HR Influencers

By Lisa Gordon

In his 38-year human resources, labour relations and consultancy career, Hugh Secord has specialized in helping organizations through challenging times.

“It’s about much more than change management,” said Secord, who is co-owner and chief strategist of Uxbridge, Ont.-based Oakbridges Labour Relations Strategists Inc. The three-person consultancy firm specializes in the natural resource sector – particularly mining, oil and gas – as well as the broader power industry and manufacturing.

Working in complex, unionized environments, Secord enjoys the challenge of applying systemic thinking to deep issues that are anything but transactional or routine.

Plus, there’s the added benefit of working in many different environments, from a diamond mine in the Canadian North to a distillery in Kentucky.

The biggest challenge is getting organizations to understand the importance of a holistic approach to solving issues. – Hugh Secord

HR Professional caught up with Secord just before he travelled to an assignment in Trail, B.C. We asked him to share his thoughts about labour relations, the role of HR and how it all comes together in what Secord called his “dream job.”

When did you decide you wanted a career in human resources?

IN A NUTSHELL

First paid job: I started work as a mechanic building specialized components for trucks.

Childhood ambition: I remember always wanting to be a writer and am proud of my accomplishments in writing about HR/LR matters. I still have lots more to get out on paper.

Best boss and why: I don’t mean to be “cute,” but I cannot think of anyone who I think of as a great boss. This is why I felt I had to create my own organization. I can say I have a great business partner and could not ask for any better. I have worked with lots of people who have inspired me and I look up to them because they are deep thinkers and have a vision about how they are going to change the world, even if it is only a small part of the world.

Current source of inspiration: We are working with the Requisite Organization International Institute and another consultancy out of Europe, En-Sync, on an approach that combines the work of Dr. Elliott Jaques, the process engineering approach of Deming, and the leading edge thinking about shared value from Michael Porter. This exercise, if I can call it that, is not just challenging, but it is exciting to think about how synthesizing ideas that have proven practical applications will lead to a new way of seeing how an organization can unlock the potential in all of its relationships. It is truly rewarding to be able to collaborate with really smart people on something that feels very important.

Best piece of advice ever received: It came from my dad: Choose a career where you do something you love doing, and hope you can make money doing it.

Favourite music: Chicago Blues (Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, James Cotton)

Last book read: I read one or two books a week. The two best I read this year are Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind and Homo Deus, both by Yuval Noah Harari. His analysis and writing style are amazing and thought provoking.

Hugh Secord: For my undergraduate degree, I studied economics, sociology and political science. As I contemplated a career, I found that labour relations (LR) required an understanding in all of these areas. At the time, LR and human resources were, at best, fledgling functions nowhere near maturation. I thought LR represented a very challenging field that also had lots of opportunities for growth, where individuals would be able help make a difference in the ways organizations are managed. Those challenges still exist today.

What was your first HR job?

HS: I worked for an engineering firm doing LR research for mega projects involving labour supply, labour costs, collective bargaining trends and jurisdictional issues. I was also involved in some professional recruitment and handling disputes. The firm got into serious trouble during the economic downturn of the ’80s, so I was tasked to develop a downsizing plan. Then I was laid off and had to move on.

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

HS: I don’t see myself as having a job. I am the co-founder of Oakbridges Labour Relations Strategists and my role is business development, financial officer, strategist, consultant and gofer.

What do you love about your job?

HS: We deal with complex, real life organizational issues where we can bring our learnings together to form holistic and sustainable solutions for large organizations. It is mentally stimulating; we get to travel to really interesting places and meet great people. We are involved with social change and the evolution of many movements where shared values are the cornerstone to seeing communities find sustainable solutions for the future.

What are the challenges you experience in your job?

HS: Everything about what we do is a challenge. That’s what makes it exciting. However, the biggest challenge is getting organizations to understand the importance of a holistic approach to solving issues. They tend to operate in silos, and find it difficult to understand that people issues are not isolated problems, but rather the product of systemic causes that need to be addressed in collaborative ways. HR, for example, tends to focus on employees, while others in the organization have responsibilities for government affairs, Aboriginal relations, community liaison, contractor management and so on. As a result, solutions tend to be narrowly focused. We are trying to encourage organizations to take a broader approach, to understand that all these elements need to be combined in a cohesive approach.

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

HS: In difficult times, HR is usually directed to reduce costs. This means creating a downsizing plan that minimizes the organization’s exposure to litigation and high costs. The key to escape that narrow paradigm is to take a systems diagnostic approach to understand how people have input into everything the organization does, and how they can contribute to the problem and to sustainable solutions. The organization must reflect on how it does things and then decide it needs to do things differently. These transformations are difficult and too often the leaders are not willing to make the changes. If they were willing and HR had the right tools, the changes would be sustainable. Sustainable solutions mean we do not have to rethink things. Over time, our organization will be inherently flexible and nimble and will be able to rise to any challenge.

What skills are important for success in HR?

HS: HR leaders need a theoretical background in their field to bring credibility to their processes. They also need experience in all aspects of the business and must be general managers at the core with strong negotiation skills.

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

HS: It may seem blasphemous, but the first tip is to get out of those jobs. They are dead-ends. If you want to be a trusted advisor to the CEO and rise to executive ranks, you must get experience in the operations of the business. HR is a support function and the client will always appreciate being advised by people who have walked in their shoes.

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

HS: HR has not truly evolved as much as some people think. In fact, one thing HR practitioners need to do is to get back to fundamentals. However, we see many organizations today realizing that the multi-stakeholder perspective is essential to creating shared value for all. Where we have seen an exciting leap forward is where companies have created a portfolio of functions: HR, LR, Aboriginal affairs, government relations, corporate social responsibility and so on, under an umbrella of sustainability. I think this represents the kind of paradigm shift that will be transformative.

What’s the future of HR?

HS: HR is going to remain a sub-function in organizations. People management, if I can call it that, is the function that will have the ear of the CEO and be their most important support. However, HR leaders today need to realize that the people who contribute to the success of the organization are not just the employees – they are the contractors and vendors in the supply chain, they are the members of the community who provide indirect services, they are others in the community who will be impacted by the organization for years to come. HR needs to lead the transformation to this new perspective or get out of the way.