Many people confuse leadership with management, thinking them to be one and the same. But there’s a key difference between those who lead, and those who manage.
Brigitte Fairbank has had a varied and diverse career in Human Resources, spanning across multiple industries. Currently, she is the Chief People Officer for the Department of Communities and Justice for the NSW government.
An experienced and compassionate leader herself, Brigitte is passionate about creating deep, personal connections grounded in empathy and trust.
We were thrilled to talk with Brigitte and hear her advice for leaders at all stages of their journey, her thoughts on building a culture of inclusivity and practical ways to support Mental Health and Wellbeing in high pressure organisations.
How has your background and involvement with Unions impacted your work in Industrial Relations?
[Brigitte:] My dad used to say, ‘The best outcomes for everyone come through great relationships built on empathy and trust.’ It sounds really simple, and when you think about any relationship you have it should be based on empathy and trust.
So when I’m representing a company it’s about understanding multiple perspectives and all options and building those really important relationships. We always try to work on the best outcome for the organisation but also for the employees, because there has to be a mutual benefit to work towards. Empathy and trust, that’s really the foundation for everything.
How would you define empathy?
[Brigitte:] It’s really about understanding all the perspectives because that’s the best way to manage people's expectations, the negotiation process, whatever it might be.
It’s really interesting because in all of my work in industrial relations, I talk about ‘The What’, ‘The How’, and ‘The Why’ but I also want to get really clear on how it makes you ‘Feel.’ And often people will ask me, ‘Why do you care how it makes me feel?’ And I say, because it’s really important. You need to nurture that emotional side in an organisation.
How do you work with leaders who feel challenged by empathy?
[Brigitte:] Great question. I’ve had leaders say to me, ‘Can I go on a training course to help me figure out this empathy thing?’ and it’s not something you can train in. But it is something that you can develop and learn.
So for leaders who have a particularly fixed mindset or POV. It’s about unpacking that. And me using my empathy to understand where they’re coming from. But then helping them to understand everyone else's perspectives and getting into the granular detail of where everyone else is coming from. And it’s about looking for that common ground.
And then you get leaders who simply don’t care. So in that case it’s really about trying to find that emotional connection and helping them to understand why they should bother trying to understand other people's perspectives. So I try to bring it back to something that’s personal to them. You’ve got to try and find the why for them. Why is it important to empathise. It’s not always successful.
In your opinion, what’s the difference between leadership and management?
[Brigitte:] I’ve worked with a lot of managers but I haven’t worked with a lot of great leaders. For me, leadership is not about being in charge, it's about taking care of those in your charge, which is a quote by Simon Sinek.
So when I’m trying to coach managers to transform into leaders there’s a tipping point. They’re no longer simply managing a transaction or a process, but they’re actually looking after a group of people to deliver an outcome.
“Leadership is not about being in charge, it's about taking care of those in your charge”
Leaders need to decipher when they need to be at the front and leading the team forward, and when they need to step back and walk beside the team. And also decipher when they can lead from behind the team and allow other people to come forward. It’s about having the wisdom to know when to do what because it’s all situational.
And you can only do that when you care for the team, so for me , that is when you stop being a manager and you start being a leader.
If a junior manager asked you how to develop their leadership skills, what are some tips you would share with them?
[Brigitte:] The first thing I would start with is helping them to really develop their relationships with their team members. It’s really key. Having awareness of who a whole team member is and not just what they’re here to do for work. Knowing who someone is means that you’ll be able to more easily motivate and inspire them and quickly create that sense of belonging within the team.
The second thing would be getting really clear on what the purpose of the team is. Knowing the purpose of what you’re doing and making sure everyone understands their role in that purpose. Keeping the team’s purpose top of mind by continually talking about it on an ongoing basis.
And finally, being really clear on expectations and performance. Using continuous feedback to be able to support the person and being really comfortable with team members approaching you and perhaps questioning things.
“The best outcomes for everyone come through great relationships built on empathy and trust.”
So to recap, you’ve got those deep relationships so that you can have open and honest conversations. The manager needs to be clear about the team’s purpose and their role in that. And having continuous conversations to validate and keep people on track by giving feedback.
These are great building blocks for leadership.