Unpacking leadership and navigating paradox

with Mary Lemonis. REA Group

Thought Leadership

In business leadership, a paradox is a pair of characteristics that appear to be so different that they really couldn't exist together. They seem to be two things that offer an ''either/or'' choice. 

For example, you might think of your employees as either being collaborative or driven for individual achievement.

Paradox management describes how we can successfully balance these paradoxes. By using paradox management, a business can simultaneously encourage both individual achievement and collaboration, rather than being able to have only one of the two. Mary Lemonis has always been curious about exploring how to achieve balance between the two.

As the Chief People Officer for REA Group, Mary Lemonis is responsible for people strategy across a global network of 2600 employees. Mary is a passionate and intuitive leadership practitioner and in this episode she draws on more than 25 years of People and Culture experience, and unpacks what it takes to be an exceptional leader. 

We were excited to speak with Mary about her upbringing and what inspired her to work with people, how she defines culture and engagement, and how she skillfully manages paradoxes in organisations.  

If you’d prefer to listen to our conversation you can do so here: Apple Podcasts or Spotify

Was there an experience in your life where you felt like working with people was your calling?  

[Mary:] I always found myself gravitating to help people in whatever challenge they were facing. I would always notice someone in need of support whether it was explicit or implicit, and that was from a very young age. 

I always was very willing to put my hand up to help to move things forward and have a platform to create an impact and make a difference. 

How would you define culture and engagement?  

[Mary:] I define culture as the implied and explicit scaled collective behaviours and symbols in a business. And engagement is essentially how we feel about our work. 

I was very fortunate to start my career in a very progressive organisation where people were talking about the interrelationship between leadership, engagement, culture and performance. And the way we talked about it was that leaders are essentially the organisation’s role models that cast the biggest shadow. So how they show up impacts the culture, which then impacts how people feel, which then impacts performance and that arrow goes both ways.    

And how do you feel that has been impacted since the pandemic began? What have you observed in your world in terms of culture and going through challenging times?  

[Mary:] The true testament of a business is not the good times but the bad times.

And I think those tried and true principles were just so amplified across organisations in 2020. 

“Transparency, communication, listening; there’s just no substitute for an organisation to engage with its people in that way. Particularly when times are challenging.” 

So I think for me it’s just been trust, transparency, communication, and compassion. I always say that these roles, particularly when you're working in People and Culture, don't work without courage and don’t work without compassion. 

Do you feel that it’s HR’s responsibility to manage the daily contradictions that play out in an organisation? How do you deal with paradoxes and how do they show up in your work?

[Mary:] The Jim Collins book ‘Good to Great’ talks about the tyranny of the ‘or’ and the genius of the ‘and’.

For me that is essentially the definition of a paradox. How do you look at diametrically opposed outcomes and feel comfortable in sitting with both and then understanding how you might deliver against both? 

I was the head of HR for Campbell Arnott’s Asia Pacific for 8 years and people say, ‘How would you describe those 8 years?’  The business had to totally reshape itself and it had some of the most challenging performance years it had ever had. 

But we not only maintained engagement, we grew engagement. We retained 90% of our key talent. We came out the other side with a stronger business. And for me that's the ultimate paradox. 

People say that if business is going bad it makes sense that engagement would be bad too. I don’t believe that. Why wouldn't we challenge ourselves and seek out a way for both of those things to exist? For people to feel good about their business, even if the business is currently experiencing some tough times. It’s possible.  

How do you support people to manage through these kinds of paradoxes and contradicting ideas? 

I always lead by saying what’s the ‘and’? 

[Mary:] Because usually people will say ‘well we could do this or we could do that’. So my first question is always ok, well help me understand the ‘and’ in all of this. I think a lot of it is about role modeling and coaching your own team. 

It’s exciting when you hear people playing it back and challenging themselves to see both sides of the equation even if on the surface they seem to be opposite. 

We just can't underestimate the power of role modeling. It’s not about one leader.

I’m really fortunate at REA. I work with incredibly smart, talented people and if they see something that makes sense they just make it happen. And everyone sort of jumped on this ‘and’ piece and rolled with it. It’s about leading by example and not forcing things on people. 

To hear more of Mary Lemonis' insights on this episode of Humanity Works, listen here on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

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