Pin It

Business leaders speak out about what they want from HR now and in the future

By Sarah B. Hood

As president and CEO of Meridian Credit Union Ltd., Bill Maurin expects his human resources team to be thinking one step ahead of the rest of the company.

“One concept I talk about is ‘future-proofing’ our employees,” he said. “Jobs don’t stay the same as they used to, and skillsets must be more transferable. The challenge for companies is that the industry is already changing so much, and the change that’s yet to come will be more profound. We have to future-proof our employees, make them not fearful of that, but actually excited about it.

“At Meridian, one of our strategic imperatives is instilling a growth and innovation mind-set, and we want people here to have an exceptional employee experience. Part of that is helping employees become change-ready, flexible and adaptable. I think people can be taught to think more innovatively. You need good ideas from every part of the company.”

Thus, HR delivers value when it functions as a “decentralized think-tank,” opening up the channels of communication that foster contributions to innovation, according to Maurin.

HR professionals need to be passionate ambassadors of the enterprise strategy and the concepts behind it. – Bill Maurin

HR professionals can’t live in their silo; they have to understand the business and the industry, and they may have to up their game on that,” said Maurin. “For us, all these things flow from strategy: how does our strategy respond to – and ideally get in front of – the ways things are changing all around us? HR professionals need to be passionate ambassadors of the enterprise strategy and the concepts behind it.”

In a world where companies are communicating with their customers one-on-one via social media, Maurin also believes that it can be useful for HR to look beyond traditional demographic groupings (Millennials or new Canadians, for example) and look instead at personal characteristics that can allow programs and services to be tailored to different types of people.

“It’s not about having a single employee experience for each employee, but a better understanding of who your employees are, so as a company you’re learning how to engage them,” he said. “I think HR has to have more of an ongoing interactive and evolutionary approach, as opposed to updating every three years.”

At its most impressive, a forward-looking HR function would be helping to lead the creation of meaningful organizational ideation capture, says Maurin. This entails creating a culture that encourages innovation, enables communication and instils confidence that employees’ ideas will be acted upon.

“A key message – and the good news for the HR professional – is that the criticality of the role is higher today than ever,” he said. “I think it’s only going to get higher in the future, so I think [HR] is a pretty good space to be in.”

Be agents of change

“The world is moving faster and faster. HR teams are going to have to move just as fast to provide support and leadership in areas like artificial intelligence as technology shifts and new business models emerge. They need to be as agile as the world is becoming,” said Greg McLelland. He is the chief revenue officer for Corus Entertainment, a media and content company with holdings in television, radio, digital assets and publishing, among other areas, including brands like Global Television, HGTV Canada and Food Network Canada.

At Corus, the HR function is called the People Team.

“I take that quite seriously, because our team is responsible for $1.6 billion. I expect our People Team to be completely embedded into our activities,” said McLelland. This is demonstrated more at Corus than it is in many organizations, since the People Team is included in activities like sales meetings.

“We’ll take them out with us to meet clients; they help engineer that process, facilitating the meetings in some cases,” said McLelland.

“Engagement can make a difference between good company and a great company.” – Jane Riddell

For instance, he says, part of the Corus sales team is a group of about 60 people across the country called Tempo that works with major brands, in some cases developing creative ways to integrate them into Corus productions. In these instances, the People Team may be called in to a half-day integration facilitation process where they might run a meeting between the client and on-air talent.

Of course, McLelland also places a high value on the more traditional HR role of managing the employee relationship. When Corus recently took over a collection of Shaw Media holdings, including Global Television, “We had been battling each other for 20 years, so there was an awful lot of animosity to get over,” he said. “HR was very helpful in making sure teams were getting aligned. We spent a lot of time team building.

“[Also,] we have something called Corus University that our People Team leads. We do a lot of what I call ‘test and learn.’ Most Friday afternoons we have social interactions; or we might give Friday afternoon off. We do a three- or four-day offsite [meeting] every year with world-class speakers who talk about health and wellness, and motivational speakers,” said McLelland. “People are our resources, and they can leave and find work in other places – especially top talent – so you have to give them an environment that’s fun and allows them to grow. Properly organized in a forward-looking company, the HR function is one of the most valuable assets, and I encourage people to exploit it in ways that maybe they haven’t thought of before.”

