HR Influencers
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Leading an HR Team

By Lisa Gordon

After more than three decades in human resources – including almost 18 years in the world of professional sports and entertainment – Mardi Walker knows she has scored a great career.

“I can’t really think of anything I would have done differently,” said Walker, who is the vice president of human resources for the Ottawa Senators Hockey Club and Canadian Tire Centre. “Being in sports is exciting; it’s always different.”

Together, Walker and her four-person team share the responsibilities that come with managing 250 full-time and 300 part-time sports complex employees. She says there’s nothing better than going to work on a day when the Sens are playing at home.

“There’s an extra spring in everyone’s step and we’re all wearing our team gear,” she said. “And if we’re in the playoffs, the atmosphere is incredible!”

HR Professional netted a recent interview with Walker, where she shared her thoughts on change management, working with amazing people and the importance of business acumen in HR.

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

Mardi Walker: I graduated from high school early, in January. I wanted to work full-time before university so I got a job at The Bay in downtown Toronto as a sales clerk. I had an interview with a lady from the personnel department, a department I knew nothing about. I saw her around the store; she could go into any department and she knew everybody. I wanted to find out what it was all about. So that’s what I decided to do.

What was your first HR job?

MW: I got hired at Canada’s Wonderland before the park opened. I started more as an admin person and it was an hourly contract job. Whenever anyone quit, I’d go into the HR manager’s office and ask if I could have the job. Finally, I got my shot and became the full-time HR coordinator. The park was just opening, so the job was heavy on recruiting and training new staff. I loved it.


First job: I was a sales clerk at Bowring.

Childhood ambition: I can’t really think of one thing I was ambitious about. I thought about acting and a career in entertainment. At one point I wanted to be a chef. Then I wanted to be a retail buyer, and then I was going to start a magazine. But one thing I always knew was that whatever I did, I was going to be the leader!

Best boss and why: Hands down, it’s my current boss, Tom Anselmi. I’ve worked for him now for close to 17 years. He is a fantastic leader and he really understands the value of HR. He coaches, supports, motivates and gets results. I learn from him every day.

Current source of inspiration: That would be my kids. I have three kids aged 19, 21 and 23. I love listening to their discussions. They hold their ground; I’m impressed by how well informed they are and how well they communicate their message. It kind of makes you think the world will be okay. They care about the world and what is going on and that’s something to be said about that group. I’m really proud of them.

Best piece of advice ever received: I remember my father always telling me never to forget the “Golden Rule.” You meet the same people on the way up as you do on the way down. Never forget that; the world is smaller than you think it is, and it’s important to always treat people well.

Favourite music: I love music and listen to it all the time. I’d say probably what I listen to most would be classed as alternative, such as Arcade Fire, London Grammar and The Boxer Rebellion.

Last book read: I love to read because it takes you away from everything. Recently, I read A Column of Fire by Ken Follett. It reminded me that life is a journey and things will always evolve and change.

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

MW: It’s a generalist role in that I’m responsible for anything and everything to do with human resources, from recruitment to compensation, to performance management, HR strategy engagement, talent, all of that. You name it.

What do you love about your job?

MW: With any of my jobs, it’s always been about the people. When you leave, you don’t miss the work but you miss the people. That’s the main thing I love here. But what I also love is seeing people grow – watching them achieve their career aspirations and knowing I had a hand in that. When you’re in sports, there is a lot of energy, especially on game day, when everyone is so excited! There is never a dull moment.

What are the challenges you experience in your job?

MW: Definitely one is resources versus budget. There are lots of things you want to do, but you need to be creative to find ways to get them done. Also, with the team’s performance there are naturally a lot of ups and downs. And right now, a big part of my job is managing change; people don’t like change. So we have defined a clear set of vision and values, and we drove that conversation around “Who We Are.” Everything we do comes back to those values. I think that has resonated very well, and we’ve built rewards and recognition around that.

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

MW: In my experience, communication is the key to everything. You can say 80 per cent of business problems are created by poor communication, and then 80 per cent of business problems can be solved by great communication. Being transparent, talking to people and keeping them informed – and listening to them – is what it’s all about. Reinforcing values and sticking to them is also key.

What are the necessary competencies for success in HR and how do you think those have changed throughout your career?

MW: Definitely business acumen. When I started in personnel, that wasn’t even a thing! But it’s really key to understand the operation. I find also that if you have experience outside of HR, it’s really valuable. It helps you understand better how an organization runs, and combined with that is flexibility and adaptability. Different parts of the business can’t be managed alike and you can’t put everything in a box.

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

MW: I would tell them not to sit and wait for an opportunity to drop in their lap. Grab it; go for it! Don’t be afraid to take something outside of HR, because they can always go back in. Keep learning and know that the more well rounded they are, the better off they will be. Stay up with their reading and participate wherever possible. And of course, network whenever they have the opportunity.

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

MW: Technology, for sure, because it takes some things away and also really helps you with others, and you can leverage it. Technology will never take away the profession of HR, but it will change the way we do things. The focus on the employee experience is also very interesting – if you’re not treating people properly, they won’t be as engaged and won’t give you that extra discretionary effort. And, I think the fact that HR really is a key strategic business partner now, and can help drive the business, is exciting.

What’s the future of HR?

MW: People are the key to the success of an organization and HR drives that. To me, HR is a true business partner. You’re there to support every facet of the business and to make sure they succeed. I always tell my team, it doesn’t matter what department – we’re there to help them be a success. Be a mentor, not a tormentor! 

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