Culture, mental health on employers’ radar

Eli Lilly, OpenText, MLSE discuss solutions to upcoming workplace challenges
By Amanda Silliker
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 07/14/2013

In May, the Strategic Capability Network (SCNetwork) held a panel discussion in Toronto about the issues that are top of mind for HR professionals. Karen McKay, vice-president of HR at Eli Lilly, Mardi Walker, senior vice-president of people at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE), and Manuel Sousa, senior vice-president of global human resources at OpenText, shared their insights.

Seamless HR not identical in every firm (Organizational Effectiveness

Focus on customer (Leadership In Action)

Mission, vision and values in the short and long term (Strategic Capability)

Over the past couple of years, pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly has taken a hard look at its corporate culture, according to Karen McKay, vice-president of human resources. The Toronto-based organization has been changing from a really traditional, function-oriented company to one that is more customer-centric, she said.

“(We want) everybody looking in the same direction — at our patients,” said McKay. “It’s impacted everything from communication, recognition and reward, leadership and development, and the whole culture we have in the company.”

This challenge is exciting for HR professionals at the company — which has 40,000 employees worldwide, including 500 in Canada — because it allows them to be true strategic business partners and think about how their business supports the end customer, she said.

“Sometimes it’s like herding squirrels. It’s very hard to keep everyone on the same page but, from an HR perspective, we play a very critical role in helping and developing the communication that goes along with (shaping the culture) and then aligning all the strategies to help us achieve that,” said McKay.

Revamping corporate culture is one of the key challenges employers will be facing in the next couple of years, according to panellists at a Strategic Capability Network (SCNetwork) event in May in Toronto.

After being in business for more than 20 years, software company OpenText is at a formative stage in its company and corporate culture, said Manuel Sousa, senior vice-president of global human resources in Waterloo, Ont.

On July 1, it launched a values project that includes conducting roundtable meetings around the globe to get feedback and input on the corporate values from its 5,500 employees (1,300 in Canada).

“We have an opportunity here to shape the culture of the business and help support our business strategy,” said Sousa. “That’s the critical part and that’s the role HR has to play to test that and make sure that’s the case.”

Going forward, companies will also be faced with the outsourcing versus insourcing dilemma. Previously, the recruitment function at OpenText was outsourced but, once Sousa took over the role, he eliminated the third party and built his own recruiting team.

“You can’t manage the brand with a third party, can’t manage the quality of candidates, can’t manage the interactions… We want to differentiate the customer experience and, in order for us to do that effectively, I have to have control over my recruiting function,” he said.

Work-life balance is another issue that will be a challenge to navigate in the next couple of years, said the panellists. Employee surveys at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE) in Toronto often reveal that employees feel there is no work-life balance at the organization, which has 800 full-time and 3,500 part-time staff, said Mardi Walker, senior vice-president of people.

“I always say, ‘In HR, I can’t wave my magic wand and change that.’ It starts with each individual person and what does work-life balance look like for them? The workplace has to be flexible enough to allow people to achieve what works for them,” she said.

OpenText doesn’t spend one minute talking about work-life balance — it’s just part of the culture, said Sousa.

“I don’t care if you’re here or in Chicago, as long as the work gets done,” he said. “I want every single one of our employees to wake up in the morning and jump up and want to come to work at OpenText whether it’s in your office downstairs, in your pyjamas or our offices.”

Mental health is another area that will be challenging for employers in the years to come, said the panellists. Eli Lilly offers employees a variety of tools and resources around mental health such as learning to cope with stress and managing change.

“I’m not too worried about physical health, I’m more worried about invisible illnesses. We’re making sure managers have the information and tools they need because they’re the best ones that can detect changes employees may experience,” said McKay. “For us, as a health-care company, (mental health) is really important.”

Being a sports-related organization, there is already a mindset toward health and wellness at MLSE, said Walker. This is further enforced with one of its owners, Bell, being a champion of mental health and a significant contributor to the Canadian Association of Mental Health (CAMH), she said. And for years, MLSE has called upon the athletes’ psychologists to conduct seminars for employees.

