Talent Management
HR Professional
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By Lisa Gordon


A passion for leadership

Cheryl Fullerton makes sure she gets the most from each and every experience. A self-described “thinker and analyzer,” she’s made it her business from an early age to study corporate leadership to gain insight into company performance.


Today, Fullerton is VP of leadership at Maple Leaf Foods, the consumer packaged meat company that has been operating in Canada for more than a century. Based at the company’s Mississauga head office, she and her team of about 40 HR professionals deliver solutions that drive the company’s human resources strategy.

HR Professional asked Fullerton to reflect on some of the lessons she has learned during her 20-plus years in HR. Among other insights, she said the smartest thing one can do is to take a job outside the HR realm at least once in their career.


HRP: What was your first HR job?
CF: During university, I had a summer job in the pension and benefits department of The Oshawa Group, a national chain of supermarkets. It was a very routine HR role; I had to manually verify employee health coverage. To keep it interesting, I challenged myself by seeing how many I could do in an hour. I got so fast that I had free time, so then they taught me how to adjudicate medical claims and process payments.


HRP: How and when did you decide upon an HR career?
CF: While at The Oshawa Group, I got interested in the pension and benefits field. It satisfied my need to have deep specialist knowledge in something complex, so I decided to stick with it for a while. I got fascinated watching the senior executives in the company and really studied how they set strategy, how they communicated, motivated and built a following. I got so passionate about leadership that I decided to build my career in HR.


HRP: Describe your job today.
CF: I’m VP of leadership at Maple Leaf Foods. It’s a wonderful job; I’m extremely happy with the portfolio I have now. I can influence the leadership culture of the organization, so my passion for leadership is satisfied. My team creates solutions for talent acquisition, rewards and recognition, performance and talent management, learning and development and HR systems and services. We deliver these people solutions through an integrated network of HR generalist and specialist professionals throughout the business. I’ve been in the position for a couple of months, but I have worked at Maple Leaf Foods for nine years overall.


HRP: What do you love about your job?
CF: I love the variety of my job right now. Maple Leaf Foods is an amazing organization if you’re really driven to master things, and then put up your hand and ask for more and craft your own career path. We are all about learning and personal growth here. I work with some very talented people, and we have an opportunity to set the people and leadership strategy for the organization, which is a lot of fun.


HRP: What are the challenges of your job?

CF: One of the biggest challenges when you’re leading an HR team can be big organizational changes. Maple Leaf, like so many companies, has taken on massive strategic projects that take years to execute. The challenge is to keep people focused and motivated through that period. In general, people thrive on instant gratification, so when we say something is a three-year project, it takes a whole different kind of leadership to get through it. HR needs to lead that effort.


HRP: What’s the key to leading HR during a difficult time for an organization?
CF: You have to stay super close to the people who are natural leaders and influencers, and the people who are the highest performers or have key critical skills. HR professionals can leverage these people to ensure continuity of talent and the right kind of workplace environment. Stay ahead of the problems and don’t just react, and be clear about objectives – where you’re going and why. Deliver lots of feedback and positive reinforcement; keep people engaged and satisfied enough to stick through the difficult times. This is when great leaders really shine.


HRP: What skills are important for success in HR?
CF: First and foremost, you must have a deep passion for the business and what the business is there to accomplish. That’s got to be first. To be a great HR leader, you see yourself as an integral part of the business’ success. Partnered up with that is a deep understanding of people. We’re the people experts; that’s what we bring to the table. You must also be a fact-based and analytical thinker, and draw insights from complex systems of people, behaviours, results and other points of information. The days of the soft and fuzzy HR team are long gone.


HRP: What tips do you have for new grads or those in entry-level HR jobs who want to move up the ladder?
CF: Try to have at least one role outside of HR. If you want to move up the ladder in HR, the best thing you can do is take at least one position outside the field. Do this when you know HR well enough to appreciate what it’s about, and then step out. The best experience I ever had was an operational job where I was measured on driving growth and profit for the organization. I got a crystal view of how the HR function could help or hinder me in achieving my goals – it was like a light shone on it and I could see it clearly! I honestly didn’t understand that until I had a role outside of HR.


HRP: What’s the future of HR?
CF: There are two things. The first is the continued evolution from HR practices to people solutions. We do what we do in order to drive business results, not to “do HR stuff.” To get results, people need objectives, feedback on their performance, opportunities for development, and rewards. We create solutions to accomplish these things. The other thing is that we need to be much more predictive. Strategic workforce planning hasn’t really taken off in HR yet. I’m talking about projecting where the business strategy is leading and what the labour market and technology are going to look like, and how we can predict all of that so we are ahead of it when it comes. HR will need to be better at this if we are to be more effective business leaders.


In a Nutshell

First job: I worked at U-Haul taking reservations, processing pickups and drop-offs and reconciling the accounts. I was 17, and it was kind of a meaty and stressful role for my first job.


Childhood ambition: Back then, I had a list. I was going to be a doctor/hairdresser/ballerina/author/painter. It’s still a bit depressing that I have to pick one career. I still to this day want to be everything all at once!


Best boss and why: I have gotten something important from every single boss I’ve ever had. They’ve all been part of creating who I am now. But, there are two I want to highlight. Bill Vickers was the first boss who really helped me with career planning, and he taught me the value of humour at work. The other one is Les Dakens, who I worked with here; he taught me to think bigger and farther than I was ever comfortable thinking before.


Current source of inspiration: My parents. My mom and dad just celebrated their 52nd wedding anniversary and they are strong, very smart and so caring to other people. They’ve weathered all the ups and downs over their 52 years together; now in their early 70s, they are more supportive of each other than they’ve ever been. They are a real inspiration.


Best piece of advice I ever got: Bill Vickers once told me, “Don’t be ridiculous!” I loved it; it was blunt and heartfelt and perfect for the moment. It was a career planning conversation, and what came out of my mouth was, in fact, ridiculous.


Favourite music: I will sing or dance to pretty much anything at the drop of a hat – but if I had my choice, I’d put on Neil Young or Peter Gabriel.


Last book you read: I haven’t been reading a lot lately, but the last book I read was David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. It was a good escape.


How do you spend your time away from work? Reading, walking along the trails near Etobicoke Creek and working on the board of Spectra Community Support Services – we provide phone support services to people in need. I also love binge-watching Netflix shows with my kids, aged 19 and 23. I love them, they’re my heroes.

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