etc.

And I quite like that it’s that breadth of role.

Jennie Mead  
How you lead yourself and how you get people to follow you, it’s so important.
Being able to craft that vision and that future through storytelling is key. So don’t just always focus on the technical aspect. That’s important, that focus on how you’re going to build the other bits up as well.

Jennifer Gaster 
It’s been an absolute pleasure to speak with you Jennie.
Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us today.

Jennie Mead 
You’re welcome, Jen.