CJ People: Vista’s Evan Bateup Talks Communication and Kindness

By Helen Budge | June 22, 2021 9:30 am PDT
Evan Bateup

CJ People is a new series from Celluloid Junkie, examining the issues that affect the driving force of cinema exhibition and the wider film industry: its people. We aim to cover any and all relevant “people” topics from mental health and wellbeing, to work-life balance, to diversity and inclusion. If you have a topic that you’d like to see discussed then please get in touch with Helen Budge on helen.budge@celluloidjunkie.com.

Based in New Zealand, Evan Bateup is Chief People Officer for film industry software solutions firm Vista Group. Bateup heads up the company’s global People & Culture agenda and in his own words, in its simplest form, his role is essentially to “get the right people in the right jobs, set them up for success and help them to develop”.

But more than this, Vista takes these issues seriously, not just as the “hot topic” of the moment or a tick-box exercise. As Bateup explained when we sat down for a (long-distance, Zoom) chat, prior to COVID-19, Vista’s people culture is – and was – the core of their business. But now the company has had to be light on its feet to adapt to the far-reaching effects of the global crisis and to ensure that no one gets left behind in the light of challenges faced as a result of the pandemic.

Why is Vista’s People Culture so important for the company?
As a software firm, the key to our success is our people. Our previous Board Chair, Kirk Senior, coined the term “doing good things with good people” very early on in our journey and this still strongly represents our culture.

We believe that the good things we do to support exhibitors drives a better experience for all movie goers, which is great for us and for the industry. However, this is only achievable by having, and retaining, the best people. It’s the people who create the software, support our customers and drive innovation – without them we don’t have a company. But the joy of tech is also that 99% of them could find another job elsewhere in minutes if they chose to leave – so we need to provide a work culture that engages them, allows them to succeed and makes them want to stay with us.

The Movio team, a Vista Group company (credit: Vista Group)
The team from Movio, a Vista Group company, on International Women’s Day (Photo: Vista Group)

Talk us through yours (and Vista’s) approach to leadership.
Any culture is reliant on its leaders. You can create all the value statements you want but without leaders who genuinely live the culture and lead by example reflecting it in their everyday working lives, it’s just fancy words or lettering on the wall. Vista Group has been blessed with the quality and kindness of its leaders. Our original CEO, Murray Holdaway, remains a voice of conscience in the company.

One change my team made was to retitle the department from Human Resources (HR) to People & Culture (P&C). On the face of it this was just branding as our core jobs didn’t change. But to me, it’s an important change as it better reflects the purpose of my team and how people are viewed within Vista Group. The title “Human Resources” reads as our staff simply being another resource to be managed – just a cog in the wheel to business success. But the purpose, and mission, of my team is to allow everyone in Vista Group to do their best work everyday. We want to hire the best talent and then create a culture that allows them to succeed to their fullest. If we achieve this then Vista Group will be unstoppable.

To do your best work, you need to be trained, motivated, be on the same page as your teammates, understand what work is important, know how your role drives the company vision and be engaged with the company and your role (among a long list of other things). It’s important that this is all supported by People & Culture but more than that, it’s crucial for this to be actually baked into our culture.

Why is something as simple as kindness a big part of Vista’s success?
The last year has been tough on most people. Global uncertainty, lockdowns, job insecurity, BLM (Black Lives Matter) protests, elections and Brexit, to name just a few. All this at a time where people were removed from their support networks due to lockdown and a lot of coping mechanisms were unavailable (for example, not being able to access gyms to exercise or see family and friends).

Kimbal Riley, our current Group CEO, is someone who embodies kindness and has done even more so throughout COVID. Everyone has experienced plenty of stress over the last year, whether that’s to do with work, health or anything else. From day one Kimbal and the leadership team’s focus has been to firstly look after our people. How can we keep them safe? What can we do to support their mental and physical wellbeing?

Further to this, we’re very focused on trying to support mental health initiatives as we see the challenges of the last year as a key risk to the wellbeing of our staff. One idea that originated out of our EMEA offices by [Vista Group People and Culture Manager] Julia Carlyon, was to introduce Wellness Advocates. We are training certain staff members in each of our offices to drive wellness awareness in the workplace. The Wellness Advocates will be available to support staff at certain events or training sessions, to be a sounding board or to just provide an ear for someone who needs to talk. The success of this program in EMEA now means we are rolling it out across the rest of the world.

The global Vista Group team took part in Pink Shirt Day, an anti-bullying initiative (credit: Vista Group)
The global Vista Group team took part in Pink Shirt Day, an anti-bullying initiative (Photo: Vista Group)

What other lessons were learned from COVID-19 over the last year?
Transparency with communication was another big learning for us. Traditionally we’ve always been heavily focused on ensuring we deliver timely but accurate information to our team. If we are unsure about particular information, our approach is to leave it out until we are sure. COVID forced us into a new, better dynamic.

The world was changing so quickly last year that there was no solid baseline from which to start – news and projections were changing daily, if not hourly. Our people were worried but, due to the circumstances, we couldn’t give them certainty as the world was changing all the time. So we had to adapt our style of communication. We introduced far more frequent staff communications but with regular disclaimers of “this is the news as of today and it might well change by the time we finish the presentation. If this is the case then we’ll update you when we know more.”

Sadly, we didn’t escape the damage inflicted by the pandemic and we needed to take the hard step of reducing our headcount due to COVID business pressures. But in doing this we did all we could to put people first, by trying to be as transparent as possible with our process – what decisions would be made, and when, how and why. While this was a very painful process for everyone, and there is no nice way to tell someone they are leaving the business, at least they knew why and weren’t left with any unanswered questions.

It was difficult not to be able to allay any fears or have any rock solid guidance during those early months of COVID, but the reality was that no one knew anything. All we could do is to be honest with our teams and share what we knew as of that moment in time.

The overwhelming feedback we had from the people who left was that they were understandably sad to leave and hated the outcome, but they could respect how the decision had come about. Throughout this process Kimbal and the leadership team led from the front. More than a few tears were shed but they kept fronting up, didn’t try to hide and shared whatever information they had with everyone.

How has COVID changed Vista’s approach to working?
The world is a different place and the experiences – and subsequent effects – of lockdown and a global pandemic won’t likely be fully appreciated for years to come. As a P&C team, and indeed as a company, we cannot try and predict all these twists and turns. Instead we are trying to ensure we have principle-based approaches: a core principle we’re trying to adhere to is for people to work from wherever they’re able to deliver the best work for our clients. Structure and guidelines are then formed around this, while being aware that these practices will likely evolve over time, but with the principle remaining the same.

Around half our staff are based in New Zealand, and so we’ve been able to experiment with different options in and out of the office, due to the comparative limited lockdowns here vs those that other countries have seen. However, our other offices outside New Zealand are only just starting to return to in-person office working.

COVID has changed the world forever and I don’t think we will ever go back to the way it was. This is not a bad thing, and many positive things like incorporating more flexible ways of working have been on the agenda for years. COVID has just dramatically accelerated the rate of change. And I still think this speed of change will be with us for a long time to come.

Helen Budge