The importance of open communication

Jane Riddell, COO and president of Canada’s largest health club company, GoodLife Fitness, likewise emphasizes challenges of the “extremely rapid” pace of change affecting all workplaces. At GoodLife, the nearly 14,000 front-facing staff (known as “associates”) are critical to attracting and retaining the 1.4 million members who are the lifeblood of the company, so the HR connection is immediate and vital.

“I rely on my HR staff to keep me really informed about what our workforce is saying and what’s important to them,” said Riddell. “They are a strategic partner for us and they are drivers of change, because they bring that human perspective. They give us that comfort in knowing that our associates have a voice and are at the heart of the changes we are making.”

She says that HR’s role as a strategic partner is growing: “We’re finding engagement is such a critical piece to our success. Engagement is that discretionary 10 per cent that we all have to give, and it’s that 10 per cent that makes a difference between a good company and a great company.”

Staying in touch with all the generations is an increasingly important component of the HR role, as well.

“I think HR will have a bigger role in succession planning and leadership development,” said Riddell. “In our company, every area has a slightly different culture, a different language; they have to be accepted and trusted at all levels of the company. HR needs to be plugged in to all areas of the company, and a great HR leader needs to create a culture around the importance of diversity and equity, so it becomes just who you are.”

Like Maurin, Riddell prizes bottom-up communication, and says that the HR function needs to “build in many different channels for our people to give feedback, with open touchpoints. There’s no such thing as good or bad feedback: all feedback is important and good to receive. By being open for feedback and creating a trusting environment, we can make sure that we are on top of how changes are affecting our people and alter change plans in the moment when we need.”

For example, through an online tool called Speak Out! that allows associates to communicate with any company leader (anonymously, if they wish), Riddell says she recently gained insightful feedback that resulted in positive change.

“We [also] have town hall meetings with senior leaders that have been quite effective,” she said. “We carry out short online engagement surveys twice a year with all of our associates. Our last survey, I think, got 4,000 comments. And annually, we do a 360 feedback review on all of our managers, with the results incorporated on their development plans.”

“Properly organized in a forward-looking company, the HR function is one of the most valuable assets.” – Greg McLelland

People as a competitive differentiator

The prominent real-estate company Cadillac Fairview is another business that puts a high priority on listening to its employees. Over the past few years, it has been going through a process of reinvigorating its corporate culture around the touchstone idea of “making people and culture our competitive advantage,” said company CEO John Sullivan.

This transformation is structured as a five-year “people strategy” that aligns with the company’s five-year business strategy.

“We set employee engagement as a key people measure in the overall business strategy along with other financial and operating measures,” said Sullivan. An annual organization-wide people objective and board of director reviews go hand-in-hand with reinforcing corporate values through daily work processes and performance reviews.
“We believe leaders drive values, values drive behaviour, behaviour drives culture and culture drives performance,” said Sullivan. “We’re certainly not perfect, but our leadership team tries to live that credo each day and role-model the behaviour and culture that make us uniquely successful.”

This approach has already shown remarkable results, including record earnings and rates of return, and also external recognition such as Canada’s Most Admired Corporate Cultures, Greater Toronto’s Top Employers, Achievers 50 Most Engaged Workplaces in North America and IBM’s Global Top 25 Per Cent Most Engaged Companies, among others.

“A key role of HR is ensuring the people strategy is well connected to the business strategy, and then HR must deploy disciplined project and change management to execute, ensure the change sticks and has a meaningful impact on business performance, and measure that impact,” said Sullivan.

Although it’s critical for the HR function to understand the business vision, that alone is not enough, he says.
“Good HR professionals figure out how to connect people strategy and business strategy to improve business outcomes. Often HR is internally focused, but they should think about what value they can create for external customers, partners, investors, regulatory bodies and the communities we serve. HR is the architect behind boosting individual and organizational capability to effectively execute strategy and plans, and all CEOs are interested in that.”

“One piece of advice I’d give all HR professionals is to recognize that HR is not about HR, it’s about the business,” said Sullivan. “This sets the right outside-in mindset and frames HR’s contribution in the context of the value HR creates as defined by stakeholders in a complex internal and external environment.”

There is consensus among business leaders, it seems: in times of challenging change, connecting with people at all levels of the enterprise plays a more critical role than ever, and it has never been easier to articulate the value of the human resources function.

Pin It