Interchange Meets: Jacqui Coombes of Bunnings

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For the latest installment of Interchange Meets, we had the chance to chat with Jacqui Coombes – Director for New Zealand and Group Human Resources at Bunnings.

Jacqui shares her take on maintaining a positive workplace culture, her experience in gender imbalanced organisations and the importance of org values.


Tell us a bit about your professional background and how you got started in retail.

Well, I really just fell into retail, I think a lot of people do. I was a single Mum who had to work and retail offered me the flexibility that I needed.

Before any leadership position, I was a bit of an all-rounder. I started at a service station working at night, then moved into merchandising. I did many other frontline service roles too. I then became a shift supervisor, then a team leader and I sort of kept growing from there which has brought me to my current role – Director for New Zealand and Group Human Resources at Bunnings.

I always felt very passionate about working with others and watching our sales grow by the way we merchandised, as well as providing great outcomes for customers. I found it very exciting and I really grew to love it, which I think is a very important aspect of working – you have to love what you do.

Unfortunately, many people still don’t see retail as a career, but there are a lot of people like me who have built amazing careers in retail!



In your opinion, what makes a good leader?

I definitely think that a good leader is someone who is willing to listen and is open to feedback. Someone who wants to continually improve themselves.

I think that for leaders with big egos… there comes a tipping point. If they are just in it for themselves and are not really part of the team… it never ends well.

For me, it’s about being self-aware and knowing when you’re influencing positively and when you’re influencing negatively. If you’re influencing negatively, you need to know what is causing that and learn how to fix it.

You also can’t be one to back away from hard conversations or decisions, because by doing that, you’re causing more harm than good. However, you do need to know how to have those discussions in a respectful way.



What makes a good team?

I think it’s all about knowing the team rules and setting up a framework that works for you. Good, robust conversations need to happen continuously, so that if someone steps outside the framework or treats someone in a way that does not align to the team rules, then a conversation can be had straight away.

Quick feedback is good feedback and I think if you’re open with one another and are very aware of what the team goals are, then that is the key to a successful team.



How do you achieve and maintain a positive organisational culture? 

I often hear people say “we have a good culture” but what does that actually mean? Breaking it down, it means that we respect each other and we value each other’s opinions and the work that we do. So, I think that the key to creating and maintaining a good culture is knowing exactly what a good culture looks and feels like.

We have a sort of written / unwritten guide called ‘How we do things around here’ which really helps with not just the how but the why.  It talks about why we work in the way that we do, why we build relationships and how important that is to us.

Culture isn’t just about leadership teams saying “this is what our culture is” and everyone going “yeah! That’s great!”. It’s about every person, every day understanding what makes a good culture, what behaviours can dilute that culture and also how you challenge those behaviours amongst the team.



How important are org values to you?

They are very important. Personal values and work values have to be the same. You can’t have a set of values that make you the person that you are outside of work and then have a different set of values at work. It’s something that is core to the person that you are, how you behave and how you lead.

All the way through the interview process, no matter what role you are applying for, we ask some key questions, not just about capability but also about values and culture fit. It is so important that the everyday feel of our company is right and that an individual’s personal values naturally align to the values of the organisation.

Values also make expectations clear and help you understand the framework that you’re operating in. You know where the boundaries are and how to not step outside of them.



In the past, have you come across any challenges as a woman working within male-dominated organisations?

Early on in my career, I worked in supermarkets and I had this ultimate goal of becoming an area manager. I eventually got into a position where I knew I was going to be offered the area manager role.

I was called into the MD’s office for a meeting and he said to me “Do you know why you’re here” and even though I did know, I did the whole “Oh, I have no idea!” He then said “we want to offer you the role of area manager”. It was one of those moments where in your mind, you’ve got champagne corks popping off, but then he continued and said “…because we need a woman and you’re the best one we’ve got”.

It absolutely crushed me and I’ve never forgotten how that made me feel. I resigned and went somewhere else. No one has the right to make you feel like that or reduce you to a tokenistic symbol of your gender.

Throughout my career, I have worked for a variety of companies that have been predominantly male-dominated as well as some that  female-dominated, that’s why I am very focused on making sure that gender is balanced, among other things. In unbalanced workplaces, you tend to get a bit more group think going on or people may steer clear of difficult conversations to avoid all conflict or difference of opinion. If this is happening, you will get rather sub-optimal results as no one is willing to challenge the norm to do things better.

It is very cool to see the growth in our industry and at Bunnings, we work extremely hard to ensure that this kind of equality remains within our organisation.



What/who has been your biggest influence in your professional life?

Growing my career as well as growing my kids had definitely influenced my professional life over the years. You learn a lot of different coping mechanisms from each side that can go on to benefit the other. Throughout my career, I would always look to other people who were doing the same thing.

Going back 20 years or so, there certainly were no podcasts and there wasn’t even a lot of literature about doing that. It was that you either had a career or a family, so I definitely liked to look for things that helped people find that balance in their life.

Also definitely lots of leaders that I have met along the way. Some people I may have just run into at conferences or networking events and I admired the way they interacted with people or how they talked about certain things. So I picked up on some little snippets and integrated them into the way that I lead.



What successful workplace initiatives have you seen that promote and support wellness?

Pre-COVID, Bunnings started to focus more on mental health. For years we focused on safety and wellness, but it was much more about the physical. Once COVID hit however, we really made sure that the mental health aspect of wellness remained a key focus. Of course, we have teams across Australia and New Zealand that were working from home, disconnected from family, friends, coworkers. So we made a real effort to stay connected through Workplace (our internal communication forum).

We have done a lot of regular streaming and one week, we even asked everyone to have a barbecue over the weekend and send in their photos! We had thousands of team members send in photos of their barbecues and their families. It made the Team feel like there were people around that cared and they weren’t alone.

We also have a phone line if Team choose to reach out and seek support in that way, but also, we really make sure that our leaders are available to personally support their teams with whatever they need. We ensure that our leaders are approachable and visible and that they know their team s well enough to be able to identify when they aren’t doing so well.

I think what has made the difference is having lots of small initiatives all rolled up together. You can’t just say ‘okay we are working on wellness now’, and then tick the box. It is an ongoing effort and something that needs to be integrated into your culture.




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