Ovell Barbee is a highly accomplished, visionary Human Resources Executive who has been a client, a subject matter expert, and a friend of our firm for over 20 years.

He has a Masters of Human Resources from Michigan State University and has been recognized as a Top-50 HR Professional, Top-100 Chief Diversity Officer and Most Influential Minority.

We wanted to offer our congratulations on the successful publication of his first book, The Big House: A Human-Centered & Progressive Approach to DEI and Positive Workforce Engagement. It became a #1 Amazon bestseller of new releases.

When we asked Ovell about the impetus behind writing this book, he said, "Most companies invest money, time and energy in diversity equity and inclusion without creating and cultivating a human-centered environment.

"This How To book delivers essential advice to company leaders on how to stop the silence, have difficult conversations addressing race and diversity and learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable to achieve an environment where everyone can flourish."

We know that many companies fail when trying to create and cultivate an environment that truly embraces diversity and its benefits .

Challenges and Strategies

In today's fast-paced and competitive world, the significance of mental health in the workplace cannot be overstated. We all know that the well-being of employees not only affects their individual lives but also has a profound impact on organizational success. Addressing mental health concerns within the workplace is not just a moral imperative but also a strategic necessity. Based on my talks with various firms, let me explore the challenges associated with mental health in the workplace and discuss effective strategies for promoting a mentally healthy work environment.

As I see, one of the major challenges concerning mental health in the workplace is the stigma that still surrounds mental health issues. This stigma often prevents individuals from seeking help, as they fear negative repercussions on their careers or reputations. Consequently, mental health problems might go unnoticed and untreated, leading to more severe issues down the line.

Moreover, the nature of modern work, characterized by high demands, tight deadlines, home office environment and long working hours, can contribute to stress and burnout. These conditions, if left unaddressed, can lead to decreased job satisfaction, increased absenteeism, and reduced overall productivity. Additionally, the blurring of boundaries between work and personal life due to technological advancements can make it challenging for employees to disconnect, exacerbating stress levels.

Managing and improving mental health in the workplace requires a comprehensive and honest approach that involves both employers and employees. Obviously there are many effective strategies to consider, including:

Raise Awareness and Reduce Stigma

Employers can take the lead in creating a culture of open conversation around mental health. This involves destigmatizing mental health issues by providing information, resources, and training to employees and managers. Encouraging honest discussions about mental health can help create an atmosphere where seeking help is seen as a sign of strength rather than weakness.

Workplace Design and Flexibility

Employers should strive to design jobs that consider the mental well-being of employees. This includes manageable workloads, reasonable deadlines, control of work and the autonomy to make decisions. Furthermore, offering flexible work arrangements, such as remote work or flexible hours, can help employees manage their work-life balance more effectively.

Mental Health Support Programs

Many organisations established already Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) or provided access to mental health professionals can offer employees a confidential outlet for discussing their concerns and receiving guidance. These programs can play a crucial role in early intervention and prevention.

Promote Work-Life Balance

We must encourage employees to take breaks, use vacation time, and disconnect from work outside of working hours to help prevent burnout. This can be reinforced through company policies that prioritize employee well-being.

Training and Education

Providing training to managers and employees on recognizing the signs of mental health issues and how to provide appropriate support can contribute to a more compassionate and understanding work environment.

Regular Check-ins

Managers can conduct regular one-on-one check-ins with their team members to discuss their workload, challenges, and well-being. This not only helps address potential issues but also shows that the organization values its employees' mental health.

If you are not confident dealing with this topic as a business leader, CXO or a senior HR person, you may ask for help or advise from a professional. The gains are incredible. This can make your company a healthier, happier, and more productive firm.

We caught up with Nevena Nikolova, from our office in Sofia, who is a prize-winning film maker and a hugely successful head-hunter. Clearly there are parallels between casting the lead and supporting roles for a film and identifying the best possible hires for a corporate client.

