Talent management high on HR’s agenda

Senior HR leaders discuss strategies for ensuring the right people are on the payroll
By Todd Humber
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 01/21/2015

When Cadillac Fairview unveiled its five-year business strategy, one of the five key planks was making people and culture a competitive advantage.

That’s music to the ears of many HR professionals. But saying it and actually doing it are two different things, something Norm Sabapathy, executive vice-president of people at the Toronto-based firm that owns, operates and develops commercial real estate, quickly found out in his first full year on the job.

“It sounds awesome, until you look below the surface and talk to people down through the organization to find out what’s really happening in practice,” he said. “And there were clear gaps between what we thought was happening and what people were actually doing.  There had not been enough focus on systems needed to reinforce and sustain required behavior.”

That’s not to suggest things were sour at the organization — far from it, he said. 

“Before I arrived, the organization was spending material time on talent, which is a credit to them because the business has been very successful, and there wasn’t necessarily a burning platform for change,” said Sabapathy. “No issues attracting people, no issues retaining people, yet they spent time thinking ahead, saying we need to invest around talent. They got to the 10-yard line, now we’re on our way to completing the rest of the 100 yards for a touchdown in line with our five-year business strategy .”

He spent a lot of time in 2014 figuring out a five-year people strategy that meshed nicely with the business plan. 

“And it’s not just an HR strategy,” he said. “It’s seen as a people strategy that the business owns versus ‘Here’s this new HR guy and he and his team came up with an HR strategy.’”

A big part of the strategy is forecasting talent needs in the future. For example, what will the general managers running shopping malls and office towers need to do differently five years from now? 

“They’re going to spend time on environmental social governance and things that they never really talked about,” said Sabapathy. 

For managers running malls, the question might be how to best support tenants and their business models as more sales move online. That could involve creating the right customer experience that gets people into the malls to shop, and then providing WiFi solutions that track where they are and giving them information on where to go for specific products and deals.

Globally, there are numerous challenges as well, he said. That’s because a lot of Cadillac Fairview’s future growth is happening outside of Canada. 

“So what do we need to do when we talk about living our values of client focus, collaboration and innovation when we’re doing land deals and warehousing development in Brazil or Colombia? It’s much different than downtown Toronto,” he said.

Assessing talent, and ensuring the organization has the right people in place to achieve long-term goals, was a theme that resonated among the panellists.

For Heather Briant, senior vice-president of people at theatre chain Cineplex Entertainment, the strategy is to focus on existing employees and help them to evolve rather than looking for new talent.

“It’s helping those people who are already committed and talented people in our organization to perhaps change their focus a bit and consider new opportunities,” she said. 

“It’s a little different from saying, ‘You need to fit this box and if you don’t, we’ll find someone who does.’”

The company has a mature core of employees and a business that is challenged with a lot of digital opportunities — and high expectations from guests and customers.

“There’s always a need for us to be innovating on a three-year transformation journey, but really with very little turnover,” said Briant, who is based in Toronto. “We need really committed, talented people who understand the business intuitively and also understand the end user really well.”

Aging talent is on the agenda for many organizations. Mark Edgar, senior vice-president of human resources at RSA Canada in Toronto, said the insurance sector hasn’t done a good enough job of attracting people to the industry.

“We need to do more to compete with other sectors that have a perception of being sexy,” he said. “So there’s more we can do to bring people into it and then accelerate people through from a career perspective.”

Retention was on their radar screens, but it hasn’t proven to be a pain point, said Edgar.

“And where people have left, we’ve still been able to attract people to the organization,” he said, pointing to a recent round of recruiting for C-suite positions where the available talent pool was very deep.

In the realm of mortgages, the business model and strategy at MCAP is very strong so management’s attention has turned to how to embed the strategy and grow both talent and operational effectiveness, said Helen Giffen, senior vice-president of HR at the Toronto-based lender.

“The initial thinking was ‘Let’s do a talent management strategy,’” she said. 

The early work included collecting information about people’s backgrounds and career interests and developing long-term views of key employees, said Giffen.

“When it comes to developing people, the main concerns were having sufficient depth to support technical excellence and sufficient breadth to support leadership and succession,” she said. “We decided to start at the top by putting development plans in place to further develop our key executives.”

In addition to developing talent, Giffen said it was important to address productivity — “I’ve got a board that’s eager to have something practical happen and show measurable results.”

On the productivity front, MCAP started with performance management.

“That’s probably the most challenging of all HR disciplines. Most organizations can’t get it quite right. We worked hard to make it easier, more engaging on both sides and more explicit as a driver of productivity.”

The message sent out from HR was that performance management and productivity are inextricably linked. 

“Because if you don’t get alignment, if you don’t get perfect integration between individual objectives and business strategies, if you’ve got gaps between what people ought to be doing and what they are doing, if you don’t have coaching that is directly driving results, then you get productivity leakage,” said Giffen. “That suddenly made a difference. That was the language they understood — they got behind performance management.”

At Indigo Books &  Music, the change in recent years has been dramatic, according to Laura Dunne, senior vice-president of human resources. The Toronto-based company has morphed far beyond its original roots, now billing itself as the “world’s first cultural department store,” she said. And it’s far more than just a bricks and mortar operation — it even manufactures its own products in some cases.

“Everything about it is different,” she said. “We needed to bring into the organization whole new capabilities that we didn’t have before on the merchant side, but also on the supply chain side. There are entire functions that we had to create that didn’t exist before: Regulatory functions and QA (quality assurance) functions and global sourcing functions.”

All that has meant tremendous change and growth for the human resources department and for the skill sets of HR professionals. 

“There are a lot of great HR people that are great in a single area — great comp people, great learning people and great employee relations people,” said Dunne. “But finding people that have more of an organizational view has been quite difficult.”

It was also a challenge to find people who have change capabilities, she said.

“Not just theoretical models but actually know how to take an organization from doing what it’s always done to doing what it needs to do.”

Customers have high expectations and expect a seamless experience, whether that’s in-store, on a website, a mobile app or using a loyalty program. They expect services however they want it, whenever they want it — something that is costly and difficult to provide.

“You might have people that are great at wireframing and online merchandising, but it doesn’t mean they know how to bring that into the store so that the customer experience is seamless,” she said. 

“We had a real challenge finding that true omni-experience and capability. Canada’s pretty nascent in that space and there aren’t a whole lot of progressive Canadian retailers.”

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