How This Head of HR Uses Trust to Bring Out the Best in People — And Her Organization, Too

Sponsored by Macquarie Group

Rachel Palmer

Image courtesy of the Macquarie Group.

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Fairygodboss
April 12, 2024 at 9:24PM UTC

Being open to opportunities is imperative to growing your career. Just ask Rachel Palmer, who recently became the Chief Operating Officer of EMEA following her role as the Americas Head of Human Resources at Macquarie Group, a global financial services group operating in 33 markets in asset management, retail and business banking, wealth management, leasing and asset financing, market access, commodity trading, renewables development, specialist advisory, capital raising and principal investment.

Early in her career, Palmer intentionally decided to be open to all internal opportunities, “even if the opportunity might take me off what might have seemed a more linear or direct career path,” she explains. “As a result, I have worked in several different functions — Finance, Operations, Sourcing & Vendor Management and Human Resources.” 

Not only has this mentality benefited her professionally, but, on a personal level, she’s had the opportunity to transverse the globe. “Even as I write this,” says Palmer, “I am taking my next career step moving with my family from New York to London to become the Chief Operating Officer of our Europe, Middle East and Africa region.”

In addition to her mindset, Palmer credits her colleagues and company for helping her grow. “Key to my development has been leaders who have challenged me to do bigger and better things,” Palmer notes. “There have been times when they believed in me more than I believed in myself. The sponsorship, belief, advocacy, coaching and guidance from strong, empathetic and influential leaders and role models has been invaluable over my career and has inspired my own leadership as I look to ‘pay it forward’ to others.”

Over her 14 years at the firm, Palmer says that she is fortunate “to work with fantastic leaders and benefit from senior sponsorship to be able to advance my career.”

Do you want to advance your own career like Palmer has? She shares some of her best leadership advice, how she manages her team and more.

What were your initial thoughts when you learned you were moving into a leadership role?

Many of us become leaders before we think of ourselves as leaders. That said, there is a certain amount of responsibility and accountability that one feels when stepping into a leadership role. 

While I’m a big believer in stretching oneself, and I genuinely feel my greatest growth has occurred when operating outside of my comfort zone, there have been times when I’ve been daunted by the prospect of taking on a new role. I’ve questioned whether it was the right thing to do or spent too much time in my own head thinking about the change. There is a healthy level of nervousness and discomfort about big change — that only makes us human after all — and that is what I try to focus on. 

I also know that I am my own toughest critic, so I try to be kinder to myself during role transitions and give myself time to listen, learn and ask lots of questions as I settle into the role. 

How has your day-to-day work changed since you became a senior leader at Macquarie? What about your overall approach to work?

The ability to embrace a learning mindset has served me well throughout my career. Change is constant, and, therefore, from a professional and leadership aspect, there is a need to constantly evolve.

Facing a global pandemic, political turmoil and social matters, such as racial injustice and the Black Lives Matter movement, required leaders to lean in more than ever. As a leader within my organization, I needed to engage on topics when I didn’t have all the answers, or when the conversations might be difficult, or in the case of COVID-19 – the unknown.

Exceptional leadership at times requires becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable. For me, this led to a focus on being authentic, making myself available, working inclusively and, to the best of my ability, role modeling our expectations for other leaders. One way of role modeling was being visible in my wins and transparent in my own areas of development.

I’ve also had exceptional role models of strong female leadership while at Macquarie. My current reporting line is all female through to our CEO Shemara Wikramanayake.  

How do you think about making sure your direct reports feel well-supported in their lives both in and out of the office?

I believe one of the greatest things we can do as leaders is to create trust in all relationships. Given the events over the past few years, more so than ever, employees are looking for the organizations and leaders that they are working for to inspire trust. It’s trust that brings out the best in people and, therefore, the best in organizations

I’ve focused on building and maintaining trust through transparency, communication, authenticity, empathy and genuine care in order to ensure that my team feels well supported. 

At times, this also means being vulnerable so that others feel comfortable doing so themselves. The last few years have also impacted everyone in very different ways, so I’ve also focused on ensuring that people felt empowered to make decisions based on their personal circumstances and to prioritize their own wellbeing, and I’ve ensured that they had the flexibility they needed to do so.

Managing people — especially if you’re new to it — is not easy. How has Macquarie helped set you up for success? How is this kind of support reflective of the overall culture at Macquarie? 

My leadership skills and management toolkit are something that is certainly constantly evolving. Macquarie ensures the availability of different programming centered on people management and leadership development. However, I’ve always found my greatest growth came from real on-the-job experience, being open to feedback and constructive criticism and supportive managers.

As leaders, we also need to adapt to the external environment and the needs of our organization and teams. The last few years have required us to embrace vulnerable and uncomfortable conversations which in turn foster trust and greater inclusion and belonging in the workplace. 

To help support our people leaders through this, Macquarie evolved our leadership programming to incorporate an Inclusive Leadership series to equip our senior leaders and people managers with new skills to help navigate new and different conversations in the workplace. For the series, we focused on three important topics — Allyship, Covering and MicroActions. In the Allyship session we discussed how, as leaders and individuals, we can be better allies to others as well as how we can bring this out in our teams to improve teamwork.  In the Covering session, we explored the impacts covering can have on you and your work when you feel like you need to be someone different to succeed. Finally, in the MicroActions module, we learned about the tangible microactions we can all take to avoid micoagressions in the workplace and in our personal lives. The series has been very well received thus far and is now available to all employees. 

Ultimately, what has led you to stay at Macquarie?

There are many things that have led me to stay with Macquarie. Three top ones are:

  1. The career mobility and diverse career opportunities that I’ve benefited from. I’ve felt like I’ve had the opportunity to do something new every few years, all while staying at the same organization. 

  2. I also love the ‘Macquarie way.’ We often talk about being a bottom-up organization, non-hierarchical and entrepreneurial. I would describe our leaders as ‘manager do-ers’, meaning that we all have a role to play in delivering on outcomes, which is something I love about my various roles. 

  3. Finally, I love the people that I get to work with every day who are warm and welcoming. I’ve formed great friendships in all parts of the globe during my time at Macquarie.

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