A PaperKite Leader and True North Award Winner

Update: I wrote this ahead of the award ceremony – Rob actually won! He received the Gold Award in the Truth North category of the Southern Cross Wayfinder Awards 2023

There are so many things I’m proud of as the Director of People & Culture at PaperKite.

I’m proud of our interview and hiring process. I’m proud of how people say they felt on their first day, first week, first month, all the way to their last day. I’m proud that at PaperKite people truly bring as much of themselves to work as they wish, and it’s often their whole selves. I’m proud most of all of our people, and how we look after each other.

At PaperKite, the mental health and wellbeing of our team is a top priority for me and every leader within our organisation. As an agency our well supported, highly engaged team are essential to our success. We are firm in our belief that, “what’s better for our people is better for our business”. We know that our people don’t just choose to work for PaperKite based on the clients we work with, or what we make. They choose to work for PaperKite because of the commitment we’ve made to look after our people.

Priya Bhana and Rob Holmes collaborating on something very important
Priya Bhana and Rob Holmes collaborating on something very important

Something that often surprises people is that PaperKite has been without a CEO, Managing Director, or Chief Executive since the end of 2019, instead choosing to put faith in three servant-leaders as a Senior Leadership team. This team works together closely to drive direction and forward thinking. But when the opportunity came up to celebrate an individual for the Southern Cross True North Award I decided to nominate my fellow SLT member, and PaperKite’s Discovery Director Rob.

I’m excited to share that, based on my nomination, Rob has been selected as a finalist for the award, alongside five other awe-inspiring leaders here in Aotearoa. While I assume there will be a single winner of the award announced and celebrated later tonight, I wanted to take this to celebrate what we’ve achieved together by sharing what I wrote when nominating Rob.

My nomination for Rob [abridged]

It is a real privilege to work alongside, be inspired by, and learn from Rob Holmes.

The True North Award is a celebration of a people-leader who has made an outstanding contribution to the health and wellbeing of their team through their positive leadership. Rob is all of this and more. He inspires, motivates and drives meaningful change by cultivating a high performing and healthy workplace culture that delivers real results.

In the guidance for nominations, Southern Cross made it clear they were looking for leaders who aren’t just fair-weather sailors: “To navigate new and exciting territories, a great Wayfinder must possess characteristics of leadership to steer the ship through not only the good times but the challenging times too.” 

This is exactly what I have observed from Rob not only in the past 12 months but consistently since news broke of a world-wide pandemic back in 2020.

Rob joined PaperKite in late 2019 as our Technical Director and has weathered many PaperKite storms. Agency life will always be about winning meaningful work, reprioritising service offerings and meeting the innate challenges that come with leading a small business during challenging economic times. He has met each challenge head on, helping define our offering and our direction in his capacity as our Discovery Director, while always maintaining our people-first kaupapa. One of his many achievements was driving the creation of PaperKite’s Strategic Plan which outlines the kind of business we want to be, what we care about, and why. By having a plan that PaperKiters helped write, speaking to the aspirations within it, ensuring that many of the goals are people-centric, and always reflecting back on the plan, Rob has ensured we all have a North Star that aligns us and our mahi.

PaperKite Strategic Plan
PaperKite Strategic Plan

Rob has had a tremendous influence on wellbeing at PaperKite. He cares deeply about our people and their growth, and is relentless about ensuring that everyone thinks about the impact and the legacy they leave behind in everything they do – whether that’s in career, business or at home. To think more broadly than just achieving business goals, and instead focusing on ensuring team members have the encouragement and support to think about their personal goals has made a real difference to our team’s wellbeing. It has allowed everyone to have space and time to think about what they want and need, alongside working together to achieve shared business outcomes.

Rob has also made a number of very pragmatic and tangible positive differences at PaperKite.

Within a few weeks of starting, Rob introduced a change to how we give Sick Leave. Sick Leave used to kick in after 6 months of employment at PaperKite, however Rob pushed for change. He posited that PaperKite humans get ill, or need to be there for whānau before the entitlement begins, so if we could change that, then we should. Now, everyone is able to take sick leave from their very first day at PaperKite.