Both professions are all about recognizing talent and making the best use of it, making the talent really shine to its fullest potential.  The job of a Head-hunter and Management Consultant helps develop transferable skills like influential communication (capacity to convince and inspire) as well project management capability that are very useful for me as a filmmaker.

On the other hand the Directing boosts my creativity, helps me build out-of-the box solutions and support clients and candidates in finding new perspectives and changing their way of thinking or acting. What I experience is a kind of a cross-pollination between the two professions and I find it very enriching. I discover a certain Work-Art balance as the one activity is helping me recover from the other and vice-versa.

My artistic journey started as an actress with stage performances of various fringe shows, but I felt I needed more so the second step was a smooth transition to stage directing and afterwards I jumped into film directing. 

My mind naturally produces multiple ideas, images, stories, small pieces of the universe, so writing and directing a movie is a way to share my internal world with thousands of people all over the globe. To feel 'seen' from inside, to experience other people`s reactions, to be able to touch so many souls and minds - this is really powerful and exciting; it makes me feel complete and fulfilled.

Movie Directing is great for upgrading my own leadership skills and style. It requires vision, determination and capacity to balance, align and synchronize the ideas and the input of very diverse professionals, who are often quite opinionated, very emotional and expressive - sometimes ego-driven. When you are an aspiring director, you are full of doubts and it is a huge challenge to keep your authenticity and allow yourself to show vulnerability while nurturing the faith in the project among the crew members. What I discovered while film-making is that it is not necessary to have all the answers and the full picture in order to lead the team, it is enough to be just a couple of steps in front of them.

My first movie MORNING won multiple awards for Best Debut, Best Student Short, Best Silent Film, Best Dance (dedicated to Dance) Film, Best choreography in a Short film, Best actor, Best aspiring filmmaker etc. from international festivals in Cannes, Italy, UK, Mexico, Israel, Chile among others.

The second movie ROOFTOP was recognized for Best Dark comedy, Best lead actor, Best young actress, Best female director ect. Couple of months ago the movie won the Best Independent Short Film award in Silk Road Film Festival Cannes.

Some of my favourite directors are Yorgos Lanthimos, Christopher Nolan, Lars von Trier, Quentin Tarantino, Pedro Almodovar, Daren Aronofsky, Krzusztof Kieslowski, Jane Campion, Wong Kar-Wai and many others. All of them have inspired my love of cinema but I`m still searching for my very own style as a director.

My business understanding and thinking was influenced by David Ogilvy, Richard Branson, Steve Jobs, Ray Dalio, Patric Lencioni, and Simon Sinek.

Lovely question! For the younger me I would cast Anna Tayor Joy and Juliette Binoche would be my first choice for the middle aged me.

Árpád Németh is named amongst the leading Human Resource professionals in Hungary.

The Top HR Business Executives in Hungary magazine is a special annual publication of the Budapest Business Journal. It focuses on outstanding achievements and how the Hungarian HR market is developing. It looks at leading HR organizations, the challenges of a tight labour market and the trends shaping the market in Hungary today. The selection is unashamedly subjective, having been made by the editorial team of the Book of Lists and the BBJ, and draws on a 30-year-history of providing unparalleled business news and analysis. The readership of Top HR Business Executives mirrors much of that of the BBJ, including many of the country’s leading business executives, diplomats, and decision-makers.

Read Árpád's full interview in the BBJ:

Árpád Németh interview in BBJ Top50 HR ExecutivesDownload

Hiring the CEO: how can Executive Search Partner help the Board?

The success of the Board is 100% dependent on the success of the CEO the Board has hired.

Hiring is an extensive effort and is only worthwhile if the Board makes the right decision. Interviews, resumés and references give important information, however to avoid subjectivity and unconscious bias, cooperation with an Executive Search Partner is often the solution.

Using an experienced Executive Search Partner will bring additional benefits.

Help on preparing a Profile for the new CEO

The Board‘s Chair should conduct individual discussions with each Board member regarding the organization‘s strengths and weaknesses, internal as well as market-driven challenges, and leadership needs for the future.

