CEOs talk about HR priorities

Senior HR practitioners want a seat at the executive table and an opportunity to prove how HR can contribute significantly to the bottom line
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 05/21/2006

Shayne Smith


The engineering services firm employs 800 people at 12 Canadian and five international offices. Wardrop does not have a designated head office.

The last eight years have seen Wardrop, which began as a five-person engineering consulting firm in Winnipeg, triple the size of its business. And it doesn’t show any signs of slowing down, with 50-per-cent growth expected in the next three years.

A big part of the growth can be traced to a reorganization that saw the company move from a regional focus to a market focus. Before, regional offices would be doing multidisciplinary engineering, whereas now the company has distinct business units focused on specific markets such as oil and gas, nuclear and forestry.

“We’ve been on such a growth spurt that we haven’t had the appropriate amount of attention on our development of our existing resources,” says CEO Shayne Smith. “We’re now starting to focus on formal development and succession planning processes, identifying high potential employees, ensuring that we’re maximizing the advantages that our career planning process and corporate training programs provide.”

As a result of the reorganization, Wardrop is now looking for different skill sets in its leadership potentials.

“We’re now looking for somebody who, from a leadership capability, is comfortable having people reporting to them from multiple locations, who is very deep in experience in a particular market,” says Smith.

There’s also an increased need for functional specialists, he adds.

“Fifteen years ago, we might have had a manager who worked part time in business development, part time in project management and part time in people management,” says Smith. “Now we look for professional people managers, professional project managers and professional people with 15 or 20 years in particular markets.”

This talent development strategy involves a balance of internal development and external hires. Bolstering more formal training programs that now target specific groups such as leaders or project managers, the firm has also set up what it calls “chief discipline networks” to co-ordinate the training of people within specific disciplines such as civil engineering or environmental engineering.

To help attract people, the company builds its employer brand and participates in the Canada’s Top 100 Employer ranking by Mediacorp. Smith says that effort is helped by the fact the firm is entirely owned by a group of about 40 employees, which gives it its “people-centric” culture.

“The people who own the company have significant management roles, so there’s a high degree of connectivity between management and staff,” says Smith. “It’s not hierarchical at all. The managers, many of whom are owners, have an interest in making sure the staff are happy, they’re engaged (and) the projects are challenging.”

Employees get many opportunities to travel, in Canada and across the globe, for projects. And to foster the collaboration, the compensation structure departs from those at other partnerships such as law firms or accounting firms, where employees are paid for how much work they each bring in. “In our company, the way the owners split up the bonus at the end of the year is consolidated on the performance of the entire company. So the management and ownership are all very interested in how everybody in the company is doing.”

With such a strong focus on talent, Smith says he relies on the vice-president of HR on devising strategies.

“I’m on the phone talking with him about HR issues practically every day or every other day,” he says. “I look at HR very much as a strategic advantage in the marketplace. He is my principal advisor and I guess what I encourage him to do is to proactively intervene in our business areas. With our combined efforts, we’re working on anticipating HR issues in all the various business units.”

Nowadays, many of these issues are staffing-related, whether it’s making key hires or staffing up for a project, says Smith.

“When we’re looking at putting together the strategy for the business, my VP of HR is a partner in that.”

Kim McConnell

Chief executive officer

This Calgary-based advertising agency specializes in agricultural marketing and employs 81 full-time employees. The agency also has offices in Guelph, Ont., Kansas City, Mo., and Fargo, N.D.

To better understand the customers to which its clients are selling, all the employees at Calgary-based agricultural advertising agency AdFarm own shares in two company farms. Shares cost $25 and each employee is only allowed to buy up to four shares. The employees decide what they’re going to plant and what machinery and products they need to buy. While the employees don’t actually do the farming themselves, they meet with the farmer who runs the farms to discuss their decisions and then they visit the farms throughout the year.

“People having a vested financial interest in it, even though it’s a maximum $100, they have a much greater appreciation of what the crops are and what it takes to make a living being a farmer and the trials and tribulations,” says Kim McConnell, CEO.

This training and development initiative helps the creative employees upon whom AdFarm relies for their strong advertising background, but who may not be very comfortable with the agricultural field, gain more familiarity with the products their clients are selling.

Another HR initiative that helps motivate employees and saves the company some money is what McConnell calls the “summertime option.” This gives employees the chance to augment their regular vacation time and take a chunk of unpaid time off work.

The employee needs approval from his team to take the time off, which means most employees who take advantage of the benefit do so during the agency’s slow times. What makes the benefit even better is that instead of stopping an employee’s pay for that period, AdFarm distributes the employee’s salary, minus the unpaid time off, over the entire year so the employee gets a regular paycheque.

“We probably have about 10 per cent of our staff take the summertime option,” says McConnell. “Even though not everybody takes it, people think that’s a neat benefit to have.”

The company farms and the summertime option are two parts of the agency’s overall HR strategy to attract and retain quality employees. This strategy directly supports the agency’s overall business goal to become the world’s most respected marketing and agricultural advertising firm, a goal in which HR is a key player, says McConnell.

