with greg layton

The Inner Chief is for leaders, professionals and small business owners who want to accelerate their career and growth. Our guest chiefs and gurus share powerful stories and strategies so you can have more purpose, influence and impact in your career.

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In this episode of The Inner Chief podcast, I speak to Kath Blackham, CEO of The VERSA Group, on extracting huge value from diversity and inclusion, mental health in the workplace and using tech for good.

Kath is the Founder and CEO of VERSA Connects and VERSA Agency. VERSA helps Operations, Marketing, Customer Service, and Digital Transformation to integrate conversational, voice, and AI technologies, leading to greater customer satisfaction.

She is a global leader in Conversational AI and is also  an in-demand speaker on the topics of AI, Voice Technologies, The Future of Work, and Mental Health in the Workplace.

Kath is also a mentor for a number of women across different industries and a strong advocate for mental health in the workplace and is a pioneer of the four-day week in Australia.

Her career journey so far has included senior roles at both SEEK and The REA Group.

In this episode we talk about:

  • Leading the workforce to become more productive, balanced, and recovered
  • Allowing employees to personalise their experience of the workplace
  • Leveraging diversity to find everyone’s superpower, and
  • Being transparent about topics such as menopause.

Connecting with Kath Blackham

You can connect with Kath via LinkedIn.

Books and resources


My life's work is using VERSA as a platform to move the needle on the things that I'm most passionate about: diversity and inclusion, mental health in the workplace and using tech for good. And that's my north star.


On imposter syndrome

  • I think I still suffer from the very common inflexion of imposter syndrome sometimes. And I think winning all those awards in 2020 when business was really tough for me.
  • So I lost a huge amount of money and really took the business and my family to the brink really did. I believed in what I was doing, but there is no doubt I took us to the brink and I've learned a huge amount about myself and about business generally because of that. But it does make you a little wary. And people said things because I was winning all these awards and at the same time the business was struggling. So it didn't, you apply for awards like that a year earlier. And so at that stage we were flying and so it just was a little bit out of whack.

On the 4-day work week

  • I really think that there's an epidemic happening with mental health. And I think that we talk a lot about this malaise in the workplace, this drop in productivity. And I think that that is tied to people being exhausted to a certain extent. They're always on, they're, it doesn't matter whether they've got their phone in their pocket, they've got, so the balance that is required to balance that out for me is to have a break. And so our four day week is on a Wednesday, and we encourage people to really take a break that day.
  • The last time that we looked at the four day week was Henry Ford and his cronies, and that was in 1926 I think it was. So it's almost been a hundred years since we have looked at how many days a week. And think of all the productivity gains of the internet, of just tech in general, of all of the products, iPhones, et cetera, that have made us so much more productive and all that time has gone to business. None of it has gone to the people. So it's time that we as a society take a step back and say, actually it's time to give that back to the people.
  • Going into 2018 not only did our profits and revenue and productivity go up, but we had much happier people. And so we had very low attrition because of it.
  • That supports the fact that you get more productivity. So it's a hundred percent productivity for an 80% of the time for a hundred percent of your pay. So the expectation is that you get a hundred percent productivity, the same amount of productivity, you're just doing it in less time. 
  • My proudest moment, actually I think bar none almost in the last 14 years is that Code like a Girl, which is a very successful organisation now run by Ally, started out of deep end and those Wednesdays off and then it just grew. And I had another guy who started a insurance business for holiday homes. He's now back in New Zealand running that business, but he started that on a Wednesday. So that for me is best case scenario. Somebody being able to move out of their day-to-day job and go and do something that they are passionate about and love. You don't have to go and sleep for a day, you just do something that you love.

On mental health in the workplace

  • If you get into a slump, because the way that we get to that hundred percent productivity is that if it's three o'clock in the afternoon and you are staring at the wall, that's not productive time.
  • So step away from your desk, go and have a walk, go and have a sleep, go and have something to eat, go and pick up your kids and spend that time with your kids and then make up that time on a Wednesday or some other.
  • The big one for me is just test and learn. So it's not one size fits all and it's not going to work if you just go in and implement it. 
  • If your manager is coming in on the day that you've been given off, you are going to come in, you're going to be working, getting emails from, your manager is emailing, and so it's not going to work.
  • So it has to be from top down. You have to lead by example. 
  • So life admin is a really big part of this and allowing our team to be able to fit it around them. And then the other thing I would say is just this whole thing on personalised experience.
  • The really successful companies will be the ones that realise that they can't set a bunch of policies at a company level and think it's going to work for everybody; rather, they will have highly personalised employee experiences
  • So allowing people to have a very personalised experience. And I think it starts at onboarding and onboarding people into this way of working that works for them, not the other way around. And that the successful businesses and the ones that have a highly engaged staff will be the ones that do that, in my opinion.

