Transforming company culture

Kathryn Kitchen of Manulife shares insights into HR leaders' role in shaping employer values and culture

Transforming company culture

As head of HR at Manulife Canada, Kathryn Kitchen has a wide outlook on her field and to the social factors that influence diversity and inclusivity in the workplace. In a conversation with Canadian HR Reporter’s Sarah Dobson, she speaks about her professional development and experience in enabling her company to achieve its vision.

Kitchen says that working initially in consulting was a good foundation because it gave her exposure to multiple industries and HR specialties. She also had an opportunity at BlackBerry to perform M&A work from an HR perspective and formulate strategies for organizational transformation. At Manulife for more than eight years, she’s inspired by the company’s purpose and loves having an impact on wellness across its geographical range.

“We talk to all of our colleagues and say, ‘What kind of values do we want to have at work? What’s something that we can all aspire to together?’ And over 13,000 people contribute to that effort… Those values are part of everyday conversations. They’re woven into our performance and hiring plans, and I’m incredibly proud of that.”

Kitchen sees her success mainly as a result of determination, luck and taking on ambitious projects. Although she used to struggle with not being the right fit for her role, in addition to balancing her parental duties and career, she has grown professionally by working with talented colleagues on projects geared towards improving team outcomes. One of her most difficult roles – and also one of the most rewarding – was in a hospital where she helped the team members connect with one another to boost their performance.

“I love being on a team where I’m a voice and I can learn from every single person around the table who has different strengths and specialties than I do. That’s an incredible ground upon which to learn and contribute,” she says.

Because people are central to how organizations bring value to their clients, Kitchen believes that HR leaders now have a weightier role compared to their traditional support function.

“Culture is one of the major differentiators of any workplace today, and there’s a chance for us to help shape and manage it. I don’t know a better time for someone to want to come into this profession because it’s almost a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity where people and organizations are asking us collectively to re-architect what work means [and] redesign it for human wellbeing.”

Beyond ensuring workplace integration, companies have to figure out “how work fits into the context of one’s life, to successfully deliver on organizational priorities and human aspirations,” she says. This perspective means focusing not simply on jobs but on a skills-based environment where participants can also take a stand on social issues.

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