Focus on all to maximize engagement

Employers can’t afford to ignore low-wage earners if they want to survive: Panellists
By Todd Humber
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 03/24/2014

Late last year, a group of senior HR professionals who are members of the Strategic Capability Network gathered in downtown Toronto to conduct a sort of “State of HR” session. The conversation was moderated and facilitated by Ian Hendry, president of SCNetwork, an association for senior business leaders. (See for more information.)

Participating in the discussion were:

• Victoria Hubbell, senior vice-president of strategy and stakeholder relations at the Healthcare of Ontario Pension Plan (HOOPP)

• Judy Hunter, vice-president of HR and organizational development at Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital

• Laura Dunne, senior vice-president of human resources and organizational development at Indigo

• Warren Bell, executive vice-president and CHRO at OMERS (Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System)

• Suanne Nielsen, senior vice-president and chief talent officer at Foresters in Toronto.

By Todd Humber

Ed Broadbent — former leader of the federal NDP — recently said Canada’s greatest untapped resource is the skills and capacities of workers on the low end of the income scale.

“We have one of the world’s most educated populations but many Canadians without a degree spend their lives trapped in low-paying and insecure jobs that lead nowhere, when they could be an economic force to be reckoned with,” he wrote in the Globe and Mail late last year.

Ian Hendry, president of the Strategic Capablity Network, contrasted Broadbent’s stance with the view held by some organizations that the focus should be on the top 20 per cent of performers.

“Chances are you’d like to do everything for everyone,” said Hendry. “But you probably don’t have the budget for it, nor the inclination. When you see those two extremes, where do you sit?”

Warren Bell, executive vice-president and CHRO at OMERS in Toronto, said organizations can’t afford to choose one over the other.

“They are both right,” he said. “I don’t think you can have a top-performing organization if you don’t pay attention to both issues. You need to get the maximum engagement from the bulk of your organization, and the bulk of your organization tends to be at the lower-income level of the organization — or the level below the executive. It’s very difficult to have a sustainable, long-term, positive outcome unless you maximize the engagement, which is what I think Ed Broadbent gets at.”

But on the flip side, if an employer wants to drive differentiated performance, it needs to have its top 20 per cent pushing the agenda, he said.

“I don’t think either one of those things alone gets you to the outcome,” said Bell.

“You have to do both. It’s no longer ‘Can you?’ — You better, if you want to survive.”

Laura Dunne, senior vice-president of human resources and organizational development at Indigo, said customer experience is everything at her organization — and the people connecting with customers on a daily basis are front-line, hourly employees making $10 or $11 per hour.

“If we can’t help them reach their full potential and feel engaged in what they’re doing, then we’re not going to have the experience we need in the store to remain viable as an operation,” she said. “So we help them reach their full potential.”

That doesn’t mean every hourly employee is going to climb the ranks, said Dunne, but knowing how to inspire and connect with them is a significant part of her team’s effort and the field of leadership as a whole.

If there is consensus that lower-paid staff are underutilized and can do more, what does that mean in terms of the actual money organizations spend on development, asked Hendry — how many dollars are directed at the front line versus the top ranks?

At Indigo, far more resources are pumped into developing the effectiveness of front-line store staff than head office employees, said Dunne.

At OMERS, Bell said they “overinvest” in a small group of high performers on a per-person basis.

“The way we look at it is ‘Who are 20 people below the senior leadership team who can lever our performance?’ And we’re going to take them on a global leadership program journey over 18 months,” he said.

Judy Hunter, vice-president of HR and organizational development at Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital, said her organization targets development dollars to support strategic initiatives.

“If we have a big strategic initiative around, for example, diversity, equity and inclusion, we send a bunch of people through education of what that means and how to build that plan,” she said. “We are investing in getting people — so that we’re not dependent on external consultants all the time — up to speed.”

High-potential candidates vs. strong bees

Hendry then turned his attention to the notion of high-potential candidates — or HiPos, as they’re known.

“The idea of HiPo, is that gone now? Are we still using it? There used to be the issue, ‘Don’t tell anybody that you’re a HiPo. Everyone will want to be one,’” he said.

“It’s the ‘solid bees’ that you need to stay because they’re the group that often sustain the organization over the long haul. And if you tick off enough of those ‘strong bees,’ as we used to call them, you run a risk with that. The issue around transparency versus risk — I’ve always struggled with that one.”

The HiPo concept is alive and well, said Bell, but it’s taken a bit of a different form and the language has changed.

“I can give you a list of who our 50 highest potentials are,” he said, but they don’t necessarily know they’re on the list.

“We’re working through that. Ultimately, we will get to the place where everybody knows that,” said Bell. “Many of them know but not all. We are focusing on how to manage this transparency really well. But we are on that track and we will get there.”

The language OMERS uses is a personal language about what the worker’s aspirations are and what the organization thinks is realistic for the individual, he said.

“There’s no label at all. We have a label but we never use it,” he said. “It never comes out.”

At Indigo, the concept is getting stronger — and that’s because the retailer wants to grow its talent from the inside, said Dunne.

“We have to hire people for potential, we have to take bets on people,” she said. “Our greatest leaders are talent builders, so the people that spot great talent accelerate their development, know how to get them to the next level and are unthreatened by hiring someone who could be better than them one day. All of that, we try to build into the culture of the organization.”

Leaders who don’t buy into that philosophy and block talent can be called out, said Dunne.

“It’s like, ‘You’re great. You’ve been leading this team for four years and you’ve never hired or developed anyone who can do anything more than what they’ve been hired to do. At some point, that starts to dim your star. And we need someone in your role who can do something more than just their job,’” said Dunne.

Engagement still an issue

Hendry wrapped up the conversation by talking about engagement, something he said still seems to be an issue across all industries in all parts of the world — “What are we missing?” he asked the panellists.

There are two individuals at every organization who really can dictate whether the organization has high engagement or low engagement — and that’s the CEO and the CHRO, said Bell.

“If those two people aren’t emotionally committed to the engagement file, it doesn’t happen,” he said. “It doesn’t happen on its own, and those are the two most critical people. You could probably do it without the chief HR officer if the CEO was committed, but not the other way around.”

There’s no question the CEO has to drive engagement, said Dunne.

“You need people to understand and connect to what the organization is trying to achieve,” she said. “Part of it is conveying the logical connection between an individual’s work and the goals of the organization. They need to know how their part fits in. But then you need to earn emotional commitment, because rational commitment is not enough. ‘OK, I get it, but am I actually going to do anything about it?’ You need that emotional commitment.”

And that emotional commitment can be harder to get from younger workers, said Dunne.

“They’re more aloof. They’re not approaching an organization with a really long timeline,” she said.

“Their loyalties are a little different. They’re very open to making change. They’re proud to have worked at a great place — but they don’t need to stay there forever.”

Hunter said building the emotional attachment at her hospital is a bit easier because many health-care workers care so deeply about their calling.

“But it could still be a crumby organization where you’re doing what you do, so the organization has to be great,” she said.

Hunter pointed to strong brands — such as Apple and Starbucks — where people are buying the “why” of the product and not necessarily the “what” — “If you can figure out why your people are there or you have a really compelling purpose for your organization beyond shareholder value, it’s a lot easier to have employees engaged.”

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