Interview with Quello Founder

quelling chaos; quickening innovation

Interview with Quello Founder

In the spirit of innovation, things were done a little differently in this interview with Quello Founder, Helen Palmer.


For this interview, I asked people in my network to contribute one question they’d like me to answer. Nine people responded with a variety of questions.

In a quiet moment, I grabbed a cup of coffee and wrote answers for this selection of questions. Enjoy this asynchronous, crowdsourced-questions interview!

What are you passionate about?
I have so many things that capture my attention and invoke strong feelings – and it changes. I loved the metaphor that Barbara Sher used in her book, “Refuse to Choose!” of a bee that would stay with a flower until the nectar ran out, then move to another flower. I’m a bee that often moves from flower to flower! You might say the underlying passion is learning – because in each thing I am attracted to, I relish the opportunity to learn something new.

I don’t normally speak of being passionate about something – though there are many who would say after hearing me talk, “You are clearly passionate about …”.  I think what they are sensing is my joy and flow when I can share with others something I’ve learnt or tried, and see their eye’s light up because they’ve had an ‘aha’ moment, or can readily see how what I’m saying might be applied in their life. I do delight in turning knowledge that was confusing and obtuse into something simple and usable.

I sometimes have goose-pimple moments when I’m working with a group.  When the conditions have tuned just right for someone to get a new or fresh sense of something that was below the surface and can come out of them to make a difference for themself and others. So maybe I could name another passion as also unlocking the potential that I see in people that others seem not to.

Why is it important to you to have people/the human at the centre of all you do?

Because that’s where our humanity starts and stops. It’s people who make choices, who take actions, who influence and affect the world around us. It seems so obvious to me that people are the centre of things in our humanity. I’ve come to realise over time, that my ability to see things in, and about people, is not so common.

I’ve got a talent for empathy which means I can put myself in the shoes of others and feel and see the world through their eyes. I discovered this when I was very young and I would over-relate with characters in movies – I had nightmares for weeks after seeing the movie Oliver Twist, as I kept experiencing myself as an orphan in a 19th century workhouse!

For an organisation you work with – if you could wish for the impossible, with unlimited resources, what would you wish for them to achieve?

Unlocking the potential of their people! Having the conditions in place where each person has a strong sense of their personal agency, and the opportunity to exercise that, along with their talents, experience and aspirations. Wouldn’t it be amazing to see an organisation – also known as a collective of people – in a state of flow where they’re doing great work, having a positive impact on the world, and liking each other? And that’s unlocking the potential of individuals, as well as the ability of a team to form together and do more than the sum-of-the-parts. The world needs such people-power to implement the solutions that can make a better society, and be good for the planet and future generations.

How is it that you became such an avid life-long learner?

According to StrengthsFinder, one of my top 5 Talents is Learner. So it seems it’s got a lot to do with Nature. There’s definitely a dose of Nuture too – my mother encouraged and indulged my love of reading. She tells a story about when I was 10 and she had to get special permission from the local Library – which used to be closed on weekends – for me to get out more than the 2-book limit. I used to be finished with two books by Friday night and was bored the rest of the weekend.

When I was in my early twenties I took a note of every book I read during a 1-2 year period, it averaged out about a book a week. Books exposed me to knowledge that I would not have got any other way in rural small-town NZ.

What were your three pivotal moments in your working-life and tell us how they have led you to here today?

Moment 1. Being recognised by my first boss as capable of much more than I was hired for (c. 18 years old), and offering to support me financially with time and money to start a university degree part time while I worked.

Moment 2. Being made redundant three months after I started a fabulous job with so much promise with a large enterprise (I’d only previously worked in small and medium size) when the airline business collapsed and 23,000 people lost their jobs.

Moment 3. Accepting a role in an organisation that I had shaped into something of high-value for me, then having that role quickly reduced to something of low-value for me – and making the decision to leave the role without another role to go to.

Moment 1 sowed a seed that I was capable of more, even when I didn’t recognise it myself – so pay attention to the signals in the world around you for they can alert you to when the status quo needs to be re-evaluated, and it’s a good thing to re-evaluate and make a change. [I didn’t take up their offer as it wasn’t right for me at the time; but it sure was nice to have the offer made! Instead I left that job a few months later and moved to the big city for other opportunities – I wouldn’t have been so brave to look outside the small town, if they hadn’t opened up my eyes.]

Moment 2 gave me the experience of professional heartbreak, and the realisation that expectations, while good to have, can come with disappointment when not met. So be ready with a Plan B or Plan C for what else might be desirable – don’t put all your proverbial eggs in one basket.

