'It's been a great experience to be able to integrate the teams'

HR leader Jan Fontana of GHD discusses her work overseeing HR in Canada, Chile

'It's been a great experience to be able to integrate the teams'

Accounting. That’s where Jan Fontana was originally headed, before she was exposed to HR during her post-secondary education.

“I didn't really know what it was prior to that, and then didn't realize it was a clear option. But the idea of working with people and having the ability to get involved in a really wide range of focus areas in that field was of interest to me.”

That outlook seems to have paid off — nearly 30 years later, Fontana is now the people leader for Canada and Chile and a principal at GHD, a professional services company operating in several global markets that include engineering, architecture, digital, energy and the environment.

The company has about 2,000 employees in Canada and 4,500 in the Americas.

And while Fontana says she tends to enjoy the compensation and benefits side of HR, “which ties more to numbers,” she’s a generalist overall — and she’s “very happy” with her decision to pursue HR.

“I’m happy that I made it early in my career, to be able to start that way.”

Career in HR starts in manufacturing

Fontana’s career started at Horn Plastics, a manufacturing company, where she worked for 10 years, taking the title of HR coordinator.

“I was able to build a strong foundation in HR and was fortunate enough to have a really strong leader and mentor who was eager to help me grow and develop for the first 10 years of my career. I learned so much there, being able to touch upon everything.”

She then joined a small engineering consulting firm in Toronto which had about 150 people, as people manager for the GTA.

“It was another step in my career, in my development, learning a new industry and learning how to support a business at a different level, because I ended up becoming the HR leader there after about six months — that was planned in the hiring for succession — which was great.”

Six years in, the company merged with GHD which, at that time, had a small footprint in Canada with about 25 people. Post-merger, the overall headcount was probably about 230, says Fontana, so “not a significant change” from an HR support perspective — but they were now part of a global company with over 5,000 people.

“That was a probably a pivotal change for me in my career, [from working] in a small firm where you’re creating programs from scratch, managing people systems, relying on external consultants if you needed support, and all of a sudden, I was connected to a wider people community, building connections, providing input and support on global projects and initiatives and just have a much larger network.”

But the big changes weren’t over — about three years later, in 2014, GHD went through another significant merger with Conestoga-Rovers & Associates (CRA). At the time, it had about 3,000 employees in North America, so the Canadian business climbed overnight from about 250 people to 1,200, she says.

“It resulted in, obviously, leading a larger team, having more resources and… collaborating more significantly across Canada and the U.S. as we worked through the integration,” says Fontana.

“It was a lot of work but it was a great experience.”

Leading HR across Chile, Canada

A year later, she was appointed as a principal at GHD, and it was an “honour to be recognized for my contributions to the business, as a leader and being in business services,” she says.

Just two years ago, Chile became part of the Americas business at GHD, so Fontana put her hand up to look after that business as well.

“It's been a great experience to be able to integrate the teams, the Canadian team and the Chile team, across both countries and just collaborate and expose them to different cultures within the business.”

Having Quebec in her portfolio, Fontana says she was familiar with operating in two languages, along with the legislative differences.

“I just thought there'd be good synergies with those teams working together, and understanding, and I was just looking to see how I could stretch myself and thought it was a really good opportunity. And they allowed me to do that.”

With a strong team on the ground in Chile supporting the day-to-day needs, Fontana says she works with them to ensure they’re implementing and following overall strategy from a people perspective.

“There's definitely differences and it takes some managing and just education, communication when the teams are working across the region.”

Focusing on diversity at GHD

GHD has been recognized for its efforts around diversity, which includes a revision to its Canadian benefits allowing same-sex partners to take advantage of parental leave, in addition to adding gender affirmation surgery.

In recognition that not all employees celebrate the same holidays recognized by legislation, the company has also adopted a flexible statutory holiday that enables employees to bank statutory holidays for use on holidays that are not formally recognized.

“There are certain holidays, such as [the National Day for] Truth and Reconciliation, even Christmas, Easter… people don't celebrate, so we just started talking about how could we recognize or account for that? And we decided that we could use this flexible holiday, so allowing somebody to work... on the holiday and bank that to be used for a day that makes sense for them,” she says.

“People do participate in that, so I think it has been positive.”

GHD is also working towards achieving gender diversity within its global workforce by 2030, with a minimum of 40 per cent women and 40 per cent men representation in the organization.

“Getting to that, definitely in this field, can be a challenge, I think, at the leader level anyway,” says Fontana. “I don't know that, necessarily, we have all the answers as to how we're going to do it but [it’s about] recognizing that we need to bring more females in at the senior level.”

At the graduate and junior levels, GHD has quite a good mix, she says, and more women are coming in at those levels because of their increased participation in STEM programs.

“We definitely consider the gender diversity when we're doing our grad hiring and when we're going out to schools,” says Fontana, adding GHD also has several scholarships with universities targeting diverse candidates, “giving people opportunities that maybe they didn't have in the past.”

Priorities for HR at GHD in year ahead

Recently, the company held a people team forum for the Americas, and part of the focus was looking at an HRBP (human resource business partner) model, and how to elevate what they’re doing to be more strategic and less transactional, she says.

“The other message we're trying to get across was that we need to be bold, and we need to think about how we're operating with the business and adding value to the business and [looking at] what we're doing today that isn’t going to get us where we need to be tomorrow, essentially, and just trying to think differently.”

Looking ahead, there’s going to be a strong focus on change management and supporting leaders, along with employee experience, says Fontana.

“We have our centres of excellence, so the work that we're doing, we're not doing it alone, obviously, we really have a teams approach where you're able to operate at more than the sum of your parts. And from a people team perspective, having the COEs, connecting with them, they're building the strategy, but allowing us to have that local relevance and making adjustments as we need to regionally has been really important.”

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