HR Influencers
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Coach and performance consultant

By Jill Harris

Jan Boase didn’t necessarily intend to end up with an HR career, but after seizing an opportunity and proving her capabilities more than 30 years ago, she hasn’t looked back. For decades, Boase dedicated herself to corporate HR functions, including working her way up to senior vice president, HR at Liberty International Underwriters.

Having enjoyed such a successful career, Boase decided to leave the corporate world behind in 2016 and instead focus on her interests, leading to the launch her own coaching and consulting practice, “Swim Out.” She now consults with clients in numerous industries, offering her proven services to individuals, teams and organizations, empowering them to overcome obstacles in achieving their personal and business goals.

HR Professional caught up with Boase to discuss her HR career, and her experience transitioning from corporate HR to her own practice.

What was your first HR job?

Jan Boase: I was working at a computer hardware company in an administrative role and observed two non-HR employees try and fail at managing the function. With degrees in business applications and psychology, I felt confident and equipped to meet and exceed the expectations of the role, so I stepped forward. That was my first HR job. There had never been a woman in the role, so I had to prove that I could deliver and was put on a six-month trial. During that time, I was required to maintain my current administrative role in addition to taking full responsibility for the HR function. It was tough. The learning curve was steep, but I had the advantage of knowing the business well. After six months of juggling both jobs, the company president said, “The job is yours if you want it.”

What sparked your decision to leave corporate HR?

JB: I enjoyed the diversity and learned a lot from the corporate HR community, but I got to a point where I wanted to focus on only what was of interest to me. My own business enabled me to dedicate 100 per cent of my time and energy to the individuals with whom I was working, without the distraction of other corporate priorities. I also wanted to dial back on the number of hours I was putting in. Ironically, I ended up putting in as much time in handling the business itself, but it served the same purpose, so I didn’t mind.

Do you have any advice for others who are thinking about transitioning out of corporate HR?

JB: Taking that step from the security of a corporate environment into the world as a sole proprietor is sobering, liberating and exhilarating – but you have to be prepared. There is no longer a steady paycheque and you only eat what you catch, so to speak. I was no longer managing just an HR operation, but a business as well. I became my own IT, office management, billing, accounts receivable and sales and marketing support.

Expectations have to be managed, in that business doesn’t come flying through the door just because you’ve hung out your shingle. You need to plan – financially and strategically – for the initial expenditures and a minimal revenue stream for at least six to 12 months. I invested in a website, which really paid off. I also hired an artist to create my logo, brainstormed company names, designed my own letterhead and business cards and accepted every opportunity offered to promote my brand.

My business took off and accelerated faster than I had anticipated. I credit that to persistent networking, a solid strategic plan and discipline. Fear is also a good motivator. I planned for the worst and hoped for the best.

Tell me about your current job. What are your main areas of responsibility?

JB: After more than 30 years in corporate HR, the last 14 with Liberty International Underwriters (a commercial arm of Liberty Mutual), I left the position of senior vice president, HR to start my own coaching and consulting practice. My company name, Swim Out, reflects the essence of my work. In short, I assist clients to go and get what they want, despite having tried and been unsuccessful due to unforeseen obstacles. Hence, if your ship doesn’t sail in, “Swim Out.” Coaching is about creating options that may not have been previously evident. For example, if I’d waited for someone to hand me my first HR job, I might still be waiting. Instead, I chose to swim out, so to speak, which means I created an opportunity that wasn’t handed to me.

I offer a number of services, but the majority of what I do is leadership coaching, job seeking preparedness coaching, facilitating “Coaching in the Moment” workshops as well as online courses for the Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA) that lead to the Certified Human Resources Professional (CHRP) designation.

What do you love about your job?

JB: My work makes a difference in people’s lives. I have a client-centered approach that creates a meaningful connection with each individual to better understand the challenges that keep him or her “stuck.” Coaching gives way to different perspectives that can lead to insight and options not previously considered. It is immensely rewarding to witness an “aha” moment and see someone untangle themselves in a way that launches them forward into action.

Facilitating Coaching in the Moment workshops is equally as rewarding. It is like turning a light on for participants that illuminates a timesaving process to motivate people, raise the talent-capital bar and generate more ROI. Nothing is more gratifying than observing a reluctant manager begin to realize the enormous upside to coaching.

