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John Patsoukas

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     JOHN PATSOUKAS

“If you won and played well, life was great!!”

I am a HR Manager for a state government department, and also a senior assistant Soccer Coach.

All I knew after high school was that I needed to get a degree. I was pretty strong in economics, so I enrolled in Monash to get my economics degree. I didn’t enjoy studying the subject, but I got through the three years.

When I finished university, I was still very naïve and clueless about the world. My parents were typical Greek immigrants who worked hard and sacrificed everything for me and my sister.

My parents were great: I had everything done for me on the proviso I concentrated on education so that I could get a ‘good job’. I never had a part time job as a teenager or a student other than getting paid a little to play soccer. But the downside was that I didn’t understand the realities of job hunting or the real working world.

I thought that once I finished my economics degree, someone would just give me a job as an economist.

I was in for a big rude shock.

I went to interviews, and they were a disaster: I’d get flustered, nervous, go blank. I got rejected for job after job. I became disillusioned and gave up very quickly – but I was never that passionate about economics anyway. (I did get offered a job in Canberra as a Graduate Economist but was not willing to leave my family, friends, nightlife, and my soccer club – I was having too much of a good time here.)

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My parents had the migrant mentality that focused on ‘getting a secure job’. Working for the government was considered very secure. In those days there used to be a test called the Victorian Public Service Test. Graduates or early school leavers could sit it to get into public service. The government would recruit the top respondents right away, and then use the list throughout the year to recruit people as the demand required.

I sat the test, but didn’t get picked straight away so I forgot about it.

For around six months, I bummed around with my friends at the beach and played soccer, which I was already heavily involved in. But the pressure to find work from my parents kept increasing. Eventually, a friend of mine from the soccer club told me there was a call for admin people at his workplace. I figured I might as well do that for a few months, to get some work experience on my CV and then I would find a real job. That’s how I started working in public service.

Decades later, I’m still working for the state government.

That first job was fun but monotonous. I was working in a payroll team and doing very transactional work; it was easy and I had a few mates working there.  We had a good time both at work and socializing afterwards.

The social aspect and having fun, positive people around has always been important to me, especially so if the work is mundane.

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Six months in, I got a call from the Justice Department asking me if I was interested in being a Clerk of Courts. My name had come up on the Victorian Public Service test that I had forgotten all about.

Working as a Clerk of Courts, my responsibilities included sitting in front of the magistrate during court proceedings, swearing in witnesses, acting as a liaison between prosecutors, magistrates and court co-ordinators and a tonne of administration that came with such proceedings.

It was an eye-opening experience to see how the justice system worked, as well as all its imperfections.

However I got bored very quickly and wanted out after around six months. I contacted my previous employer at the Department of Community Services and they were happy to have me back on board. By that stage the payroll and personnel functions merged to become the Human Resources function, so I got exposed to that field.

Without formal HR qualifications, I learnt on the job mostly, but also complemented that with formal study. I would seek out and speak with various managers across the variety of HR disciplines and seek short term secondment opportunities as they arose. Through this I landed an ongoing role in recruitment, as well as in redeployment management.

I found redeployment management very interesting.

During the Kennett years the Victorian Public Service took quite a battering with large numbers of public servants being made redundant (becoming what was termed as ‘redeployees’) in the early to mid 90’s.

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This provided me with the opportunity to deal with large numbers of people who were just out of a job and dealing with their emotions.

It’s not easy. You’re dealing with people who are losing their jobs. I would coach line managers on how to deliver the bad news. Sometimes, I was the one who would take over during such meetings because managers found this too difficult or were not skilled enough.

I learnt a lot of empathy and how to put myself into others’ shoes.

For some people, depending on their culture, having a job was the most valuable thing in their lives, and losing it was like losing face in their community. I remember a situation where one person who lost his job and didn’t tell his family kept coming to work every day. It was unsettling and sad seeing him hang out downstairs, dressed for work, with his work bag and packed lunch. But being unemployed was a massive loss of face for that individual and I understood that.

A key learning that I took from that time was the importance of transparency and communication in organizations to keep people informed of at all times whether it is good or bad news, and having difficult conversations as early as possible.

Managers don’t like having these conversations, or are not skilled at it, but keeping people in the dark is not productive.

Honesty, transparency, helping people understand their situation and concentrate on what they can control to move forward is not an easy task.

You also become the recipient of negative feedback but over time you learn not to take it personally.  I would provide examples of where people have landed in better work situations and where losing their job was ‘the best thing that could have happened to them’. I have heard that many times!

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Overall, I found that work quite rewarding as I could see real results from my help for people in difficult situations as well as allowing the organisation to effect change as seamlessly as possible. The way you treat people exiting is important for the culture of the place and your branding.

When we changed our HR business model, I became a HR Business Partner, which is basically a HR generalist: you get a portfolio of Branches to look after, and become the go-to person for all HR streams.

I provided policy advice, assisted with employee relations, performance management, leave and flexible work arrangements.

Managers and staff alike came to me for advice. It is predominantly management support, but also using existing policies, interpreting agreements using best practice, experience, understanding the culture and all its complexities to come up with solutions relating to people management.