Rob took a coaching analogy that helps with coaching children’s sport and translated it to the PaperKite working environment. He used this (together with Product Management best practice) to define and promote PaperKite as a safe place to learn, be inspired, empowered, and be trusted. It reminded all of us about what is important – as well as reminding us to play and have some fun!

A healthy PK, based on the Sport NZ Good Sports Spine (and Product Management best practice).
A healthy PK, based on the Sport NZ Good Sports Spine (and Product Management best practice).

Rob spearheaded ensuring we’re paying Living Wage to our support team and suppliers.

We cemented Rob’s role-modelling as a ‘coach’ and adopted it formally at PaperKite whereby every PaperKiter now has two people, a People Coach and a Discipline Lead, who are invested in and dedicates time to a PaperKiter’s personal and professional development. Where a Discipline Lead acts as a subject matter expert helping a PaperKiter level up their skills, a People Coach is responsible for ensuring the team member’s holistic wellbeing is looked after, providing pastoral care and helping to grow them well beyond their time at PaperKite.

The change in leadership structure at PaperKite was in response to feedback from Leads who were feeling overwhelmed with being senior hands-on practitioners, subject matter experts and role-models, as well as having responsibility for the pastoral care for their team. This decision was not only about what was best for every individual, but also how all of the wider leadership team could be empowered to do their best work. You consider yourself to be lucky if you have Rob as your People Coach or Discipline Lead at PaperKite.

A really positive thing that came out of everyone having two people supporting them was a new process for discussing performance in a 12 month period. Rob changed the way that performance reviews were typically thought of at PaperKite. Where once there was fear, anxiety and discomfort about evidencing your work, has now made way for a true celebration and reflection on all a PaperKiter has learned and achieved in the past 12 months. A direct outcome of Rob’s emphasis on coaching and supporting individuals to learn and grow has made performance reviews feel joyful. PaperKiters raved about how they felt during their performance review and the thoughtful, considered and kind feedback they received afterwards.

Rob is a People Coach who displays many leadership qualities that inspire our team, however the team feel that even the word ‘coach’ doesn’t quite do Rob justice. We know that Rob wouldn’t expect anyone to tackle something he wouldn’t take on himself (expertise permitting). He’s selfless without being self-flagellating. He’s got a wealth of experience and expertise but he’s aware of what he doesn’t know. He’s thoughtful and reflective but he’s also a driver of action and change. He’s got enough ego to back himself but he’s not cocky and he embraces alternative perspectives.

His experience as a Father of three also aids him in having the empathy, understanding, patience and humility that a great leader of a small organisation like PaperKite needs. Rob is focused on ensuring everyone knows what we’re working towards, together. Of course this also makes Rob a genuine ally for working parents.

PaperKite pancake breakfast - donations went to Movember
PaperKite pancake breakfast - donations went to Movember

As a People Coach at PaperKite, Rob is focused on improvement and encourages all of us to experiment, try new things and not be afraid to get it wrong. He is an advocate for giving generous feedback. He also goes out of his way to connect PaperKiters with people outside our walls who can help. 

PaperKite has a culture of gratitude, where we give thanks at the end of every week as a team. It won’t take you long to hear Rob’s name mentioned. A gratitude he received recently from a Developer who wants to work on how they can participate more in meetings was, “I’m so happy you are doing my one-on-one. [Being able to contribute in] meetings is something I want to improve and you introduced me to your Mum, who is a professional in the area. Thanks for your help always!”

Other examples of gratitudes that Rob has received that show how important he is to our team include from our Product Strategist:

“@RobHolmes I don’t even need all the fingers on one hand to count the people that I find genuinely inspirational, but you’re one of them. Whether you’re talking about tech in the way you did in the workshop on Monday, championing and caring for people at PaperKite, or pushing through the pain at the Mukamuka Munter there’s a lot I admire about the way you do things.”

To that message, another team member added: “Second that! What an inspiring human! I heard so many good things from @rob even before joining PaperKite, to the point of suspecting a hype! But there is no hype, folks. Rob is awesome.” Rob, as humble as he is, responded with: “You know what’s inspirational? Getting feedback like this from people you deeply admire and respect. Means a lot – thank you.”

These are just a couple of examples. There are many more – most of them a result of him helping someone because he truly believes in them. An attribute I believe makes for a true leader.

Quotes have been edited for length and clarity.

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