In whatever capacity I work with individuals, it is nothing short of a privilege.

What are the challenges you experience in your job?

JB: Patience is sometimes a challenge. I see strengths and potential in people that they have yet to realize. Individuals need to experience their own process, in their own time to generate their own insights. I have no agenda and need to be mindful not to get impatient for the outcome. Change can be scary – even when it’s good change. Clients have to see their own way forward and be confident knowing that when they take that step, the bridge will be there.

What’s key to leading HR during a difficult time for a client organization?

JB: If the business revolves around client services, the focus has to be on the client experience exceeding expectations. If you want your clients to be happy, take care of your employees first and enable them to do their jobs. Sir Richard Branson of Virgin Airlines said, “Give individuals the tools they need, outline some parameters to work within and then just let them get on and do their stuff.” Who on the senior leadership team is most capable of doing that, if not HR?

HR is at the very core of the people construct and culture. HR drives recruitment, performance management, compensation, training and development, recognition programs and retention initiatives – all tied to the success of the business. In a world where the fight for top talent is fiercely competitive, HR enables the business and strengthens the brand to establish the company as an employer of choice. Without HR leadership, organizations put themselves at risk.

What skills are important for success in HR?

JB: HR leaders need to be business people first and HR practitioners second. To successfully lead an operation, HR professionals need to understand the business they’re in. That includes the company’s challenges, strengths, vulnerabilities and differentiators – for the company and the competition. The organization relies on HR’s sound business judgement and the ability to communicate effectively and often. HR leaders need to be strategic when solving today’s problems for tomorrow’s victories, and be viewed as change agents when the business dictates a shift in course.

HR must also be skilled in the use of metrics and analytics as they are integral to decision-making. HR is expected to provide palpable evidence between the value of HR and business outcomes. Last, but far from least, HR needs to execute and deliver results that have a powerful impact on the business.

What tips do you have for new grads or those in entry-level HR jobs who want to move up the ladder?

JB: Learn, learn and then learn some more. Never be content with what you know. Read. Ask questions. Observe. Listen. Secure a mentor. Take courses. It all helps to stay current and bolster your own brand. Take on initiatives that highlight your strengths. No matter who you work for or with, always create value. Understand the purpose behind what you’re doing and then service the hell out of it.

The HR field has been evolving. What changes excite you the most?

JB: HR is more exciting now than ever. It continues to grow in complexity and accountability as well as escalating demands for skill and leadership. Many organizations seek HR business partners to contribute to the strategic operations of the business. The HR bar has been raised. HRPA has lead that charge, creating a progressive structure of designations that lend credibility and corporate recognition to the profession. To see what’s been accomplished in my career is the most exciting of all, as is knowing there is still more ground to be claimed.

What’s the future of HR?

JB: Change is the name of the game. Globalization has created a complexity in managing diverse cultures and businesses. What works in one country won’t necessarily work in another. There is no cookie-cutter approach, even though businesses will demand global consistency that reflects the fundamental essence of the brand.

Much has already changed in how we work, where we work and why we work as well as how companies attract, incent, retain and partner with employees. As the workplace continues to evolve, HR has to embrace new concepts and generate creative solutions in support of the business and the people. 


janboaseFirst paid job: I had a full time summer office job at Revenue Canada. I was 15. HR was not on my horizon at that time and I fear I may have lied about my age.

Childhood ambition: To be a nurse, until my brother came home with a cast on his leg, which was terrifying to me for some reason.

Best boss and why: Ken Levins was my first boss at Imperial Oil. I had just graduated from university. Ken provided equal proportions of encouragement, learning and laughter. He was smart, kind and generous with his feedback. I enjoyed insightful conversations and learned a lot but never at the expense of fun. Ken’s counsel and encouragement gave me confidence and I credit him, in part, for the professional success I’ve enjoyed by setting the bar so high.

Current source of inspiration: Making a difference in people’s lives.

Best piece of advice ever received: “Feel the fear and do it anyway.” That motto allowed me to acknowledge fear, but not give into it.

Favourite music: I’ve played in two rock ’n’ roll bands (electric guitar and vocals) but folk rock is my passion.

Last book read: How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie – for the third time. It never gets old. I learn something every time I read it and I strongly recommend that everyone read it at least once. It is advice to live by

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