At OpenText, employees are encouraged to speak up if they are experiencing excessive stress or undue pressures at work, said Sousa. There are also a variety of stress-relieving opportunities for employees including fitness centres, ping-pong tables and foosball tables.

Updating recognition and rewards programs is another issue employers will have to tackle in the years to come. The younger generation of employees coming up at Eli Lilly inspired the company to change its feedback process and rewards system by moving away from its annual awards programs, said McKay.

“We said, ‘We need to be more spontaneous with our rewards, we need to have more visibility around the kinds of behaviours that led to that reward’ and we have really modelled ourselves to be a much more real-time provider of feedback, of rewards,” she said. “It has become a core part of our business.”

To tackle all these upcoming challenges organizations will be facing, it’s important to have a strong, robust HR function that is heavily integrated into the business, said Sousa.

“I joined (OpenText) one year ago and my mandate was to help build that strength into the HR function, make it much more proactive, much more strategic and much more business-inclined,” he said. “And finding that talent is not always easy.”

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SCNetwork’s panel of thought leaders brings decades of experience from the senior ranks of Canada’s business community. Their commentary puts HR management issues into context and looks at the practical implications of proposals and policies.

Seamless HR not identical in every firm (Organizational Effectiveness)

By Dave Crisp

The chance to hear senior vice-presidents of HR at highly varied organizations talk about how things have been changing — or not — is always tremendously instructive.

Three things really stood out from the recent Strategic Capability Network event.

All HR operations deal with the same issues. But HR must tailor solutions differently to suit varying business and organization needs, cultures and stages of development.

The structures and demographics of environments differ greatly — from Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE)’s almost exclusively male, macho, “We love sports” culture to OpenText’s 5,500 mostly young employees who are spread out worldwide, operating virtually far more often than face-to-face, aiming to pull together 100 companies acquired over 20 years.

Contrast those further with Eli Lilly’s 140-year evolution of the same culture, still referring to “what the colonel (Lilly) laid out for us” so long ago after the United States Civil War, yet trying to adapt this to keep ahead of change.

Despite rapid change and a need to keep up with the latest technologies and structure, organizations have to remember to keep the basics functioning well.

Holt Renfrew’s foray into ecommerce may be a lifeline into the future, but the core business continues to depend on excellent face-to-face customer service.

MLSE is conscious of engaging a virtual audience far beyond the stadium and TV, including Twitter, Facebook and other social media. But key to it all are great athletes and winning sports teams.

Like Eli Lilly, OpenText struggles to clarify, unify and maintain a core culture by reinvigorating it and narrowing it down so it can thrive for generations.

There is a central message in all of this and it’s one many companies fail to grasp — a culture needs to be coherent, complete and seamless.

Every organization faces unique, day-to-day struggles, such as MLSE’s diversity issues in including women in what’s long been a male culture.

That problem doesn’t really exist, at least not in the forefront, at Holt Renfrew. Its business, in many ways, is for women, about women and by women.

Traditionally, this has meant blind spots may exist in senior management and among employees. “The way we’ve always done it” is often held up as values, even though some of those ways are simply valueless artifacts of an ancient, or not so ancient, history.

That’s why so many organizations are finally trying to sort out real values from “We’ve always done it that way” behaviours — but it isn’t easy.

If a CEO or senior team members refuse to walk the talk and continue to show favouritism toward particular sorts of people and decisions that don’t follow the values, the coherence and seamlessness of the culture a company is striving for will surely go to pieces.

It’s great to see more companies realizing this and taking pains to try to iron things out — but we have a long way to go before this is the majority style.

Dave Crisp is a Toronto-based writer and thought leader for Strategic Capability Network with a wealth of experience, including 14 years leading HR at Hudson’s Bay Co. where he took the 70,000-employee retailer to “best company to work for” status. For more information, visit

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Focus on customer (Leadership In Action)

By Blair Pollard

The executive panel at the recent Strategic Capability Network event came from a range of organizations and industries, yet they are targeting strikingly similar things.

