HR’s changing role and focus

Strategy development big part of equation for organizational leaders: Roundtable
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 02/06/2017

For all the talk about the future of work and the need to adapt, how is HR’s role changing and where will the challenges lie, asked Ian Hendry, president of the Strategic Capability Network and vice-president of HR and administration at Interac in Toronto.

Strategy development is part of the portfolio now for human resources leaders, according to Heather Briant, senior vice-president of human resources at Cineplex Entertainment in Toronto.

“That’s just part of the equation.”

And a primary responsibility is making sure the workforce is ready for tomorrow, she said.

“Not just tomorrow but tomorrow down the road. There’s no other role in the organization that has that front and centre, and that encompasses 20 different things.”

The most important part is ensuring there are effective leaders to take the lead in the executive role, said Briant.

“If we don’t have that, then the rest of it is not going to happen.”

The digitization of work is a big factor at Foresters, and that’s being tackled through a refresh of the HR strategy, said Suanne Nielsen, chief talent officer and corporate secretary at Foresters in Toronto.

“We’re educating the executive team that the way we’re operating today is not the way you can continue to operate into the future.”

And while executives were aligned in developing strategy, they weren’t necessarily aligned on execution, she said.

“So we embarked on a journey to really look at our culture, and get the ELT (executive leadership team) aligned around values and culture and how it was going to work with each other.”

Feedback from leaders had a huge impact on the executive team, she said.

“We quantified it through this survey — 23 per cent of the time in our organization is caught up in churn because of our misalignment. That’s what really had an impact, and seeing quotes like ‘Your inability to talk with this other person over here is causing me extra time on my job’... That caused the leadership team to say, ‘We’ve got to get our act together and work better together.’”

It’s helpful to find an issue people can align around, such as a CEO’s vision, said Mark Edgar, senior vice-president of HR at RSA Canada in Toronto.

“We used (our new CEO’s) appointment in a similar way to redefine our purpose and our vision, so we had something we could all align around,” he said. “We’re trying to find a different way of people connecting and engaging and agreeing on something, and once we’ve got that set, then we can start to work on strategy and those sorts of things.”

But having the right talent is still an issue, said Edgar.

“You need different capabilities to meet a different demand coming from the disruption. I think there’s also the question around agility, it’s how (to take) an organization that’s been quite static and how can you create an organization that’s more able to deal with this change and shifting thinking to see these opportunities that are being identified through technology change.”

HR’s focus at Cadillac Fairview has really been at the top of the house to make sure it’s cross-functionally on the right page and proactively adapting, said Norm Sabapathy, executive vice-president of people at Cadillac Fairview in Toronto.

“We’re in a business that’s not been really disrupted yet.  We’re having record returns, record engagement scores, and there’s no immediate burning platform to say, ‘We better do something different right now.’ But that makes your potential blind spot bigger and it makes the top of the house more resistant to change. We know disruptive change is coming, so we want to ensure the board and executive team are prepared to do what needs to be done to adapt.”

It’s the CEO who is driving proactive change and looking for HR to take a lead role, said Sabapathy.

 “Generally, HR compensation committees used to be fairly satisfied as long as you showed well-populated succession charts and made sure compensation was in line with the market. Now, it’s dizzying the breadth and depth of information they’re seeking, along with the depth of discussion they want to have on issues. We had two main additions to our strategy around building a purpose-driven brand and building an innovation platform, and when that comes up in the exec team, my boss regularly looks to me for updates, which is a little bit surprising, but it’s gratifying that the CEO is looking to me to be a catalyst to drive forward those two big strategic initiatives.”

New responsibilities for HR

A branding exercise by Cadillac Fairview that started two years ago had limited traction, said Sabapathy, and it became apparent the brand had to come from the inside out.

“So now I’m the co-lead on brand development and activation with marketing, and there’s a blurring of lines between what HR used to do and what they should be doing to help enable the business and strategy; for example, helping develop brand purpose and figure out how are we going to activate that through people’s behaviour as a strategic response to innovation and proactively dealing with the disruption we know is coming.”

At RSA, Edgar is leading work around strategy activation.

“It isn’t directly part of my job but I’ve become the more natural person to do that around the exec table, which is great for us. I’m not ticking boxes or pushing bits of paperwork in a very traditional, transaction HR role. So the HR role has evolved and it’s good we’re responding to that,” he said.

The biggest challenge is figuring out where you can have the biggest impact, said Edgar.

“There’s no shortage of things to do and everybody wants a bit of you — your team, your colleagues, your boss, your employees — and you have to think strategically about where you can make the biggest impact. And that’s hard, you don’t always know, you can’t always measure it. And I think lots of us are still very people-oriented by nature so you want to still take the role of being the conscience of the organization in some ways.”

There are so many needs from everywhere, and HR often steps in even if it’s really not part of the job description, Nielsen. “It’s just we know it’s going to lead to the effectiveness of the organization.”

In that vein, Nielsen ended up taking on the corporate secretary role because Foresters was entering into the development of a strategy, and the board said it wanted to be involved in that.

“Rather than go the traditional route and put a lawyer in, (they said) ‘Let’s get the HR executive in because naturally this person’s going to know about how to engage the board in the development of strategy,’” she said. “So we’ve been called in different ways because our business is saying, ‘We need something different.’”

Nielsen said she feels like a key translator and integrator in her role.

“Parts of the organization are working together and don’t know that they’re not working together, so I’m connecting them all the time, so ‘If you’re working on something over here, let’s leverage it over here…’ It’s a key integration role and alignment and translation.”

While communications are excellent, everybody puts their own spin and interpretation on them, she said.

“So even at senior levels in the organization, (it’s about) translating and clarifying or raising to the CEO or the executive team where clarification is required, because there are different views for how we’re moving forward.”

Analytics still key

But is enough of that discussion happening with managers, asked Hendry, since these are the people who have the greatest impact in terms of setting the stage and melding the culture.

“I’m wondering if there’s enough of that conversation at the manager level: ‘Where do you think you provide the greatest value to the organization? Where does your knowledge work best for us?’ It’d be interesting to know how much wasted effort there is between value time and just being busy, that separation between value and busyness.”

It’s also a question about analytics, he said.

“I don’t know if there’s a lot more questions being asked today around ‘What’s the ROI if you want to spend X on this…?’ It’s coming but it has a long way to go.”

RSA did a big coaching program in 2016 involving 300 leaders, and while 99 per cent of the participants said it was a great course, the CEO wanted to know the business impact, said Edgar. “You have to keep on a ‘why’ path to really try and draw that out.”

The CHRO role is more focused on impact these days, said Cheryl Fullerton, executive vice-president of people and communications at Corus in Toronto.

“Like all business leaders, we need to be smart about defining the high-priority needs, which means rigour in needs analysis. Then (we need to be) smart and focused on bringing solutions into our organizations to meet those needs.”

But Fullerton said she can be somewhat allergic to the term “best practice.”

“As people experts, we need to have a broad understanding of the tools and approaches that others use. But we add value by identifying the right solutions for our specific organization, people and situations — using the information at hand. We need to simplify and focus — and continually assess for impact.”

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