HR Leader: Supriya James of Canadian Western Bank

'While it's really important to always be an employee advocate, you've also got to have a real acumen for business and for analytics'

HR Leader: Supriya James of Canadian Western Bank

“Thank God I did not follow that path, because I think in retrospect, I would have been a lousy marketer.”

So says Supriya James in talking about her decision 30 years ago to pursue a degree in human resources.

Growing up in India, she was determined to follow in the path of her father, who had a successful career in the “glamorous” world of marketing and advertising, she says.

But having applied for some highly competitive MBAs, James was encouraged by her mother — a lawyer — to pursue “personnel management and industrial relations” instead.

“I went through the selection process, they had some case studies and they had some professors that you interacted with in the exam — I can't even explain how much of a gut connection I felt, through that process, with what I was being exposed to. And there was no looking back,” says James, who is now senior vice president of human resources at Canadian Western Bank in Edmonton.

“Thirty years later, I sit back and I think about this, I'm so grateful for that moment, because I love what I do. It's an absolute gift to spend your career doing what you love.”

So, what was it about human resources that was so appealing? A winning combination.

“I have always been naturally curious about the lives and stories of people. I've always been someone who will go out of my way to support and cheer on the underdog. [Plus] I am very analytical, and I love math. And I take ethics and values and morals really seriously,” she says.

“And I think the combination of all of that — as I learned what human resources is all about — really suited me well. Because a lot of people say, ‘I got into HR because I love people’ — and whilst that's really important, to always be an employee advocate, you've also got to have a real acumen for business and for analytics and for being able to see patterns — and so I think that's what got me really hooked.”

Another HR leader who changed career plans was Tarynne Summers, director of HR at Metro Vancouver, who spoke with Canadian HR Reporter.

Highlights of an HR career

While it’s hard to pinpoint highlights in such a varied career, James cites her first job at a large global organization, where she was mentored by the head of human resources.

“He inspired me to become a citizen of the world. And the way I would define that is to be able to pick up and run human resources in any part of the world. And, as a young person in India, as a young woman in India, I had very few role models in my field — I earned $100 per month as my salary… so I developed this goal, audacious goal, to become a citizen of the world and, 30 years later, I've lived and I've worked in India, and in Hong Kong and in Dubai, and… in Mongolia, and in Edmonton.”

Another highlight of James’ career is her work on corporate boards, such as the YWCA and NorthQuest College.

“Working on boards has given me the incredible ability to serve some organizations that are doing some amazing work in the community. It's given me the ability to learn, to be nose in, fingers out; it's given me the ability to hone my strategic muscle and also to be exposed and build deep, authentic relationships with some incredible people,” she says.

“If I was to look back, I would say, make sure you start doing board work as early in your career as you can. Because it's just such rewarding work and it rounds you out in terms of who you are as an HR professional.”

Joining Canadian Western Bank is another highlight of James’ career.

“This is the best job that I've ever had — and I've had the opportunity to work with some great employers,” she says, citing General Electric, HSBC, Al Futtaim and Grainger Canada.

“There's nothing more exhilarating in your career than to be a part of an organization that punches above its weight class every day. The culture at CWB is such a beautiful fit for my personal values; the organization is client-centric, it's entrepreneurial, it's collaborative. And, best of all, we pride ourselves on being obsessed with the success of both our clients and our employees. And that means a lot to me.”

Focused on diversity, employee experience, leadership

The company has more than 2,900 employees, including roughly 100 on the HR team, and one of its strengths is a focus on diversity. Why? For one, it makes sense from a talent standpoint, because 15 years from now, at least half of CWB will be made up of immigrants and their children, says James.

Having immigrated from working at a large company Dubai to settling in Edmonton, she says she struggled when she got to Canada to find an HR business partner role because she did not have Canadian experience.

“There's nothing more soul shattering than going through that kind of an experience. And so it's taught me resilience; it's made me a learner for life, which I am very, very grateful for. And it's also spurred me on to become really passionate about helping our country.”

That includes leveraging the talent of the 500,000-plus new Canadians that are coming into the country every year or so, she says, so at CWB, there’s an employee resource group called CWB Global.

“We support and mentor and guide new-to-Canada talent so that they can have all of the success in their careers that they deserve.”

Recently, Canadian HR Reporter spoke with another HR immigrant: Ksenia Kamenskaya, director of people and culture at Rothmans, Benson & Hedges (RBH) in Toronto.

In designing the talent strategy and employee experience, James says CWB is working to ensure it’s a destination for top talent, for both the younger and older generations.

“The new generations of talent expect a level of personalization in their employee experience that is vastly different than what we've ever provided. And so we have to adapt our talent management approaches to that,” she says.

“We're working actively on a white glove onboarding approach that will ensure both speed to proficiency for joining [CWB], but also support having the right skills to be successful in our culture. And we believe that — not just for CWB but across the industry — the right skills will be this beautiful combination between being able to navigate the high-tech digital environment, but also being able to build strong, authentic relationships and be able to communicate effectively.”

One other big area of focus for the financial institution is supporting leaders in the organization, says James.

“Leadership is really hard today… leaders just have this very complex rule that they have to navigate and we know that in order to achieve our strategic goals, we need to equip our leaders with the data, the information, the tools, and of course, the learning to continuously morph and grow their skills.”

To that end, CWB has put in place a coach approach to leadership, she says.

“Our goal is that every leader is a trained and certified coach. And we believe that the coach approach to leadership is the way that talent can be led most effectively in the future.”

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