As a result a profile of the leadership attributes and behaviours necessary to successfully fulfil the CEO role can be developed and reviewed with the entire Board of Directors.

The Executive Search Partner will ensure the profile is both comprehensive and well tailored to the situation.


The most successful CEO appointments include consideration of both internal and external candidates.

It is important to remember that succession is rarely a neat process and the Board needs to have realistic expectations.

We recommend benchmarking  to gain an objective perspective on the internal candidates and to assess the quality of CEO talent externally — particularly when the context, competitive landscape and company‘s strategy is changing.

An experienced Executive Search Partner will deliver job market insights in a short period of time.

Compiling the short list

An external Search should be led by the Chair of the Board together with the trusted Executive Search Partner to ensure that the very best candidates are considered.

The Partner that has trusting relationships with candidates, information sources and referees can help the Board to develop a long-list of prospects based on candidates' previous roles and industry experience.

Once a long-list is settled, all candidates, internal and external, should be ranked against the core competencies and attributes agreed in the CEO Profile. Those that best meet the profile should be included into the short-list.

Interviewing the candidates

The Nomination & Remuneration Committee and/or the Executive Search Partner will typically conduct interviews to reduce the list to a small group of 2 or 3.

The Board can get excited about a candidate‘s resume without fully understanding whether the executive’s views about strategic direction and leadership style are fully compatible with the Board’s own view, and within the framework of the organization’s desired culture.

Therefore the final candidates are typically given an opportunity to present to the Board, followed by Q&As. The presentation is useful to understand differences in the candidate's vision of the company‘s strategic direction, approach to leadership, personal motivations and aspirations.

All Board members should be  involved in the interviews of the final candidates and use an interview guide that the Executive Search Partner can provide. The guide outlines critical competencies for the position and the key organizational culture attributes for rating the candidates in these areas. This eliminates subjectivity, helps to focus on concrete skills and performance, and allow agreement on a single candidate.

Reference checking

The Executive Search Partner is in position to arrange thorough reference checks. Ideally, the checks should be done in person with members of the Board present,  so critical non-verbal communication is not lost.

Our experience

We know that the most successful hiring processes are those in which the right people are brought to the table, the specification is designed with the future strategy in mind and the candidates are assessed holistically.

While there can be immense pressure to make a decision quickly, the Board must resist that urge and take the time necessary to make a fully informed decision.

Success  is based on close cooperation and trust.

We spoke with Agata Kaczmarska, CPO PL and CEE dentsu

Agata, over the last year you have introduced a very interesting benefit program for your employees related to health on the market. It seems to be the beginning of a long-term trend in HR. How did you come to this?

From the perspective of the HR department, the pandemic had a very positive impact on jump-starting the serious discussion about the mental health of employees. Until the pandemic, mental health was a taboo, which led to negative consequences for incumbents and businesses. For example, it had often led to stigma against the affected. Today we are talking about providing mental care as much as we are talking about healthcare. It is simply another very important benefit for employees.

During the pandemic it turned out that many people suffered in isolation. Our reaction as companies was only: "manager, your job is to take care of your people." In fact, we have shifted this burden onto them. This was a big challenge for many leaders, who did not know how to help their employees; they didn't even want to ask questions to employees about their well-being, because they lacked the knowledge on how to react to  these answers.

It turned out that organizations are not completely prepared for this and the level of education in these areas is very low.

Have you found a way to help them?

Yes, maybe not solve the issues but relieve them.

We have created an educational program for managers - Mental Health First Aiders, which trains and prepares for psychological first aid. It is a global program.

We entered into cooperation with several organizations but we were primarily looking for a systemic support. Our partners in this project made selections and out of 100 people (of 800 employees in the company) who applied for the program, 20 were selected, trained, and certified.

These people are in the first line of  help. They do not so much solve problems, but rather show our people where/how to find professional help.

How did your employees react to this?