On harnessing diversity & inclusion

  • It comes down to creating an environment for them that works for them. So we do this where when somebody starts, we get them to answer a series of questions that allows us to understand are they audio, are they visual or they are kinaesthetic, yeah. So the VAK model, and that allows us to really quickly understand how they learn and how they take on information. And we do that in front of the group and not in a confronting way, but in a way that allows the group to understand this person.
  • We've got all these rituals, and for me it is about rituals that allow us to be connected, but also respect and allow people that are neurodiverse, whether it's ADHD on the spectrum, whether there's other things going on. So it's not just about those two things, but allow us to make the most out of them. And I think businesses are crazy because even in the interview process, half these people are not getting through the interview process.
  • And they're superstars. And it's like if you just spent, some of my best people have been people that have been rejected time and time and time again, and then you meet them and you're like, yeah, they're a little weird and wonderful, but holy hell, are they going to be good into the best part? They're going to be, there's a strength in them because they've got an intensity or a focus that us normal average Joe just doesn't have. So you've just got to find their superpower and then leverage that. 
  • And also, all businesses need different people. It's the magic in the differences of people not in the sameness. So in what we do in particular from an innovation and really at that pointy end of helping customers understand what the future is, you're not going to get that by a whole bunch of the same people, whether they're the same race, whether they're the same neurotypical people or anything. You're just going to get groupthink and it's going to be boring. Whereas if you take from the edges of society and get really diverse, that's where the magic happens. 

On taboo topics like menopause

  • Menopause age women account for 26% of the workforce and 55% of all working women.
  • There is a real need for businesses to start to understand. There are a lot of things that businesses can do. And there are a lot of things that businesses in the uk, for example, are doing. And in Australia we are doing none of it. 
  • I think that there's just a lot of education that needs to be made and things like not just having a policy, but actually having information available, having buddies, and really when I talk about personalised experiences and building a employee experience around the person as they go through these life stages, it'll need to change. And a woman going through menopause who gets really tired, or there's a list as long as my arm around symptoms and not everyone has the same symptoms. And I'll give you one more start. So Forbes just came out just recently actually. They think that menopause related productivity losses could exceed 150 billion over the next couple of years. 
  • Well, the way to solve it is to put in to support women so that they can go through this. If they're feeling tired, they can stop working and work at another time.
  • So just changing their hours, giving them and giving training to people that are working with them to understand what's happening. 

On working on the business not in the business

  • It is very easy to get dragged into the day-to-day. It is very hard to sit above that and look at the helicopter view, but if you don't, your staff will suffer. You will suffer. Probably your family will suffer.
  • That's my counsel to anyone starting a business is to start a business a hundred percent. It is the most amazing, incredible experience you'll ever have.
  • Feel the fear and do it anyway. Yes, you're scared. Yes, it feels uncomfortable, but just live, sit in that uncomfortableness and enjoy it. 

On her interview process

  • I'm not the one that chooses, so that would be, but if I am asking a question, it would be around their life's work. It's really important to me. I don't want to know about what their weaknesses or how they cope with, so I've got other people that ask those questions. 
  • For me, it's about who are you? What's your life's work and how can we support and are we aligned? Because if I know that their life's work is aligned with where we are going, I know that they're going to be with me for a long time because we're answering in them something way deeper than a job. We're actually giving them a platform for their life.

Final message of wisdom and hope for future leaders 

  • I would just say the future is bright, really bright, but you have to go out there and grab it. And what I see, and because I work in AI and because I see the fear on a daily basis, I see a lot of people fighting against it.
  • Just go out there and work out how this gen, AI, and AI can work for you, because the next job you go and get, you are going to be at the top of, you're not even going to have to say much else. 

Stay epic,