'There's healthy turnover but also I want people to see the opportunity to stay and grow their career here'
Like many HR leaders, Alisha Scichilone somewhat fell into the profession.
Back in 1998, she had a summer job doing filing for the HR department at the B.C. Children’s and Women’s Hospital in Vancouver.
Scichilone ended up spending nine years there after the HR director offered her a full-time position.
“I was originally from New Brunswick, I'm an East Coast girl. And he was from Newfoundland. And so we bonded over the East Coast thing. And he was such a mentor and such an amazing HR professional,” she says.
“To be 20 years old, get four weeks’ vacation because it’s public sector, full benefits – I thought I hit the lottery.”
As a result, Scichilone pursued an HR management certification over the next four years. So, what was it about the profession that appealed to her?
“When I was young, I was in the Royal Canadian Air Cadets for five years during high school. So there's something about my personality that likes structure, that likes rules , framework and policies and I'm not saying that that's my style now but when I was younger person, that structure I worked really well within. And so when I fell into this opportunity, and in the healthcare environment, it’s heavily unionized… then you have the non-union side, obviously there’s lots going on there, a lot of meat on the bone in the world of healthcare. And so, for me, it just seemed like a natural fit.”
As she progressed, Scichilone started to engage more with business leaders as an HR advisor, guiding them on their decision-making.
“There's something in that that really is satisfying to me, when you can influence people in their thinking and their decisions, and that impacts people's lives. So I grabbed on to that aspect at quite a young age. And, 25 years later, here we are.”
Scichilone is now vice president of people and culture at Wesgroup Properties in Vancouver, where she has worked for almost two years.
Prior to that, her employers have included Ledcor, Intrawest, and Westport Fuel Systems.
Highlights to HR career
Looking back, Scichilone says she has been very fortunate in her career, but one of the standouts includes her work at the B.C. hospital. In the early 2000s, the Liberals came into power in the province and made massive changes, including reorganizing all the hospitals and healthcare facilities into six health authorities. Her hospital became part of the PHSA or Provincial Health Services Authority.
“We went from a 5,000-person organization to a 12,000-person organization,” she says. “I was asked to be a part of one of the teams to help reorganize how we were going to structure the HR team, which was pretty exciting for someone at that stage of my career. And the structure that we organized in the early 2000s, 20 years later, is still in place, which is pretty cool… I learned a ton through that because I was obviously being guided by much more senior people.”
Moving into the private sector, Scichilone has been lucky to work for companies with global operations, which meant her job involved travel to places such as China, Europe, South America and Mexico.
“The opportunity to do business in other cultures and other countries is just really eye-opening. And that propelled me quite quickly in terms of understanding how business decisions get made in different parts of the world, especially if you've got an HR department back in Canada that's providing services to employees across the globe. Having that understanding allowed me to influence our policies, programs to make sure it works for everybody outside North America as well. So that has been an exciting part of my career.”
A third highlight, ironically, involved the shutdown of Intrawest operations during the economic downturn of 2008-09.
“We shut down the whole company in Vancouver and we rebuilt it in Denver. And while that's hard work, and not easy emotionally, it's really important for HR professionals to help lead an organization through those types of reorganizations and changes,” she says. “It was really doing our best to support these long-service employees through this tough transition. I'm pretty proud of that.”
‘Dream job’ at Wesgroup
In February 2021, Scichilone decided to join the real estate developer Wesgroup, partly because it’s a smaller organization.
“At some point, you really want to take everything you've learned — all of my bag of tricks, all of my tools — and impact the organization, in a more meaningful way. Because when you're part of a large organization, there's more than one of you and it's like [being] a cog in a wheel, [so it’s] a little bit hard to influence, hard to make changes.”
When hired, Scichilone was told she could run the HR department much like an entrepreneurial company, like her own business. That hands-off approach has worked well, she says.
“Almost two years in, that’s exactly what it's turned out to be. So it's a dream job for any HR leader to work in a company like this — I couldn't be happier.”
With roughly 250 employees, Wesgroup has plans to grow as the economy continues to improve, says Scichilone.
“I think we'll be pretty close to doubling our headcount in the next five years.”
Focusing on corporate culture
As part of those plans, corporate culture is a huge priority.
“We're family owned and founded from the late 50s; the chairman is the son of the founder and he comes in five days a week, in his 70s, and really cares about this business and its people. And so that permeates down,” she says.
“As an executive team, we talk a lot about what does culture mean here at Wesgroup? And all of us protect that. So we leverage our values and we make decisions based on those values. And if there's an element where the culture is at risk — either a leader behaving badly or someone not operating within our values — then we'll make a decision on that. And so I would say the fact that we are so aligned on that drives everything we do, and we're really transparent.”
Scichilone recently spoke with Canadian HR Reporter about maintaining that culture with the return to the office.
As an example, the company has continued its monthly companywide calls that started during the pandemic. About 150 employees dial in each time, she says.
“We give updates and then we open the floor for questions and we get 20, 30, 40 questions every single time and we do our best to answer them on the fly — not prepared, not canned answers,” says Scichilone.
“That's built a lot of trust across the organization. They feel connected to the senior leaders; they feel like they know what's going on in the business; they know what's coming down the pike and they feel like they're heard and I think that served us really, really well. We've got highly engaged employees, our retention factor is very strong.”
But the work never stops, and going forward, one big focus is on leadership development, she says.
“We’re going to start to dig into really building out the skill set of our leaders. And I think that's going to be a difference maker for us,” says Scichilone.
Also important: career development, as many people leave their employer because they feel there's no opportunity for career growth or development.
“There's healthy turnover that needs to happen. But also, I want people to see the opportunity to stay and grow their career here and not feel like they have to move on in order to move up. And so really building out our training/learning development framework here, I think, is going to help us continue to be an employer of choice and retain our top talent.”