Each organization sees a continuing murky economic climate and, as a result, each is focusing on customer experience to improve financial performance. Customer service and experience are viewed as key in retaining and attracting clients and competing in a difficult economy.

Each company saw a similar approach to driving that customer experience — the service value chain. The belief that a great work environment engages employees and releases their discretionary effort.

In turn, customers will benefit from that discretionary effort through high-quality products, services and experience, leading to enhanced customer loyalty, share of wallet and an improved financial performance.

Each one is focusing on employees and corporate culture to codify the employee experience. It was refreshing to see real-time examples of organizations moving business forward through culture.

Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment’s Fan First initiative leveraged tools such as customer relationship management (CRM) and social media. It was also mirrored in a similar employee relationship management focus, including engaging the gen-Y workforce, adapting the workplace and building in more flexibility.

Similarly, OpenText focused on the employee experience to support its customer experience and link 5,500 employees across 40 countries through a common corporate culture.

At the same time, human resources will be transformed to support this new employee value proposition rather than the more traditional transactional functions.

At Eli Lilly, this work was seen as an alignment initiative, built around the service value chain and anchored in the belief that focusing on the right things for employees and customers would culminate in business results.

Collectively, these employers viewed success with customers and ultimate financial success as starting with employees.

The care and feeding of a corporate culture is, at a minimum, a decision-making mechanism or compass for how to treat employees and, ideally, a strategic differentiator for a business.

Blair Pollard is a Toronto-based commentator on leadership for the Strategic Capability Network.

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Mission, vision and values in the short and long term (Strategic Capability)

By Karen Gorsline

All three panellists at the SCNetwork session indicated they were undertaking activities related to corporate culture.

Mission, vision and values provide the foundation for corporate culture, but the actual culture reflects how these foundation elements are put into operation and exhibited on a day-to-day basis.

Focusing on alignment is not enough. Organizations must also look constantly at whether the extent of the mission, vision and values — and resulting culture — are robust enough to sustain them now and in the future.

Eli Lilly’s shift to a more customer-centric focus has it re-examining leadership, development and nearly every aspect of HR management, including communication. OpenText has undertaken a major effort to re-examine its corporate values and to use that feedback and input to shape its culture. Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment is looking at its culture in terms of changes in society. Some considerations are the role of women in a business previously dominated by men, the ability of technology to increase a virtual audience and the impact of social media in relationships with customers and employees.

Culture in the near term: Culture is what it is. It may be consistent with the mission, vision and values or there may be disconnects and dysfunction. Those within the organization may be doing their best while experiencing confusion about expectations, wasting valuable time and resources. Or they may be overwhelmed by cynicism, giving up and waiting to see if the new trend blows over. They may exhibit negative and disruptive behaviour. Employers are looking closely at what they can do to develop a culture that supports their businesses.

Culture in the long term: The predisposition toward evolution or continuous improvement on an existing platform or culture underplays the possibility we are looking at something more disruptive, where adventurous and radical changes are required.

Changes over the past four decades have actually been revolutionary in terms of women, race, sexual orientation, technology and the economic power of developing or new global competitors.

North American society has significantly changed and others are rapidly changing as well. Competition is global. The generation preparing to take over has been “connected” almost since birth. They exchanged one umbilical cord for another — they expect to be continually connected. Technology is driving massive social change and we don’t know what that will look like.

Are employers, even those described as proactive, preparing for radical change over a compressed time period? HR is still evolving and talking about being a strategic business partner. There is an increasing use of social media and technology, but it’s primarily in the context of familiar HR processes.

Engagement, work-life balance and mental health are topics of interest and focus as companies try to address the changeover in the workforce over the next decade. But are employers proactively preparing to embrace what might be radical change over a shorter period than in the past?

Karen Gorsline is SCNetwork’s lead commentator on strategic capability and she leads HR Initiatives, a consulting practice focused on facilitation and tailored HR initiatives. Toronto-based, she has taught HR planning, held senior roles in strategy and policy, managed a large, decentralized HR function and directed a small business. She can be reached at

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