“Sixty-three per cent of our expenses are people-related,” he says. “If that’s how much we’re spending, then I think the HR director has a very vested interest in the direction the corporation is taking.”

The HR director is part of the management team, which meets every two weeks. McConnell says while he expects everyone on that team to leave their job priorities outside of the meetings, HR can bring something unique and vital to the group.

“The expertise that the HR director brings of how to handle this from an employee perspective, is very, very important to what we’re doing,” he said.

This expertise becomes especially essential when the company is trying to figure out how to keep profits high in an era of high costs, due to Calgary’s energy boom, and stable client growth.

“Either I accept less profits or I’m going to have to do things even more efficiently,” says McConnell.

Like any businessman, McConnell prefers the second option. To make the company more efficient, he has turned to an initiative called “performance leadership” in which HR will play an important role by working with managers to develop a culture of expectation, he says.

This involves clearly defining and stating what is expected and required of each employee in her job. “When they know what is expected of them, and they can buy in on that, then they can go faster, better, cheaper and easier,” he says.

This culture of clearly communicating with employees is an extension of McConnell’s current strategy of meeting with all employees three times a year. During these meetings, he gives them a comprehensive overview of how the business is performing, including complete financial information.

These meetings foster a sense of trust and ownership in the business which, in turn, leads to increased productivity, says McConnell.

“It makes them feel that the business is not one person’s business, or even the shareholder’s business,” he says. “It’s everybody’s business and when they can understand and have a feeling for that, then it becomes more than just the job.”

Lloyd Craig,

President and CEO
Coast Capital Savings

Headquartered in Surrey, B.C., this credit union employs about 2,000 or the equivalent of 1,650 full-time employees at 47 locations in the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island.

Having been through two mergers in the last six years, bringing together Richmond Savings, Pacific Coast Savings and Surrey Metro Savings into the current Coast Capital Savings, Lloyd Craig sees a wealth of talent around him.

Though nine of the senior executives are in their 60s, Craig says he’s not worried about succession planning.

He does, however, pay attention to the training employees receive once they’ve joined Coast Capital Savings — as well as hiring the right person to begin with.

“The whole personnel question starts with the day you hire,” says Craig. “We can make you into a banker but we can’t make you ambitious and we can’t give you a good attitude. So when we’re out there, we’re looking for someone with the right attitude, people with creativity and ambition and people with a good index of likeability.”

To make good hires, the credit union first has to attract people by being a good company, says Craig. To that effect, the credit union has worked on landing accolades, through participation in such lists as Best Employers in Canada, Canada’s 50 Best Managed Companies and British Columbia’s Ethics in Action Awards.

Once the credit union has hired the right people, it then develops them through various programs. These include “Coast Way,” an orientation training program, “One to Win,” an incentive program that pays out performance-based financial rewards every quarter, and “Coast U,” a central resource of online and classroom training modules.

Hiring the right people and training them will play a key role this year, as Coast Capital Savings pursues a strategy of targeting Asian clients at four of its branches, a small-business strategy and a strategy to provide retail-style banking services in three open-concept branches called “Aperio stores.”

The small-business strategy requires people to be trained on such things as small-business loan policies and ways to assess the credit-worthiness of an enterprise.

For the Asian strategy, the credit union had to offer training on cultural dos and don’ts among Chinese communities, as well as staffing plans to make sure Cantonese- and Mandarin-speaking employees are deployed to the right branches.

In the open-concept branches, customers would enter an open space and do some of their transactions at computer stations, while staff mill about greeting and interacting with customers.

“That takes a lot of training because you need the right type of retail-oriented people in there,” says Craig. “You have to have people comfortable working in an open environment and be very accessible to the members.”

And on a continuing basis, staff in the performance analytics department travel around to all the branches and measure how people are doing.

“If they think (something) is being done exceptionally in one branch, they would bring that back to what we call our ‘Learning Council’ and decide whether that should be taught at our corporate university,” says Craig.

In all these strategies, Craig says he gets input from the senior vice-president of HR, who’s a member of the executive team.

“Everything we do has an HR implication. Everything we do takes people to do it. It takes training and takes the right people, so HR is obviously involved in all our business strategy,” says Craig.

Derek Ballantyne

Chief executive officer
Toronto Community Housing Corporation

The Toronto Community Housing Corporation manages most of the city’s low-income rental housing. The non-profit organization has 1,500 employees and is responsible for a $5-billion portfolio of properties.

In the past couple of years, the HR function at the Toronto Community Housing Corporation has been undergoing a major shift.

“We decided that HR had to become a proactive unit and one that was completely engaged in making our plans happen instead of simply reacting,” says Derek Ballantyne, CEO.

Typically in a non-profit organization like the Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC), HR’s role is more transactional and process-oriented, says Ballantyne. But that kind of role wasn’t enough to help the TCHC meet its business goals of ensuring the organization’s $5-billion portfolio of rental properties are kept in a good state of repairs, that it continues to improve its service capacity and capability and improve organizational health.

Two years ago, the TCHC surveyed its employees and while it found that staff enjoyed working for the organization, the programs that support employees in the workplace needed improvement.

