Sarah McCann-Bartlett

Sarah McCann-Bartlett

Master of Business Administration

Current position
Chief Executive Officer and Managing Director, Australian HR Institute

Steering HR through a global shift in the future of work

It’s been a tough but fascinating time to be at the forefront of human resources during the generation-changing events of recent years, says AHRI head Sarah McCann-Bartlett.

After a rugged two years, many HR executives saw new opportunities emerge from one of the pandemic’s silver linings - an increase in the HR function’s importance.

And the Australian HR Institute’s chief executive officer and managing director, Sarah McCann-Bartlett, also a Monash MBA alum, is among those who observed this trend.

“It’s a particularly exciting time to be working for the HR profession,” says Sarah, who joined AHRI immediately before the pandemic hit.

“During COVID, people leadership and management really came to the fore, and HR professionals reported that their influence in their organisations increased,” she says.

“As we come out of the pandemic, we’re all discussing and predicting the future of work, and again, HR is at the forefront of these changes.”

“It’s great to think the organisation you work for is making a positive difference to our workplaces, people’s working lives and business outcomes.”

Sarah’s role spans all aspects of the organisation, its stakeholders and the HR profession, as she works closely with the AHRI Board to set organisational direction and strategy.

“I lead (our) people and ensure they have the capability, organisational culture and support to deliver our strategy for the benefit of our members and the Australian HR profession more broadly,” Sarah says.

“I also ensure we’re meeting our commercial goals and managing our risks, and that we’re always improving.”

Leading an organisation: Mastering the ‘jigsaw’

Her position provides a huge amount of role diversity and requires a broad range of skills and experience, Sarah says.

But the key to success lies in “strong working relationships,” which are “an incredibly important part of being a CEO”.

With AHRI board members, particularly the chair, “it’s important we have a relationship that allows us to talk openly about the risks and issues facing AHRI,” Sarah says.

Relationships with fellow executives are also crucial, she says.

“I see us as a jigsaw puzzle where all the individual pieces with our different strengths, capabilities and ways of working fit together.”

She also manages AHRI’s crucial stakeholder relationships as a member-based organisation.

“I work closely with our state presidents and their councils to ensure we’re always putting members first and meeting their needs.

“I have spent my career working for member or sector-based organisations, and I’m particularly motivated by the feeling of responsibility for a sector or a profession and their customers and stakeholders.”

Leading from the top

Driving a positive and inclusive workplace culture at AHRI is always front of mind, Sarah says.

“That involves leading by example, listening to employees, talking about the way we behave and communicate, and calling out anything that doesn’t align with our values and behaviour,” she says.

She is also steering AHRI through an organisation-wide transformation program. This includes a full digital transformation including a new CRM, member portal, website, learning management system and finance system, with all products and services also being reviewed and significantly changed.

“As with all transformation programs, we are undertaking a major culture change to support our new ways of working, including an organisation wide capability uplift. It’s incredibly exciting!”

What the MBA did for her career

Undertaking MBA studies more than 15 years ago enabled her next career step up, Sarah says.

“At that point I was in a general management role and part of an executive team, and I felt I would benefit in better understanding all the aspects of leading and managing a business.”

“As well as filling gaps in my knowledge, for me the most significant benefit of undertaking an MBA was its practical nature. I can’t count the times that I would learn something in class or while doing an assignment that I was then able to take back to my workplace and use immediately.

“We were encouraged to apply theory in our workplaces, which meant that my learning was applied and so deeper, and I was able to make changes and improvements in the workplace while I was studying.”

The other life-changing impact of her MBA studies

Wayne and Sarah at Sarah's graduation

Sarah and Wayne at Sarah's 2006 graduation.

Ms Mcann-Bartlett and her husband, Wayne Bartlett, undertook their MBA studies at Monash University simultaneously.

The pair keep many aspects of their business lives separate - Mr Bartlett is currently based in the UK, running Microsoft’s UK Business Applications Enterprise Sector.

“However, we both love being leaders in our respective businesses, so we talk a lot about our experiences and learnings as leaders, and about working alongside great leaders,” Sarah says.

“There’s always something to learn from each other in this space. And it’s fantastic to know that there’s someone there who will lend an ear and provide some considered advice.”

The pair are also champions of each other’s careers.

Ms McCann-Bartlett recalled early in her career, “Wayne advised me not to volunteer for any tasks that a male colleague wouldn’t be asked to do.”

“His unwavering support, along with Lois Frankel’s book Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office really helped me believe in myself and my abilities as a young woman starting out in her career.”

Sarah McCann Bartlett’s top three tips for MBA students

  • Wherever possible, use your organisation as the basis of a case study or assignment so you can utilise your studies to make positive changes to, or gain insights into, your workplace.
  • Select some subjects that you don’t like the look of, or you know you’ll struggle in. They are likely to be areas where you need the most development. Understanding the areas of business where you don’t have a natural affinity or experience will help you build broader capabilities. It will be tough, but worth it.
  • No matter what role you’re in, leadership is key. An MBA provides you with an understanding of leadership theory and how it applies practically in the workplace. Think about how you can use that knowledge to improve your own leadership in your current role.