Coping with change a given in today’s workplace: Roundtable

A look at how HR can deal with transformations and encourage the right behaviours
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 02/22/2016

Change is a constant challenge today, that’s a given. And HR always has to be on its toes, ready for the next transformation, planned or unplanned, according to senior HR leaders participating in a roundtable hosted by the Strategic Capability Network (SCNetwork) in Toronto.

RSA Group, for example, has been transforming the way its business is run, organized and structured, according to Mark Edgar, senior vice-president of HR at RSA Group in Toronto.

“We spent 2013 working very closely with consultants to inform the new strategy that we’re now implementing. So the biggest thing for us has been managing change, transformational change, which has been interesting.”

The moves came about in response to internal and external challenges driven by a new group CEO, he said.

“(He) was very much focused around delivering for our customers and the sustainability of the business from an efficiency and effectiveness perspective, so our expenses were too high to maintain long-term profitability and competitiveness, so we had to adjust as a result of that.”

A new CEO in 2014 also instigated a new and transformational change at Foresters that meant taking a longer-term view, according to Suanne Nielsen, chief talent officer and corporate secretary in Toronto.

“Out of that, the HR role of course is everything to do with people and change, so it’s all hands on deck.”

The previous CEO was retiring and while the board initially looked within the organization for an internal successor, it ultimately brought in a new CEO from the United States, she said.

“What they discovered through the recruitment process — because you get feedback from the candidates themselves on what they think is happening in the industry and contrasting with your organization — the board became convinced they needed someone who could architect and lead huge transformational change; they thought it was the next evolution of the business.”

At Cadillac Fairview, the CEO changed about five years ago and that drove a big organizational change, said Norm Sabapathy, executive vice-president of people in Toronto.

“Our results have really shown it; we’ve had record-setting results in our business, and some of that  is definitely attributed to the deliberate cultural evolution behind those results.”

Burning platform

But aside from a switch in leadership, how can change be encouraged without some kind of dire circumstances spurring it on? asked Ian Hendry, president of the Strategic Capability Network and vice-president of HR for Interac in Toronto.

“We talk about being agile but is it a question of simplifying language so people understand it, like culture? What are those things you can do if you don’t have a burning platform, how do you create an energy within the organization to do things differently, whether it’s customer service, process redesign, new technologies, operational excellence — how do you create that quasi-burning platform?”

It’s about having people think about how to weather the storm over the long term, said Edgar.

“It seems strange that in a world that’s ever changed, we think we can plan so far ahead — but people are trying to. But then the idea of getting everybody aligned behind that common goal is the key and people’s increasing need for purpose and  ‘Where’s the contribution?,’ ‘Where’s the impact?’ is where again we have a really big role to play to make that happen. So it’s about trying to make people clear on what their contribution is, what their goal is.”

It’s about common language and everything rolling up to that, said Kim Carter, head of HR at Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment (MLSE) in Toronto. 

“I’m spending a lot of time these days on just internal communications and how are we are doing that in every message from the CEO, in setting business priorities, in rewarding employees — in everything that we do — and keeping that consistency. 

“Furthermore, having it be part of that executive table, so we’re all on the same page and delivering that message, but also having the programs to follow up with it. So we’re being very purposeful about the words that we choose.”

The “audience” is more sophisticated and they want to be spoken to regularly, she said.

“Seventy per cent of our staff are gen Y and they demand it. They want to know and they want to be part of the conversation, so it’s also being purposeful about how you create the opportunity to have conversations.”

Change management and the need to get people excited about things is more important today than ever before, according to Heather Briant, senior vice-president of human resources at Cineplex in Toronto.

“I don’t sense that the typical employee is resistant to change — change is all around us every day, we are bombarded with new ideas and new things all the time, in personal space and the workplace, so I don’t think that we have a lot of work to do to convince people that we need to always be innovating and changing, I don’t think that’s unique to the workplace or Canada — people get it.”


It’s about having a vision and direction and testing different innovations so you’re readying yourselves for an uncertain future, said Nielsen.

“We just came off an engagement survey and the innovation issue came up as a key driver for the first time for engagement, came up in a negative way, because people are saying, ‘(It’s the) cultural part, it’s hard to advance ideas in our organization because of bureaucracy and the decision rate and those kinds of things.’ So we’re trying innovation over here and we’re stifling it in another part of the organization.”

Cadillac Fairview is totally on the same page, said Sabapathy.

“The world is changing rapidly but actually getting people to change, figuring out how to help them want to change and then stick with the change is challenging. There’s still lots of work to do.”

There’s got to be more discipline and support behind it, and that’s where HR can show up and do a better job, he said.

