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By Kristy Rydz

While Tony Papa packs his suitcases in Detroit, Mich., a stone’s throw away from his hometown of Windsor, Ont., by last count he’d visited more than 32 countries in the name of human resources. 

In his over 30-year career, he’s built factories and HR departments from the ground up everywhere from the U.S. to China, never leaving the automotive industry where he got his start.

Papa is the senior vice-president, Global Human Resources for Federal-Mogul Motorparts, a supplier of aftermarket products like chassis, wiper blades and spark plugs and original equipment for some of today’s most recognized transportation brands. He spends 50 per cent of his time travelling to the company’s four main regions – North America, Latin America, Europe and Asia-Pacific – to connect with staff face-to-face.

HR Professional got an inside look at the challenges he faces and what he sees on the horizon for the industry.

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

Tony Papa: As a teenager, I went to work as a summer student in an 800-man automotive manufacturing plant as a general labourer making steel wheels. I really became enamored with manufacturing – how they converted raw material to a finished, painted wheel – and just how an organization operates and the whole value stream. But the extra dynamic of the employee relations’ culture really struck me. I followed up and got to know some of the union representatives and obtained a copy of their collective labour agreement to read about all the rules and regulations. After this, I was hooked. Then and there, I decided that when I went to higher learning, this is what I wanted to focus on.

What was your first HR job?

TP: I accepted a position with one of Canada’s largest banks, serving as an organization development and training coordinator. It was a period of change in the industry, moving from heavy paper predominance to electronic management systems. It was great experience in understanding the effect these changes had on their human capital.

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

TP: In concert with our CEO and other executive committee members, I develop a three- to five-year business plan and then collaborate very closely with our global business unit presidents in its execution. On a daily basis, I’m in meetings, in person or remotely, with people all over the world on various strategic planning initiatives. Having established a Centre of Excellence HR model, I have the good fortune of having key HR partners in every global region through which we drive strategic policy deployment. To this end, we’ve had enormous momentum and focus on global talent management and development, designing of a worldwide Total Rewards framework and rapid expansion in the Asia Pacific Rim, all the while integrating two new major acquisitions into our business.

What do you love about your job?

TP: I love the complexity and diversity of a multinational, global organization.
Some people consider those words to be synonymous, but I don’t. In my opinion, once you start applying similar processes and the same philosophy across all countries, then you’re global. People are people are people all over the world. They all want to be treated with respect and dignity, rewarded and recognized. It just depends on what degree of those elements they culturally value. Combine this concept with the existing cultural differences in each area and you can quickly see the complexity and exciting demands of my role.

What are the challenges you experience in your job?

TP: The HR arena is rapidly changing – not just in Canada but also in every country that we operate in. It’s changing at different acceleration rates across the globe. HR in Canada and the U.S. is far more mature, whereas in some emerging areas of the world, like far eastern Europe and Asia-Pacific, it’s rapidly catching up. Laws and procedures are still behind where we are in the Western hemisphere, so applying certain North American HR practices in some of those countries, at times, is difficult because they’re not at that maturity stage yet. But they are rapidly getting there, so it’s an interesting dynamic.

What skills are important for success in HR?

TP: Besides what I call the “table stakes” of integrity, ethics, accountability and responsiveness, HR professionals must hone their root-cause analysis and problem-solving skills. Becoming adept at this will enable them to partner with internal customers and be invited to more strategic planning sessions. Also, the ability to forecast and forward plan are great tools that enable HR to be more proactive than reactive.

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

TP: Accept any and all responsibilities and duties, even if they are not in your core scope and focus. Take special project assignments or become a member of cross-functional teams that enable you to learn more about the overall business. This will only help you develop an appreciation for other parts of the business, thus making you a better all-round HR partner.

What’s the future of HR?

TP: First and foremost, HR must be able to adapt, as the definition of “work” will change significantly more in the next 10 years than it has in the past 25.

There is much thinking that work will become more project-based than employment-based. As such, HR will need to engage talent that includes more part-time employees and freelancers located anywhere. In a truly connected world, linked through mobile devices and on the cloud, work can be done anytime, anywhere. HR must manage talent in a distributed global workforce and find agile ways to measure, motivate and reward. As automation, algorithms and analytics advance, tasks will migrate from people to machines at a greater pace than ever before. HR will be challenged to find the proper people/machine balance.


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