Very well indeed. Though, as might be expected, not everyone utilizes the program to the same extent. However, the representation is so large that it also gives an insight into general and cultural problems within the company. We have an additional benefit in the form of identifying watchouts. We have also introduced 3 additional days off for psychological well-being.

Surely you are at the forefront of this change in the market, aren’t you?

Fortunately, our global CEO Wendy Clark attaches great importance to well-being, hence we have her support in this matter. Companies are beginning to expand the range of options for taking care of mental health. When it comes to the availability of psychological or psychiatric care, the statistics, especially in our part of Europe, are alarming. That is why such help must be developed. This is obviously an additional burden for companies, yet the trend is right and there is probably no turning back.

You say the topic was caused by a pandemic, but could it also have anything to do with other aspects of our lives?

Of course, with the whole geopolitical situation and lack of stability and predictability, etc. Additionally, the "snowflakes" generation is growing. They are extremely sensitive, emotional people who are not prepared for what they are about to find in the outside world.  Then, what is a strong point may turn out to be a weakness and vice versa. Disagreeing on certain things in the company’s space is  young people’s forte, however, the pandemic seems to have hit them very hard.

You say that the issue of employee benefits is changing. What other trends are you following?

Taking care of one’s career and competences of the future. Still few organizations deal with career counselling and re-skilling. This will be a very important change due to the rapid development of AI and digitization. We know that some professions will disappear,  although, we cannot predict when it will happen. We are not yet faced with this challenge, but it may surprise us very quickly. It is necessary to do an in-depth analysis of what will disappear, what will appear, whether we have education in specific areas, or whether we can search for talents in other countries. Thus, it will certainly be another challenge that companies, especially HR departments, will face.

Smart connection between Private Equity, Venture Capital and Executive Search

Having the right people in place can make all the difference to a company, especially in the fast-paced and competitive environment of private equity and venture capital.

Indeed, human capital is the most valuable asset of any organization. Without a team of talented individuals working together, it is difficult for a start-up or growth company to succeed, even if it has a great product or service.

The leadership dilemma is increasingly present in private equity and venture capital firms. It is the new key criterion!

Companies that are able to access this talent have a clear advantage over their competitors.

Connecting Private Equity & Venture Capital with Executive Search

This is where Executive Search firms come in: they help private equity firms and their portfolio companies recruit the talent they need at this critical stage - and at various levels: from investment managers to fund managers to board members throughout the life cycle of the company: creation, development, support, transmission.

The Boundaries are blurring

These three types of specialists, private equity, venture capital and executive search, have always been linked at the intersection of value creation and human capital.

But sometimes the boundaries between them become blurred. Indeed, some private equity funds acquire or create their own executive search functions. On the other hand, executive search firms are also starting to get involved in the venture capital sector, launching their own funds.

A still centralized niche market – a real challenge for Executives Search

In France for example, this niche market is mainly focused on Paris and Lyon. It operates more discreetly in the regions, mostly through partnership with the local economic network, often as advisors to managers.

The challenge for Executive Search is to attract talent from other decision making centres.

Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely. 

Toxic leadership exists in too many organisations – indeed we have seen it here in the UK at the very top of government. Unsurprisingly, the result has been a loss of trust by colleagues and the general public in their leaders, and with it trust in the organisations they lead.

A toxic leader is often hugely charismatic, effectively hiding their toxicity – indeed grandiose narcissists often emerge as powerful leaders and are considered as ‘rockstars’. Power quickly becomes consolidated in the hands of a few people who report directly to the toxic boss and anyone who questions them are quickly removed.

Edelman’s Trust Barometer (2021) indicates that “... none of the societal leaders we track — government leaders, CEOs, journalists and even religious leaders - are trusted to do what is right, with drops in trust scores for all.”

In some cases, toxic behaviour is actually a way of mitigating self-doubt, but they still create a culture of fear. In fact, toxic leaders don’t typically have a lot of self-confidence and they attempt to overcompensate by constantly elevating themselves at the expense of others; such organisations tend to have a high employee turnover.

