Jo Mickleson

The Chamber of Commerce is sitting down with each of the winners from the recent Waikato Chamber of Commerce Business Awards, supported by Foster Construction Group, to find out what they did to stand out from the crowd. This week's Winners’ Insight is with Jo Mickleson of Aware Group – winner of the 2022 Emerging Leader of the Year Award.

You sometimes wonder how accurate a person’s LinkedIn profile is. Jo Mickleson’s description beneath her name captures who she is perfectly. She calls herself a business enabler, leadership coach, process designer, lifelong leaner, and human being fanatic. It is that last term that is perhaps most fitting and is abundantly evident when you talk to her.

Named Emerging Leader of the Year at the Waikato Chamber of Commerce Business Awards, Jo lights up when she talks about her role, her team at Aware Group, and her plans for the future.

Jo started off as an HR advisor and sales coordinator at Aware Group – a globally recognised leader in emerging technologies. It provides a range of innovative solutions and services that focus on artificial intelligence, big data and Internet of Things.

With plans to travel around Europe riding a motorcycle alongside her partner, Jo initially took on a short, fixed-term contract as an HR advisor and sales coordinator. She impressed Aware Group throughout this time and they asked her to stay on.

“Being a relatively new company then, I helped get systems in place. And with my background in HR I brought that to the table, helping strengthen processes, put strategy in place around people and culture.”

Jo stuck around for a bit longer before heading to Europe where she continued to work remotely. When she got back, she moved into a full-time role implementing what she’d put in place while she was overseas.

Now director of strategy and growth, Jo’s laser focused on Aware Group’s people.

“Your people are your biggest assets and given Aware Group is relatively young and small, developing a strong layer of leaders coming up from within is really important. I love that we’ve put a structure in place to build both soft and technical skills in our existing leaders who can then welcome the next generation of people to the business and build them up.”

Jo’s philosophy – and one shared by others at Aware Group – is that the role of a leader isn’t necessarily that of someone in a senior leadership team. Rather, anyone can be a leader.

“I’ve always said leadership isn’t a role, it’s a behaviour.”

Jo has helped foster a healthy culture at Aware Group where people are enabled to try new things, push boundaries, and shine.

“We’re very much about stepping back and letting people do what they’re good at. I’ve had the opportunity to try a bunch of things from a leadership and culture perspective. There have been lessons along the way, and those have brought a lot to the business.”

And being given the space to try new things means people learn new skills.

“I think of a skill set as a quiver of arrows. Some we might add are blunt, some might be super sharp, but it’s about adding arrows to that quiver that we can draw on and sharpen later as we practice them. That’s the kind of vision that I share with our team when we’re working to upskill them.”

And it was the wider Aware Group team who contributed to Jo’s nomination for the Emerging Leader of the Year award.

“My colleague Jeffrey Brown wrote the nomination and when he got to the last question, which was ‘what would people say about Jo’s leadership?’ he decided to let others speak for themselves. So he went out and got quotes from about 12 staff about the impact I’ve had and how they see me as a leader.”

Jo was ecstatic to win the award but says reading what her colleagues said about her was the icing on the cake.

“They talked about me being inspiring, building trust in our team, motivating, being honest, being candid and challenging people… that I congratulate them on their success but that I also challenge them to continue as well.”

And Jo takes her own advice on the latter. Not one to sit on her laurels, she has her sights set on what future success looks like.

“Ultimately my key goal is having an impact on people. Let’s not dance around the bush – we all go to work to get paid. But by creating a stable, successful business you provide job security for people which flows on to their family, their community, and the economy.”

Looking back at Jo’s LinkedIn description as a lifelong learner, and that’s evident when she talks about the lessons she took from the judging process and the support network she has in place.

“The interview with the judges was great and it was great to meet and learn from people who brought a different perspective. They challenged me to be more direct and also to try asking well-placed questions. Those can be more impactful than sharing your opinion. That goes against my being as I’m an extrovert and can talk all day but I’m trying to catch myself on that and asking questions instead of proffering my opinion.”

And it’s enjoying different perspectives that sees Jo working with friend and mentor Steve McNae, as well as a psychologist, both of whom Jo credits with helping her grow as a leader.

No doubt Jo will continue to flourish in parallel with Aware Group. With teams in Hamilton, Wellington, Singapore and Seattle, the company specialises in leveraging emerging technology to solve problems and unlock valuable data in an ethical and sustainable way.

“Emerging technology is such a vague thing, but ultimately we help people harness data to get good outcomes and insights.”

Indeed, Jo Mickleson’s LinkedIn profile offers great insight into who she as a person – and as a leader.


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