Empathy in action: Kirsty Phaal's journey from clinical psychology aspirations to HR leadership excellence

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Lessons from Dimension Data SVP on shaping a culture of inclusivity and talent retention.

Kirsty Phaal, the senior vice president of human resources at Dimension Data, is not your typical corporate executive. She possesses a unique blend of empathy, intuition, and a deep connection to people’s emotions.

From academic pursuits to the world of HR

Kirsty’s journey began in high school, with a dream to become a clinical psychologist. Her passion for understanding and helping people led her to study psychology and industrial and organisational studies. In a pivotal decision, she majored in industrial psychology, a choice that would shape her career trajectory.

Kirsty’s commitment to her academic pursuits was evident as she pursued her master’s degree while working fulltime. This dedication laid the groundwork for her future success in the HR field. In the late ’90s, she joined Internet Solutions, a company at the forefront of the internet boom, setting the stage for an exhilarating career.

An evolving career at dimension data

Kirsty’s career took a significant turn when Dimension Data, a global IT services company, acquired Internet Solutions. The transition brought new challenges, but Kirsty’s resilience and adaptability shone through. In the early 2000s, Kirsty and her team at Dimension Data were pioneers in HR innovation, developing one of the first online recruitment platforms. She was yet to find a solid mentor who could guide her in her HR journey, but her determination and hard work led the way.

After some time, Kirsty made a leap to Dimension Data’s global headquarters, shifting her responsibilities to specialist areas like performance management and talent acquisition. Her journey was marked by long working hours and extensive travel, but it gave her a deep understanding of HR processes and a business-oriented perspective.

The power of empathy

One of the defining qualities that has marked Kirsty’s journey is her extraordinary empathy. She possesses the ability to deeply connect with people’s emotions, a quality that has set her apart as an HR leader. Kirsty says, “Empathy is understanding what’s going on for somebody else at that particular time.”

This approach has allowed Kirsty to navigate the intricate world of HR with a personal touch. She can connect with employees on a profound level, making them feel heard and valued. Her empathetic leadership style extends to her vision for the organisation, enabling her to see the bigger picture and understand the diverse needs and emotions of her team.

Kirsty emphasises that empathy is not just a buzzword but a genuine commitment to understanding and supporting individuals within the workplace. It has helped her to build strong teams and foster a culture of inclusivity.

Evolution as a leader

In 2020, Kirsty made the choice to leave her position at Dimension Data for an exciting opportunity at the Ignition Group. Despite facing challenges such as relocation, natural disasters, and the Covid-19 pandemic, Kirsty remained committed to her career and personal growth. However, her ties to the big green machine and the relationships she had built over the years recently led her back to Dimension Data, where her deep understanding of the company culture and values made her a natural fit.

As she takes on her role as SVP of human resources for Dimension Data Middle East and Africa, she reflects on the organisation’s strengths in retaining talent. The ability to develop and grow within the company, along with a culture that encourages learning from mistakes, has proven to be a drawcard for retaining talent, especially with the younger generation.

Kirsty’s journey at Dimension Data has been characterised by growth and adaptability, which allowed her to shift roles and responsibilities seamlessly. Her experience in remuneration and performance management was particularly enlightening, as it exposed her to a more financially oriented, numbers-driven aspect of HR. This experience shifted her perspective on the HR function, allowing her to view it through a business lens.

One of the defining qualities that has marked Kirsty’s journey is her ability to take a step back and think holistically about an organisation’s needs. She says, “I’m a very big picture thinker. I look forward to an integrated approach: I’m highly evaluative.”

She emphasises Dimension Data’s dedication to offering career opportunities without holding employees back in their pursuit of growth and responsibility. “We never hold employees back in terms of growth or taking on more responsibility or wanting to step out of the basket and start digging in the next basket because they’re interested in the oranges and they’ve got apples. So we really promote that.” This approach has been instrumental in Dimension Data’s success, particularly in retaining highly skilled or multi-skilled employees and catering to the preferences of the GenZ workforce.

Nurturing talent and making a difference

Kirsty speaks about the challenge of retaining young talent, recognising that many of them move on in pursuit of their passions and interests. She emphasises that retention is not just about monetary incentives; it’s also about purpose and values. “What is your purpose, and what are your values? Do they align with Dimension Data?” she questions. Kirsty is proud of the company’s graduate programme, which has managed to reduce attrition rates, particularly in the early stages of an employee’s journey.

She also discusses the idea of ‘boomerang employees’, those who leave, but return to the company later. Kirsty shares instances where past graduates have expressed their interest in returning to Dimension Data, highlighting the success of their retention strategies.
When asked about her views on employee retention, Kirsty reflects on the emotional aspect of leaving a company. “The mind can be retained by money or a course for six months to a year, but when the emotional decision has been made it is often hard to re-engage an employee,” she says. She emphasises the importance of creating an environment where employees are valued and their values align with the organisation’s.

Life beyond the corporate world

In her downtime, Kirsty emphasises the importance of self-care. She enjoys reading, spending time with her two boys, and, when possible, resuming her passion for running. Despite the busy life of a senior executive, Kirsty believes that taking time for self-care is vital to strike a balance between personal and professional life.

For Kirsty, life extends beyond her demanding career. Her family plays a crucial role in shaping her values and approach as an HR leader. Her upbringing instilled in her the importance of kindness, empathy, and standing up against bullying. These values are central to her efforts in creating an inclusive and supportive work environment.

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