I always point out that regardless of what you have to deliver, if you’re a people manager, people must be your priority.

You need to guide, manage, motivate. Some managers shy away from that, they don’t see it as their responsibility because they have ‘their day job to do’. Quite simply I coach managers on how to get the best out of people.

I loved working in that department, but things changed with the commencement of a new manager. There’s a saying in HR that when people leave organizations, they are actually leaving their manager, not the organization. In this instance this definitely applied to me.

Large Departments have many sub- cultures which are heavily influenced by Line managers and the team. You can work in a ‘bad’ department but this can be insulated by having a great local culture. I had a great team which kept me there longer than perhaps I should have stayed, but in the end, my line manager and the way he operated did not align with my values.

Eventually I started mentally checking out, my energy and enthusiasm were gone and so I took the first opportunity to get out of there.

I found myself in a 12 month secondment at the Department of Transport. I remember on the first day walking into my new building thinking ‘what the hell have I done’. But as I settled into the new workplace, I started getting into the groove of things there and found myself thriving again. This department had fantastic leadership that translated into a great culture and a real dynamic environment.

The Executive Director, my new boss, was energetic, engaging and huge on development and had positioned the People & Organisational development function into one of influence across the whole organisation. It was a positive environment with great people and within a short time I felt at home there. I got great opportunities to develop, was ripped out of my comfort zone to work on interesting projects and when an organisation has one of its Values as ‘Fun’ you cannot go wrong!!

But as it always happens in the Victorian Public Service, the machinery of governments changes and the only norm is constant change.

We centralise, decentralise and the cycle goes in circles.

Over the years, we went through several restructures and we merged with other departments. With each change, the department grew and the culture changed. As we became a mega department, the ability to influence from an organisational development perspective dissipated and for a while HR was in the job of consolidating different policies, processes and implementing change processes.

I was still enjoying my work and my colleagues, but I found myself missing the smaller organisation where HR can have a bigger influence and a positive impact.

When I came across a position as a Manager of People & Culture at Transport Safety Victoria, it seemed like a good fit. TSV is an independent transport regulator, and a small organization that sits within a larger department.

I applied for a 12 month secondment, and two and a half years later I still remain here.

I loved the job. As part of the leadership team, I found I had a strong influence on how the business managed its people and enjoyed the challenge of this responsibility.

Knowing that this regulator saves lives make it a great organisation to work for.  I truly believe that coaching managers on how to effectively manage people, providing staff with a balanced perspective on what it takes to work for the organisation, as well looking after their own interests creates a positive culture where people can perform at their best.

The other big part of my life is soccer.

I’ve been involved with it since childhood, playing into my late thirties. I was playing for Port Melbourne, which was up in the higher state leagues, so I was paid to play – I considered it my part time job.

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Soccer as this level is by no means lucrative, you do it because you love it and it you become absorbed by it. I was always heavily involved.

I love the game, the competition and being part of a team trying to win a game. At times,  it was the most important thing in the world. If you won and played well, life was great!! Importantly, the amount of friends you make through soccer is amazing, a lot of my friends and networks over the years are because of the game.

When I played, even in my more mature years, I never thought of coaching in the future.

As a player, I didn’t communicate much with coaches or cared to spend any time with them. To me, they were an authority figure I’d rarely communicated with.  It was command and control, and I just listened and did what they asked me to do. I would never question their tactics or seek clarification. I just wanted to play well and keep my spot in the team – not being in the playing squad would’ve been devastating for me.

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I vividly remember hurting my knee in a practice game and being in pain, but not wanting to come off the ground in fear that my new coach would see that as weak, as he was an old school Scottish ‘tough as nails’ coach. I probably lasted another half hour, the next day after going to a specialist, I found out I had ruptured my ACL and needed knee reconstruction!!

In 2005, when I was only playing socially for laughs and drinks with mates, a coach asked me to help him as an assistant coach for a Victorian Under 15 team at the Nationals in Coffs Harbour. I was reluctant initially.

It involved a lot of weekend work having to assess over 100 players including talented youngsters from the Victorian Institute of Sport and pick a squad of just 16 , but the lure of an all-expense paid trip interstate and time away from my office job for a week or so was too good to pass up .

That event was a lot of fun, and I got the coaching bug and became immersed in it.

Being part of the Nationals in a professional environment in a tournament which was geared to identifying players for the Joeys (Australian Under 16 Team) was a great start to the coaching life.

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I then got an opportunity to coach at Port Melbourne Soccer Club as a Senior Assistant Coach, which was perfect, as it was my junior and senior soccer club and I still knew many people from my playing days.

The role of the coach is to assemble and guide a squad of players to play and win soccer games.

Every coach has a different way of playing football, different coaching style and philosophy. There is no wrong or right and there are many different ways to win a game of football. As a player you do doubt yourself when things go wrong, and when you’re winning, you think it’s the easiest job in the world and you know it all.

That confidence or thought process doesn’t last too long in this game.

