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By Lisa Gordon

Like many of her peers, Laura Randell didn’t consciously plan to have a career in human resources. But from her first exposure to the field 19 years ago – followed by a series of diverse and progressive positions – she has honed a unique and very specialized skill set.

Those capabilities serve her well in her senior role as director of sales, operations, marketing and HR at York University’s Schulich School of Business. Leading a team of 20, Randell has a wide range of responsibilities, not the least of which is coordinating 325 faculty and instructors who deliver the university’s full range of executive education offerings.

HR Professional asked Randell to share her thoughts on what it takes to rise up through the HR ranks into a multi-faceted senior leadership role.

Describe your first HR job.
Laura Randell: I worked as an HR generalist for CIBC call centres, where I was responsible for the teams in Toronto and Moncton, with about 750 people.

When did you decide you wanted a career in human resources?
LR: I didn’t really make a conscious decision; it just happened. I took a leave of absence from a job in the public sector and I got a job in recruitment in banking, and it went from there. I think I really decided to pursue HR as a career when I was living in Australia from 2003 to 2007. While there, I worked for Woolworths and Rabobank, a Dutch bank. That gave me global experience and exposure, because I worked in different countries, and I also had regional exposure working for the bank, with responsibility for all of Asia-Pacific.

Describe your current job. What are your main areas of responsibility?
LR: My current job here at Schulich is very unique. It’s like a COO position. My primary job is to run education programs for the public. We have 150 executive education programs a year and I’m responsible for overseeing all of those – the development, making sure we have the right instructors and that we deliver the best programs to the public. I oversee all the sales, so my team has to fill those classes. I also have operations responsibility across two sites: the Schulich School of Business Executive Education Centre on the York campus, and also the downtown campus. That’s full operational accountability for both sites, ranging from the strategic to the tactical. So, it’s operating the sites but also the programs – two very distinct areas. I also lead the strategic marketing function for the entire Executive Education business and am the head of HR.

What do you love about your job?
LR: I like the variety. Every day is totally different and I never know what is going to be happening here. It can be something very tactical and in the weeds, but it can also be developing our strategic long-term plan. You have to be very agile to shift from the tactical to the strategic on a daily basis, and I enjoy that.

What are the challenges you experience in your job?
LR: One of the challenges for me was that I had never led a unionized team in Canada, so the labour relations piece was new. Also, I think the challenge comes from just dealing with diversity every day. Everything from meeting my P&L numbers to developing a marketing strategy, to dealing with people and supplier issues, and all the different things that happen on a daily basis. It’s extremely fast-paced; I could be dealing with all of those things within the space of an hour. It’s also challenging to work as a business within a university.

What's key to leading HR during a difficult time for a client organization?
LR: I think the key is to understand how HR can help the business be successful. What that means is possibly paring back projects that HR considers important, and focusing on things that really need to get done now. Having the ability to respond to internal and external factors is critical, as well as being able to flex and concentrate on bringing value to help grow the business.

What skills are important for success in HR?
LR: The main thing is to understand how an organization operates and delivers value, and how what you do contributes to that. You need self-awareness, meaning you need to know how you and HR in general are being perceived in the organization. I do think the key is core technical HR knowledge and business acumen. You need to understand how the business makes money, and who the customers are. What makes your business unique? That affects your value proposition and your people strategy; it’s all related.

What tips do you have for new grads or those in entry-level HR jobs who want to move up the ladder?
LR: First, find someone in the job you want to have in 10 years, and chat with them. See how you can learn from them, and find out how they got there. I think understanding that can help people decide if they really want it for themselves. Sometimes, people get where they want to be and don’t want to be there anymore! Second, absorb as much as you can from really strong leaders and figure out what makes them successful. Third, gain as much experience across as many parts of HR as possible, especially compensation and recruitment. I truly believe those areas will always be in demand. Finally, work in different industries so you can move laterally or move up, without being pigeonholed into one industry. Always say yes to opportunities that come your way!

What's the future of HR?
LR: I think it’s about understanding and applying data to help make and prioritize decisions. I think that’s the key to everything.

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