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By Lisa Gordon

Chris Judge doesn’t mind admitting that academically, he was a late bloomer. After struggling through high school in his native England, he ended up at a community college to earn a diploma in business studies. For him, that’s where it all clicked."

“I matured and it all fell into place,” he said. Switching to a degree program, Judge turned his focus to human resource management. Now, after a successful 25-year HR career, he’s earned his “seat at the table” with a promotion to head of operations at the Ottawa location of Novozymes Canada, an industrial biotechnology firm specializing in enzyme production. Altogether, 50 employees work at the site to re-engineer products for enhanced sustainability, energy savings or decreased production costs. In his new role, Judge has overall responsibility for the site’s efficient, productive and safe operation.

HR Professional spoke to him recently about what it takes to succeed in business-focused HR.

HRP: How and when did you decide upon a career in human resources?

CJ: At college, I specialized in HR management in the fourth year of my degree course. However, it was several years after graduation before I landed an HR role.

HRP: What was your first HR job?

CJ: I started as a retail management trainee, and in my second year I was seconded into the area-training department. That’s when I got my first taste of training and development. A couple of years later, I moved into management development training, and then progressed into human resources management.

HRP: Describe your current job.

CJ: I have recently been given the opportunity to step outside of HR for the second time in my career. I have just taken on the role of head of operations for the Novozymes Canada location in Ottawa. My career may still end in consulting (as I approach retirement), but for now I am leading a team of managers responsible for production operations, process engineering, maintenance and quality assurance.

HRP: What do you love about your job?

CJ: The job is all about leading a group of talented and very technically skilled individuals. It is about teamwork and communication and effective management. I actually enjoy managing and leading teams to get the most out of them. Finally, it’s about directly impacting the bottom line of the company, and I have always enjoyed being a business-focused HR partner.

HRP: What are the challenges you experience in your job?

CJ: I have only just started this new role, so I am learning all about the manufacturing processes of the company (I had a similar challenge with a previous employer when I was asked to take charge of production). I do not need to become a subject matter expert, but I need to learn enough to enable me to work closely with my new colleagues and establish trust. In many respects, it is not unlike what I have done throughout my career as an HR business partner – just a lot more intense! But once I’ve achieved that goal, it will be richly rewarding.

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

CJ: I’m a great believer in energy and energizing other employees and managers. Arguably, in difficult times this is more important than ever, but in order to do that you need energy yourself. So, first, do what you need to do (exercise, diet, relaxation therapy) to maintain your own energy levels. Second, managers need an HR team they can count on during difficult times. I have been involved in multiple closures, downsizing events and restructurings. In all cases, these are the times when HR can show true leadership. And, I should point out that it’s not just about managing an event, it is also about managing the transition (for those remaining employees). Finally, do not underestimate how much even the most senior, confident and charismatic leaders need a trusted advisor – you need to be a good listener!

HRP: What skills do you think are important for success in an HR career?

CJ: That depends on what sort of HR career you want. In general terms, I would say that the skills (if you can call them that) that have helped me in my career are adaptability; the ability to build relationships; pragmatism and business focus; and enthusiasm.

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

CJ: Have patience with people like me when we offer to give advice! We mean well, but of course we do not know all the answers. I can readily admit that I have made mistakes along the way – sometimes very painful ones! But over time I have dusted myself off, learned from those mistakes and moved on. My advice would include these tips:

• Make the most of your non-HR experience; you will still be able to draw upon it in your HR career.
• Don’t give up. I don’t envy new grads in 2014. I think it is incredibly tough for you – but it will get better.
• Consider volunteering as a way to get further work-related experience.
• Try to maintain an inner confidence and an outer humility (and if you can figure out the secret, let me know!)
• The road to a successful career is never straightforward. Twice in the last decade, I have taken a significant cut in salary and, arguably, responsibilities. But within a few years, I had moved beyond where I had been.

HRP: What is the future of HR?

CJ: I think the introduction of legislation in Ontario (Bill 32 - Registered Human Resources Professionals Association Act) is significant, and I think HR will increasingly move towards being a true professional organization. But with that professional status comes professional responsibility – and it may not be everyone’s “cup of tea.” As well, the skill of managing others is not intuitive to a great many managers. HR will continue to provide a key role in guiding the right people into the right roles and, when necessary, encouraging others to move out of roles that do not fit their abilities.

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