Toxic Culture is Driving the Great Resignation

A toxic corporate culture is the single best predictor of which companies suffered from high attrition in the first six months of the Great Resignation. The failure to appreciate high performers is another element of culture that predicts attrition. Compensation and burnout also influence attrition, but other aspects of culture appear to matter more.

Traits of a toxic leader:

There is insufficient accountability in many organisations for unethical and amoral behaviour of leaders. Indeed, we often reward financial results over the well-being of people, or the planet.

As well as focusing on good character and virtuous behaviour as the prime criteria for leader selection, we often recommend a more forensic approach in the appointment of executives with judicious psychometric profiling.

Metamorphosis of education

In a society where we are constantly told that everything is uncertain and volatile, where companies are transforming and acquiring more agile and digital management models, where unicorn companies dominate, where there is a lack of raw materials, of scenery, of leadership, where we compete with global talent (GIG economy), where projects without purpose no longer make us fall in love, and data is the DNA of any profession...

What do we do to survive? We educate ourselves.

While we run as if we are ants living the present and not thinking too much about the cold winter, we are lucky enough that there are some cicadas who are doing their best to bring up real and lasting solutions that solve the long term while being very adaptable to the short term. These cicadas have a major purpose - more than us or even our companies’ - they are interested in adding, helping transforming and improving our society, and above all they want to provide the necessary tools to students and professionals to be self-employed and have employability (sustained over time) in a global market.

There are many professionals, vocationally or "by chance," working in educational projects, increasingly demanding more competition, more demand for a complex user experience to find hybrid or digital models - and thanks to these new figures that appear in the educational environment (along with the value that their teaching and research team have always had in these institutions), good practices from the professional world are being implemented and a real disruption is being generated when it comes to learning.

The education sector has finally got its act together. A sector (by some) poorly defined as the 3rd sector, slow, regulated and obsolete, a generator of ideas, applied research, thinkers and value. A sector that the smartest have identified as one of the engines of change, profitable in real transformation, with incredible human capital, technology and pedagogical models capable of making everyone learn and understand.

Given the evidence that there is a greater need to renew knowledge throughout professional life - Working Adult - with specialization programs, reskilling training, today there are countless possibilities and we are evolving to the concept of democratization of education, with quality options for all, in terms of content, format, duration and price.

To give this response to the market, organizations have also had to transform themselves and attracting talent in private institutions is one of the essential objectives. Without a good management team it is impossible to carry out this transformation, and above all it is impossible to carry it out on time.

Today, the executive committees of large educational institutions are nurtured by professionals with expertise in sectors such as consulting, health sciences/insurance or consumer goods.

Agile and very executive minds know how to recognize the rhythms of the labour market, the demand for talent, decision-making processes, expansion strategies and above all what they project inside and outside: what the labour market will demand and what a student needs to ensure successful learning.

In addition to this commitment to a more professional human capital, there is a need for technology as a management tool, as a learning channel and model, and as a guarantee of a personalized experience.

This situation is now driven by the entry of investment funds in private educational groups (schools and universities) that are "concentrating" the operation to have a greater offer and are driving a strong accelerator for change.

In this new scenario, the demand for a different-professional-types arise, to lead the operation in the investees, headquarters, or spin offs of these groups -  managers with a 360º vision who are responsible for the income, and although they do not have experience in the sector, this allows an objective view.

In this area, the Business Development and Marketing Manager continues to be a sought-after and recognized profile. Private institutions thrive on their enrolment, so the effort to create a brand, attract the best students and be able to generate value innovation and obtain a positive response from the increasingly global market is essential.

B2B business development or Institutional Relations profiles are becoming more and more in demand. There is a need for constant learning as professionals, and companies are key in this mission by offering their employees quality training.

From the academic point of view, the figure of the Dean is essential. An academic and responsible manager with vertical knowledge, being able to value the area of knowledge by promoting research, partnership with companies and international educational institutions. They must ensure that their faculty is at the forefront of innovation because their future student employability is essential, not only to ensure the growth of the institution, but to harness the reputation and prestige of the faculty and therefore of the Institution.

