Christy Forest believes leaders who prioritise self-care benefit not only themselves but their teams, too. Here, the LiveHire CEO shares her leadership journey and lessons learned, including why leadership is not a popularity contest.
As the CEO of ASX-listed tech company LiveHire, Christy Forest understands the importance of leading by example. While she expects her team to work hard and deliver results, she also wants them to have balanced lives and to support their well-being. Forest finds this balance by practicing yoga, daily meditation, and going to the gym. She blocks time in her work calendar for self-care and encourages her team to do likewise.
“At LiveHire, we can see into each other’s calendars. I consider it a badge of honour to have my two to three personal training sessions a week scheduled. I want the people working for me to see that I prioritise it,” she explains.
She strongly believes in the transformative effects of yoga and meditation, making her a passionate advocate for The Yoga Foundation, for which she is Chairman of the Board. The not-for-profit provides free classes to vulnerable people to help them heal and begin an unmedicated journey to recovery. Corporates can also sponsor yoga for their staff, which she believes is essential for healing after COVID, helping people overcome symptoms such as anxiety and depression.
Forest herself took up yoga when she moved to Australia from the USA some 15 years ago. She says it has changed her as a person, giving her tools for her own compassion, and has made her a better leader. “It helps me find balance in what might still be a very hard-charging kind of leadership position, which requires extreme courage at times, but also humanity.”
Inspired by her grandfather
Forest started her career in the US, initially in sales, before moving into executive positions. She grew up in southwest Virginia and, with the encouragement of her maternal grandfather, who travelled widely for work, developed a fascination for other cultures and finance.
“Every time he visited a country, he would bring me a doll in traditional clothing and a piece of local currency,” Forest says. As a teen, he taught her how to calculate loan repayments and invest in mutual funds. While her father was a dentist and her mother a PhD-qualified teacher, Forest knew she was destined for business by the time she finished school. She undertook a Bachelor of Science and Commerce at the University of Virginia, quickly followed by an MBA at the prestigious Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, where she also met her future husband.
Forest’s journey into leadership began with her first management role as a business development and sales manager with Nasdaq-listed CEB (now Gartner), a company providing best practice research, benchmarks and decision support tools to business leaders. With sales targets on the line, Forest wanted to lead her team to success but soon realised that to do so, she needed to understand how to motivate them – and that what inspired her wasn’t necessarily the same for them.
“Not everyone is wired the same way. Some people are financially-oriented, some are achievement-oriented, and some are even relationship-oriented,” she says, recalling one team member pointing out that she never started meetings by asking how they were doing.
To get the best out of your team, take the time to learn what drives them.
“I think it is your job as a manager to understand the human being that you’re trying to motivate and support and to coach to what matters to them,” Forest says.
Climbing great heights
Within a few years, Forest became the first woman on CEB’s executive committee, running their global member service organisation worth $US240 million. By now, she had 250 staff and spent many hours discussing reports, numbers and strategies in the board room. At this level, she was far removed from the coal face and began to miss engaging more personally with her team and client portfolio, which nourished her as a leader.
“It’s like, I’m climbing Everest, but the higher I go, the less oxygen there is for me,” Forest explains. She also didn’t enjoy the boardroom politics and soon dreaded attending meetings. “I lost my soul in that job.”
Reflecting on what she loved most and what would feel the most authentic and enriching for her as a leader, the penny dropped; it was time for a complete change.
Having spent much time in Australia for business, Forest knew CEB’s Asia Pacific operation had significant room for growth but needed a strong leader to make it happen. She and her husband loved Sydney’s climate and lifestyle, having travelled there together for work, and discussed raising their young son and daughter there. With Forest ready for a change, the opportunity was ripe to make this happen. Forest presented a business case for the transition to her CEO, who gave her the green light. Now, she could climb down from Everest to base camp and breathe again.
Adjusting to change
Shifting to Australia as CEB’s Executive Director Asia Pacific, Forest says her most significant adjustment was transitioning from managing a huge business to a very small one. Otherwise, she was fortunate. “I was given a lot of latitude and grace because I had already proven myself to the company,” she says.
Forest took up yoga and even created a yoga room in the Sydney office for her team to take time out to stretch or meditate. She thrived in the new environment. Over the next 10 years, including a 2-year interlude in Singapore, Forest took CEB’s APAC operations from a $20 million business to a $150 million enterprise, including an acquisition.
When working with people from different cultures, learn how they prefer to engage with you as a leader.
For instance, Forest observes that Americans can be very transactional and like to get down to business, while Australians prefer to build a relationship first and may invite you to coffee. She also notes that Westerners are generally not shy about providing their opinion, but in Asia, staff may prefer not to speak up – even when asked – due to societal hierarchy rules.
Embarking on new enterprises
While working with CEB, Forest encountered the recruitment and talent management technology company, LiveHire, and was impressed with their offering. “They had built technology that was the future – very intuitive, very humanised, with significant improvements in female and diversity hiring,” she says.
In 2017, CEB was bought out by Gartner, and Forest left the business, joining LiveHire as a board director. Temporarily freed from her day-to-day management responsibilities, she took the opportunity to gain her yoga teaching certification, spend more time with her children, and run the Business Council of Australia’s (BCA) Innovation Taskforce and Skills Committee. This included presenting the results of a BCA research collaboration with McKinsey at the United Nation’s 62nd Commission on the Status of Women in New York.
Nine months after joining LiveHire’s board, she was invited to become its CEO, a role that has since proven both gratifying and at times, extremely challenging. Forest inherited investor expectations that she says ran well ahead of the value that had been built into the business. “So for me, it’s been about chasing that expectation with real value creation,” she says.
With limited growth opportunities in Australia, Forest has taken LiveHire into the North American market, where she says it is now the number one technology in their industry. “We’re working with Fortune 100 companies, the biggest global brands in the world… you get starry-eyed at what’s been accomplished. But there is still so much to do.”
Leadership is not a popularity contest
To drive the results that LiveHire’s investors demand, Forest sometimes must make tough decisions that her team may not welcome or understand. As CEO, she cannot always reveal to her team the impetus behind some changes, which means living with being demonised for the betterment of the business. “That has been a big leadership lesson for me, that it’s okay to be misunderstood… you’re not in a popularity contest,” she says.
To help her manage the challenges of her role, Forest has surrounded herself with people who support her and are honest about her gaps and vulnerabilities. This way, especially if she is experiencing imposter syndrome, she has a safe environment to ask for assistance.
Forest credits her mentor, Jenni Smith, former Chief Human Resources Officer at QBE Insurance, with helping her navigate LiveHire’s sometimes challenging board dynamics along with former McKinsey partner and now LiveHire Chairman Michael Rennie, who she describes as “a beautiful, complete human being” who even runs meditation sessions for her team. “He always backed me and would give me tough feedback when I needed it,” she says. Her husband also provides phenomenal support.
Forest finds spiritual nourishment in her work as The Yoga Foundation’s Chairman, helping her fulfil a desire to see more people benefit from yoga and meditation. Likewise, the charity benefits from her experience as a business leader and yoga practitioner.
She believes it’s essential for board directors to have business experience. Otherwise, they become too focused on ticking compliance and regulatory boxes and miss the opportunity to contribute to the organisation’s growth and success. She says that everyone, including the directors, needs to contribute for a business to succeed. “Because it takes a village, you know?”
Christy Forest’s Leadership Lessons Learned
Top image: LiveHire CEO and The Yoga Foundation Chairman Christy Forest practices yoga.
© Laini Bennett, MBA