Coaches will have different beliefs on what makes a good player. Just like with employees at work, some managers will focus on their deficiencies, whilst others prefer to look at what they do bring to the table and their strengths. Maybe it’s my personality, or my experience in a HR environment, but I tend to focus on the positives a player can bring to a team, and accept there are negatives that come with that. Its rare to get a complete package whether at work or the soccer field.

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I believe that when you’re playing at a higher level, everyone is pretty good technically. So for me, the most important aspect becomes attitude, the ability to adapt to a game plan that may not necessarily resonate with yourself as a player and fitting into the club culture.

I’ve rejected players in the past who were brilliant in terms of skills, but their attitude was terrible – they’d polarize players and create a toxic environment.

Simply, it’s dealing with the different personalities of the players, knowing how to get the best out of them – we do not have a one size fits all template.

It’s not so different from my philosophies in HR work – I always look at employees’ soft skills first, like cultural fit , teamwork and relationship building capabilities etc .

As a coach, you put together game plans and work on them during the training week so they are executed on game day. You hope you have your tactics right, but once the game starts, it’s up to the players and sometimes you just need to let them play without over-analysing or over-coaching. You have to remember it’s a game and it brings what it brings, you can’t control everything.

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The role of the assistant coach is to set up the training sessions, lead the drills and help with the planning during the week. Between sessions, there are always a lot of phone calls and messages between coaches, we talk soccer and selections, discuss players and where they’re at, analyse opposition. It’s a lot of work that many don’t realize is being done.

A lot of the coach’s knowledge comes from experience.

As a player, you pick up something from each coach – whether they’re good or bad, you learn from both. You must also have formal qualifications to coach, and a license which you must keep current. But nothing beats experience and continuous learning.

As a coach, you’re always learning: there’s a never a week or a month that goes past that you don’t learn something new. You look at professional teams on TB – how do they play, what they do. I’m always interested to see what other soccer clubs do training-wise, so I speak to other coaches, share knowledge, ask questions.

You’re always on the lookout for something different, new techniques and strategies.

At Port Melbourne, we trained three nights a week, plus game day on Saturdays. Given most of us had full time jobs, it was a big commitment time-wise. I’d go to training after work, and often remain at the club past 10pm, talking soccer with the other coaches or just  banter and hearing the same stories over and over and still laughing.

I stayed at Port Melbourne until 2015, and experienced some great times, like being promoted from State League 2 to State League 1, and then to Victorian Premier League, which is the highest level in Victoria.

There’s been a lot of hard work, but also a lot of successes and celebrations.

Although I had some involvement with the senior team on game day, my role was coaching the under 20s. Then, in 2005, an opportunity became available at a club close to my house, Moreland City, for an Assistant Coach to the senior team. I decided to go for it. All I knew was one club and the time was right to get out of my comfort zone of Port Melbourne and experience something new.

It is now my fourth season with them and it’s been fantastic.

I’ve seen the club improve in leaps and bounds, develop a great record and gain respect since joining the Vic National Premier League in 2015. Our branding gets bigger with each season. The current head coach has high expectations and the club is ambitious, so there is a lot happening – there are some exciting times ahead for us.

On game day, we arrive an hour and a half before the game, set up the dressing room, put up instructions for each player on the wall, our expectations and tactics. Before the game, head coach will go through tactics frame the importance of the day and get the players motivated.

During the game, we’re on the sidelines coaching, working out what’s going wrong or right, what changes can we make, how can we, as coaches, influence the game.

Lots of emotions during the game: it’s tense, it’s anxious, there’s a lot of swearing.

We don’t always agree on what needs to be done and throw in different ideas. Sometimes we come to a consensus, other times we do what the head coach says – he makes the final call.

When we win, it’s magic.

We sing our song, the players play music in their dressing room, there are a few drinks, a bit of banter and dancing. It’s the best part of the week, that 15 minutes in the rooms after a game that you’ve won.

A loss is a complete contrast. You go to the dressing room, and barely a word is said. Everyone’s quiet, devastated. A lot of awkward silence – I hate it. Not much is said after a losing game, as emotions are high and it can get volatile. Any feedback is saved for the next training session. But the following week, we pull ourselves together and get on with it.

In terms of my lifestyle, being an assistant coach suits me.

Being a head coach is a huge commitment. I do have an ambition to become a head coach, when the time is right – I don’t know when this will be. First, I want to complete the job that we’ve started here in Moreland City, celebrate some more wins and get promoted and be successful in that league too.

Balancing my HR work and my soccer work is challenging – soccer absorbs you, it’s a big passion.

Anyone who coaches, you have to be absorbed by it – otherwise you won’t last. Coaches don’t get paid well, you don’t do it for the money – you do it for passion and challenge!

But I love my day job also and the variety it brings. I’ve had to split those two different jobs so they don’t affect each other , I hope I have succeeded in that.

With my HR work, I like where I am now. I am open to career opportunities, but I am not actively pursuing anything. I enjoy what I do and I’m happy I have time to balance what’s important to me outside of work – my family, my friends, my soccer, my life.



This post first appeared on What I Did / What I Do | Personal Experience Stori, please read the originial post: here

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