We spoke with Marta Jakowluk, Chief People Officer at UPC, and discussed the Merger & Acquisition process through the eyes of a CPO.

Marta, for over a year you have been preparing your organisation for an objectively very difficult process, namely the acquisition of your company – UPC (Polish subsidiary of Liberty Global) by another market player. What was the biggest challenge?

Indeed, it has been a very challenging time for the organisation and surely, it is not over yet. From a CPO’s point of view, it is an extremely interesting and enriching period. Whilst preparing  for the merger, we were well aware that this would be a highly emotional time for all our staff. And we knew that the only way to defuse this “emotional bomb” is to adopt transparent, clear communication with all the employees. As the Board, we could not take care of every single person – this was the role of line managers - but we wanted everybody to be fully informed about what was going on. At the same time, we wanted to understand our employees’ problems and doubts rather than to make assumptions, or to take a guess.

So what did you do?

We proposed several communication platforms, points of contact, with our employees and different programmes. But in focus groups, where people could voice their opinions, it became clear they feared that they would struggle to adapt to the new reality - they did not know what they were fit for or whether they could do something different...

And not that they will lose their job following the merge? This would have seem like the most obvious concern.

One is the consequence of the other. If “I can’t do it, I don’t know it, I might not be fit for it” then “I will probably lose my job”. We knew we had excellent people in our organisation, so we decided to concentrate on solving this problem and introduced a multi-stage, multi-module programme called “Energy For a New Beginning”. We wanted to build our employees’ confidence in their own abilities, knowledge and experience. As you know, one of the components of this programme, was a project named “Brand Yourself” which for the senior management group was  executed in partnership with Friisberg Poland. Conversations with independent Executive Search consultants helped our employees to see and appreciate what they represented and what they could do with their career in the new organisation. Obviously we gave similar opportunities to all employees via internal coaching, measuring certain skills, special development days and dedicated workshops – that part was lead by HR Team.

Yes, it was a very interesting project. In a sincere, non-judgemental conversations people were able to open up, reflect and think through different issues related to their previous experiences. What else did you focus on?

At all times up until zero hour we had average market attrition and we delivered the business result with a surplus. It was due to the fact that our corporate culture has built commitment, motivation and a high level of employee satisfaction. These are always important factors in organisation management, but at times of incertitude and high emotions they become an essential protective shield.

A merger like this is always a culture shock. It is important to realise that the culture of the other organisation is usually different. It should not be discredited without exploring and getting to know it. In our case the processes, the procedures, the language – all of them were different, therefore the buyer had decided to give us three months following the merge to get to know each other, without introducing any substantial changes. This, however, made people fill uncertain, not knowing what was to happen, as if in a fog.

I think every solution has its pros and cons, just like the strategy of drawing a line under the past and taking quick decisions without exploring the essence of the matter. But regardless of the merger strategy, it is paramount to show people respect in the process.

The other thing is to redirect emotions towards constructive actions, to something one can have a say in. It is imperative – and this is the role of line managers – not to allow employees to split hairs about matters beyond their control. We play the cards we have, there is no other way round. But for the game to make sense, it requires commitment at all levels.

Taking care of people’s emotions at an individual level is a must, but it cannot only be done by the Board, this is untenable. It is the responsibility of each team leader at their own level.

If you were to give some advice to those facing a similar process, what would you say?

  1. Communication, communication, communication!!! There is never too much communication in such matters. It should be frequent and delivered in a repetitive rhythm/cycle in order for everybody to know when to expect it.
  2. Take care of your employees’ emotions, discover what they fear the most, and turn that fear into hope for the better . Help them with self-confidence as this is the moment to show our talents.
  3. Once decisions are taken, do implement them without delay. Don’t wait around, don’t procrastinate. People need clarity.
  4. Be as constructive as possible. Focus energy on what you can influence, don’t waste your energy on things you cannot change.
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