As a result, the rewards and recognition, training, employee assistance programs and benefits were all brought together in a single organizational health initiative, focused on developing a culture of employee health and engagement.

Ballantyne wants the HR department to actively promote this culture and take on a leadership role in the organizational change needed to make the initiative a success.

“We had to retool both individual skills and invest in development so HR can become a leader in driving the change,” he says. “Now the biggest challenge for us is to actually get HR to be proactive in areas where they have traditionally been the supportive voice.”

To empower the HR staff to be more proactive, Ballantyne sent them out into the different operational areas to learn TCHC’s business issues on the ground floor.

This knowledge enables HR to be more proactive in creating recruiting and development strategies that meet the business needs as well as to work with front-line managers to solve any HR-related challenges that arise.

“There’s not a great deal of value to an organization to have HR be simply process controllers,” says Ballantyne. “The particular value add of HR to an organization is being involved in the development of strategy of an organization.”

In fact, the organization benefits when all employees are involved in strategy development, adds Ballantyne.

“It generally improves performance for us,” he says. “It drives a much better cohesion in the organizational culture.”

The TCHC brought employees into the strategy-development process after turning the employee training program “on its head,” says Ballantyne.

Instead of the management team developing the training programs for employees, the different work units actually developed their own training. They started by identifying their own knowledge gaps and what skills they needed to fulfill their duties within the organization.

The TCHC surveys the more than 150,000 residents who live in the apartments it manages and since the employee-led training programs were put in place a couple of years ago, resident satisfaction with the quality of service, and staff’s responsiveness, understanding and skills, have improved significantly, says Ballantyne.

“The community training led us into the understanding that there’s a much greater capacity in our employees to understand issues,” he says.

Based on this success, the TCHC decided to involve all staff and work units in identifying key organizational issues. The management team then filters out the common themes and develops strategic initiatives for the organization.

“It has given employees a much better connection to the organization’s strategy,” says Ballantyne. “They see themselves reflected there and they have a much better understanding.”

Shirlee Sharkey

Chief executive officer
Saint Elizabeth Health Care

This Markham, Ont.-based non-profit, charitable health-care provider employs 3,700 staff, including nurses, personal support workers, occupational therapists and information technology professionals.

Whether someone is a young professional looking to advance her career, a parent who wants to spend time with her children or is nearing retirement and looking to work less, Saint Elizabeth Health Care has a work arrangement to meet those diverse needs, says the health-care provider’s CEO.

“We have a variety of career options and employment categories that really fit peoples’ needs and the stage of their lives they’re at,” says Shirlee Sharkey.

Saint Elizabeth provides home care locally, but also serves as a consultant for other health organizations and develops its health-care software.

The flexibility to take time off during school holidays, cut back on hours or ramp up a career track allows Saint Elizabeth to attract the best staff, which is good for business, says Sharkey. Without the right staff, the organization couldn’t fulfill its contracts.

In fact, getting and keeping the right staff is one of Saint Elizabeth’s top HR priorities over the next few years to meet its long-term goal of becoming known as a leading, national health-care provider, a goal developed with HR’s feedback.

People are the most significant component of good health care and any business strategy that didn’t involve HR’s input would be very lacking, says Sharkey.

“Even when we were a small organization of only 300 employees, HR has always played a strategic role,” she says.

Part of HR’s priority to attract the best staff is to position the organization as an employer of choice so the best health-care workers will want to work at Saint Elizabeth’s, says Sharkey. These efforts are starting to pay off as Saint Elizabeth ranked 27th on Canadian Business’s Best Workplaces in Canada list this year and the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario just presented the organization with its best employer award.

Attracting the right staff is vital, but retaining them is just as important, which is why Saint Elizabeth has been optimizing employee engagement. Saint Elizabeth is constantly surveying employees on engagement, either formally or informally.

“It’s never-ending and it’s never enough,” says Sharkey.

Every year, each employee fills out Hewitt Associates’ Best Employers in Canada survey, which measures engagement. Saint Elizabeth has traditionally ranked high on Hewitt’s measures of corporate values and intrinsic motivation, but in the past had scored low on total rewards.

“This is where we realized that we needed to revisit, repackage and re-engineer to some extent our total rewards,” says Sharkey. “We developed an innovative way of packaging how we’re compensating everyone.”

One way the organization does this is by providing a health spending account. Each employee gets a certain amount of health-care dollars she can spend as she sees fits — be it for eye care, prescriptions or massage.

“This allows for total customization based on what you’re health needs are,” says Sharkey.

Benefits and pensions are also available to all staff, be they full time or part time, she says. All staff are also eligible for tuition assistance, she adds.

Saint Elizabeth also conducts client satisfaction surveys, which it shows to employees.

“Part of getting the feedback is being able to give employees the information,” says Sharkey. “We share that with our staff to help them see how they’re being perceived.”

The results motivate employees by helping them understand the value they’re bringing to their clients, she says.

The one way Sharkey would like to see HR increase its value to the organization is to look outside the health-care sector for best practices and figure out if those practices can be adapted for Saint Elizabeth.

“That’s extremely valuable because it helps you get out of your own world and find out what are some of the best practices that can be translated and applied.”

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