HR Influencers
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Blazing a New Trail

By Lisa Gordon

In his 33-year career with TD Canada Trust, Ernie Gross has worn many hats.

And while staying with any employer for more than three decades is somewhat of an anomaly these days, Gross couldn’t be happier. After an initial stint in management, followed by 25 years in human resources, he recently landed his dream job.

It’s a position that allows him to focus on what he loves best: coaching others to achieve success.

Gross is the associate vice president, Management Coaching at TD Branch Banking, based in London, Ont. It’s a position that was just created and he’s the first one to sit in the chair.

While he said that fact is partly terrifying, it’s also wildly exciting.

“I can’t believe I’m doing this job now! We’re going places we’ve never gone before,” he said.

And while some people might be contemplating retirement after so many years on the job, he said he’s not winding down. Just the opposite, in fact: he’s ramping up.

HR Professional caught up with Gross to talk about his new role and how his years in HR – and a dedication to lifelong learning – helped build the foundation for the job of his dreams.

First job: I was a stock clerk at Sears in Sarnia, where I grew up. I was also a painter that same summer.
Childhood ambition: I wanted to be a professional fisherman or hockey player. I’m a fly-fishing nut.
Best boss and why: I’ve had a lot of bosses at TD over 33 years. The best ones were good listeners, caring and transparent, but they also challenged me.
Current source of inspiration: My wife, Joan. She is the one who keeps me going and supports me through change.
Best piece of advice ever received: Be vulnerable and transparent and let people see who you are and not just what you do. When I was first titled as an executive in this bank, the best piece of advice I was given was don’t let the title take away from who you are. People need to see you as a person.
Favourite music: My son is in his third year of music at Western. His band, Age of Athena, plays symphonic metal – so that would be my favourite.
Last book read: Quiet Leadership: Six Steps to Transforming Performance at Work by David Rock. It’s a coaching-centred book that explains why getting employees to think for themselves is so important and it includes the physiological reasons behind it.

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

Ernie Gross: I graduated from the University of Western Ontario with a BA in economics in 1985, and jumped right into TD as a management trainee. I worked in branches for seven years, doing a number of different managerial roles, and I was also a bank auditor. Through that exposure to leadership, all the people aspects resonated with me, both good and bad. I was spending 80 to 90 per cent of my time managing people and that’s where it all started. I made some academic investments in HR, and the bank really supported me along the way.

What was your first HR job?

EG: In 1992, I needed to move closer to Toronto. The bank said they had an HR job for me there, as assistant manager of employment standards. I provided advice and counsel to HR business partners on complex employee-related matters, including assessment of performance management, application of progressive discipline, managing investigations and employee terminations. It was a 90-degree learning curve for me. The people who welcomed me into that discipline knew they had some work to do with me. They helped me through the learning curve. It was a pivotal point in my career.

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

EG: I’ve recently moved into a coaching role at the bank, but my most recent HR job was as associate vice president of HR for the Western Ontario region in Branch Banking. I was responsible for the talent initiatives in a region with more than 170 branches, 3,500 employees and 11 executives. My job was to make sure we were drawing our talent strategies together to optimize our talent and ensure it was in the right place. While there, I decided to enroll in the Adler International coaching program at the University of Western Ontario. I took a couple of years to learn that and began to integrate some of it into day-to-day practices at the bank. I started to blog through a virtual community that attracted more than 8,000 members from within the bank. It built momentum over time, and eventually the bank introduced a new role and offered it to me. Today, my title is associate vice president, Management Coaching, TD Branch Banking. My responsibility is to build leader coaching capability and to advocate for coaching. I do quite a bit of blogging, keynote speaking at conferences or executive/non-executive meetings and advising members on matters related to coaching. I am also helping to build coaching capability throughout our network of about 1,100 branches across the country.

If you give people the opportunity to think for themselves through non-directive coaching, the benefits go beyond day-to-day work.

What do you love about your job?

EG: It’s actually not a job for me, it’s a passion! I’m doing something I love to do, and I see how coaching can change people. If you give people the opportunity to think for themselves through non-directive coaching, the benefits go beyond day-to-day work. It’s helping people move forward and be the best they can be. I’m very fortunate to be able to focus 100 per cent of my time on this.

What are the challenges you experience in your job?

EG: Influencing and leading change is a challenge. Also, staying focused and saying “no” so you can stick with priorities can be difficult. It’s necessary to find that balance between making a decision and looking for collaboration.

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

EG: Communication, for sure. I think the other thing that is really important is some boldness and courage to speak up despite any opposition you may encounter. You must demonstrate empathy and see other people’s perspectives; take time to listen and understand how they are feeling. There are times you need to hold your ground and when people see that strength in you, it inspires their confidence. Finally, be the voice of reason. When you’re running a business, you have your shareholder, your employee and your customer. For me personally, I’ve always tried to be the voice of reason and balance those perspectives.

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

EG: Understanding the business, the industry and the client is very important. It’s one thing to have an idea, and another to go and do it, so HR must enable the business. I would say that agility and executional excellence have changed over time. In today’s environment, things change so quickly. You need to operate with an agile approach. Also, if we are acting as HR value-add partners, we need to take a consultative approach and help our leaders think critically about what they are doing.

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

EG: Get some management experience early in your career. It may not even be in HR, but it really helps. Show flexibility in the types of roles you are willing to take, so you can build depth and breadth of experience in your career. In my 33 years at the bank, I’ve had a number of different careers. It’s a good idea to network and stay connected inside and outside your organization, so be on Twitter and LinkedIn. Also, see if you can find a mentor who can share their experience and knowledge. Finally, lifelong learning is critical. Always invest in yourself.

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

EG: I would just say it’s the extent to which HR is at the leadership table, helping to shape the culture and future of organizations.

What’s the future of HR?

EG: It’s going to be very talent management-centric. It will be about equipping leaders to fully engage their workforce. It will be driving innovation through idea generation and provoking thought through challenging norms. Employee engagement will be a big part of it. 

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