“We’ve started bringing more change management resources in-house to build that competency inside because we found a lot of changes we thought were happening weren’t really happening like they were intended, and even when they did, it was tough to make them stick. 

“We’d change a process or system, and generally get the technical solution right, but didn’t spend enough time thinking about the behaviours and the consequences that would make the change actually happen, and that’s 80 per cent of the success equation.”


When Nielsen first arrived at Foresters years ago, there were a lot of long-term people who hadn’t seen a lot of change in their careers. But today, both those who are still with the organization and newer hires recognize change is part of the job and you’ve got to be a leader of change, she said.

“Organizations used to think of change management as a skill that you bring in when you have a change that’s going to happen, and now what’s emerging is it’s now being embedded into every leader’s role, and it’s being embedded into the HR role. 

“And it’s not about a process, it’s more about the way in which we think about making the change — we have to acknowledge the fact we expect people to behave differently.”

Cineplex tried to internalize the push towards innovation and change within the roles of managers, said Briant, “not in a very formal way, but we just considered it to be part of that role…. (It’s about) helping your team understand the concepts, helping them embrace them, execute on them.”

RSA created a similar directive, said Edgar.

“They follow set processes… and make sure the changes are embedded and sustained within the organization so you get the maximum benefits,” he said.

“So we use that as a way of making sure leaders don’t feel they’re off the hook — it’s their role to take their teams through what’s been a significant amount of change and our role to equip them with the skills to do that.”

Competence issues

As part of the transformation, a lot is being pushed down to managers and yet surveys show many leaders are seen as a disappointment, incompetent or complete failures, said Hendry. And many employees would forego a pay raise to see their direct supervisor fired.

So, do employers have the necessary competency at that level? he asked.

The management ranks have now thinned so much that leaders must be good at change management, said Nielsen.

 For Cineplex, it’s a key responsibility within human resources, said Briant.

“One of our key deliverables is to ensure the manager at all levels across the organization is effective… through messaging, tone at the top.”

The role of leadership has become really hard because of all the changes around the expectations of employees, demographic changes and the diversity piece, said Edgar. 

“You need to equip leaders, plus there’s less of them. But if you get that right, then you could argue that they now become the attractors of talent and the custodians of the culture that the organization has, so I think often a cause of problems in organizations is bad leadership.”

MLSE has spent a lot of time talking to leaders and figuring out their true challenges, said Carter.

“There are less of them, they are required to do more, they’re getting the crunch and in listening to them, they need tools in their tool kit,” she said, which MLSE is trying to supply. 

“There’s recognition around that table at the executive level that we can’t make change, we can’t improve our customer service, we can’t do any of those things without those people on the ground having that same energy for those efforts and contributing.”

When it comes to the particular challenges for leaders, these may include critical thinking, strategic planning and understanding financials, said Carter.

“That is the dirty secret of management is that there are lot of people out there who are really good functionally, who’ve grown up inside their functional area but they get to a certain level and they do not have a full grasp or understanding of financials,” she said.

“We’ve started to try to attack that in different ways and the feedback has been incredible on anything we’ve done to grow skills in the organization around that.”

For Sabapathy, the true secret is leaders understanding human behaviour and performance, and HR can jump in by helping define what the role of the manager really should be and developing supporting tools.

“It  can be confusing because it’s not only the things they need to starting doing, but also the things they need to stop doing. 

Today, there are generally less managers, and there are lots of demands put on leaders as we expect leaders to do performance coaching, employee development, help people clear roadblocks, delegate, follow up and evaluate performance,” he said. 

“We just keep adding more stuff and are much better at this than taking things off their plates.”

Helping leaders understand clear expectations as well as what they can stop doing is a focus for the next few years at Cadillac Fairview because the mid-management group often feels squeezed in the middle, and can be overlooked as initiatives roll out versus being considered a lynchpin in the process, said Sabapathy.

 Sometimes it’s about providing more context, said Carter. 

“They’ve got all this, they’ve got their staff, they’re feeling that crunch, and you’ll often hear from them ‘I don’t have time’ or ‘We don’t have the resources.’ Well, it’s really the ones that are good at it that have that real true understanding and linkage to the context of where the business is headed and what we’re trying to achieve. Sometimes you can deal with less or do things that are hard… but they have to understand the greater end.”

There’s also the issue of some leaders producing great results but not great behaviour, said Edgar, so the challenge is managing that performance.

“It’s really important to follow through on those really symbolic decisions around people that everyone knows are a bit of a challenge, even if they have been there a long time or have got some key relationships with customers,” he said. “How you deal with these situations is a sign of how people are treated overall in your organization.”

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