Moment 3 was an exercise in personal agency about knowing what was Value to me in my workscape at that time, and when it couldn’t be achieved, to make a simple quick low-emotion decision to leave. I was proud that of the many job situations I had left in the previous 20 years – this one didn’t not cause me so much personal drama. And a side benefit: my actions inspired a number of other staff to consider what was Value to them and act in alignment with those – and for some this meant leaving too.

There’s a quote that comes to mind that sums up all those moments: “I’m learning to love the sound of my feet walking away from things not meant for me.” ~ Malika E Nura

“No” whether I’m saying it, or circumstances are saying it – is not a bad thing. It can help refine what is a good thing.  Quello is a new business that has emerged because of the things I had been saying No to; what the market that seemed to be saying No to (with regards to things I proposed); and the things I wanted to say Yes to.

How has your life has been influenced by professional female leaders or role models?

My earliest female role models were two women I worked with when I was 21 years old. I had been working since I was 17 and this was my fourth job (including a short volunteer stint in a foreign country). It was my first time to have older female colleagues (in their 40s) who treated me like a valued peer, appreciating the skills I had that they didn’t (IT and Business Administration). They gave me advice in soft nudging ways about how to value myself and how to find and use my voice. I say soft and nudging because they could have easily taken a parental role and simply told me what I had to do, but they genuinely role-modeled giving me space and opportunity to exercise my emerging sense of agency. They also gave female support for trusting my intuition and expressing a view – this was a surprise and welcome relief from having worked with older white men who said that I was “too frank”. I had taken that judgement to be a true fact, rather than a perspective of people who didn’t appreciate the insight and intuition that were my natural talents. I learnt a lot about how much ‘judgement’ is in fact simply an opinion to be weighed up for its source and its intentions.

Is there a significant decision that you regret making? Why and how do you think your life journey would have been better?

I don’t think in terms of regrets for a decision I made, or another life journey that might have been better.  Any decision I made was made with the best information and the limits of my knowledge and skill at that time. I don’t judge myself as failing in whatever decision I made or path I took. It is what it is – or was. And if a decision or path resulted in difficult or challenging circumstances – then I’ve most definitely learnt more about myself, what is important to me, and what I will or won’t tolerate.

I can often seen a bigger picture – in retrospect – where making or not-making a particular decision lead me to a different situation or path with positive opportunity that I couldn’t have predicted. This has been a powerful lesson as I orientate to the future – I’ve learnt to be less destination-focused in the world, and navigate more by intentions.

If I was told that my life was ending tomorrow – then today I am incredibly content with all that I’ve done, seen or experienced. I pinch myself sometimes for how far my life of today, is from the small rural NZ town of 2,000 people where I was born. I was not able to imagine the life I have now when I was a child.

I don’t mean to sound Pollyanna-ish as if all things in my life have been good – they haven’t. I’ve had bad things happen to me and not because of decisions I made. There’s been another life lesson there, about how “Sh#t happens” and it’s how you deal with it that  matters. So I’m incredibly grateful for the support of friends and professional experts to navigate that stuff – they’ve made my life journey better than it could have been without them.

Tell me about a time when Design saved the day

I operate in the world from a very strong Design Sensibility. This means in almost every piece of work that I do for another – from writing an email to facilitating a group session to developing business strategy – is oriented to Who am I Serving and What will be Most Valuable for them.  I have many methods or tools in my kit that come from Design disciplines but it is the Sensibility that comes from addressing those two questions that is most important.

It was such a Design Sensibility that saved the day in a project I worked on at an Australian University a few years ago. I was engaged when the project was already underway. It was a project about changing the way Teachers-Students interacted in the classroom. When I arrived the project team was focused on the new technology that would be used, with some small consideration for the pedagogy that was to be adpated. I remember asking the Head of the Project: “What do you think is the biggest factor for this organisational change?” He replied, “People“. I asked him to give me a percentage. He said, “70% People and 30% Technology“. I asked him, “What’s the proportion of your project spend on these two aspects – including the expertise of the personnel on the project team?“. He replied – rather sheepishly – “70% Technology, 30% People“. And with his own epiphany about who were were serving and the opportunity to create greatest value – he gave me remit to hire more people with people-centric expertise, and shape the project activity and messaging to be people-centric. In making this shift, there was a collective sigh of relief for the Represenatives of the Teachers, who had felt that the project was going off the rails.

When do you know you’ve done a good job?

Firstly, when the person I was doing the job for, gets the things that were of high-value to them, and it makes a meaningful difference to their life/lives of others.

Secondly, when I feel that in doing that work I was in a state of flow (balance of challenge and skill); and that I produced something I’d be proud to attach a signature too, as if it was a piece of art. This can be by myself or working with great collaborative partners.

There’s magic when these two things come together. And it’s that magic that I hope to create with Quello.


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