HR leader profile: Ksenia Kamenskaya of RBH

Director of people and culture cites HR's role 'in the space of change management and well-being'

HR leader profile: Ksenia Kamenskaya of RBH

Much like Sherpas, HR should be helping people through these unprecedented times, according to Ksenia Kamenskaya, director of people and culture at Rothmans, Benson & Hedges (RBH) in Toronto.

“[There is] a great role that HR has to play in the space of change management and well-being.”

Industries and products change, as do consumer interests, but human brains do not adapt that fast to that change, she says.

“This is where the role of HR, in my mind, becomes extremely strategic and important to actually help people master that change: How do they go through this without jeopardizing their wellbeing? So this is where these two aspects come together very closely. But also this is where we should be helping and being like the Sherpas.”

To that end, change management is a big focus at RBH, as the company is “actively self-disrupting,” says Kamenskaya. (RBH says it is committed to stop selling cigarettes by 2035 by offering smoke-free alternatives.)

“Obviously, there's a lot that's required from the side of people and culture… driving that transformation and helping the business go through this change.”

From consulting to in-house

Kamenskaya knows human resources well, having worked in the industry for several years.

Originally, she attained a bachelor’s degree in finance and credit from the Moscow State University of International Relations but she went on to do consulting work for the Human Capital Advisory group at EY for eight years.

“It was a good combination of still leveraging my finance skills and what I understand about the business, but then trying to also add it to the HR or human capital agenda that the companies at the time were keen on, so it was mostly consulting in the space of performance and reward, and some of it was M&A consulting.”

Eventually, Kamenskaya moved in-house and worked in compensation and benefits, HR systems, operations and budgeting at SAB Miller, a brewing and beverage company.

“I didn't really find the consulting business to... bring that sense of self-accomplishment — you work with clients but you don't really know what happens to what you've delivered. And I definitely decided that in-house, I would have more of a see-through and a holistic way... [of seeing the] evolution of the things that I do, and this is something that's really important for me, to see the value in the things that I do.”

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In 2014, she moved on to Philip Morris International affiliates, having decided she wanted to expand her focus beyond compensation and benefits.

“When you start digging deeper with people, you understand that's actually not number one on people's agenda. It's more about: ‘How do I develop with the company? How does my manager make me feel? What is the value that I'm bringing in the workplace?’ So that's where I expanded that and moved more into the business partnership which is, in essence, coaching in partnership with employees and helping them grow.”

Focused on wellbeing

Kamenskaya’s career up to this point took place in Russia where she was born, but in September 2020, she moved to Canada to take the HR leadership role at RBH in Toronto.

Looking at both countries, one of the biggest similarities shared in HR is the focus on change management and driving successful business outcomes, says Kamenskaya.

However, one of the main differences is across employee pain points.

“In Canada, there’s a strong need for addressing well-being, mental health and DEI,” she says.

“In Russia, given the economic volatility, the main areas of focus were on the rewards space and ensuring retention to respond to growing opportunities offered by local businesses and new international entrants or companies expanding their footprint.”

Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic was in full swing at that point when Kamenskaya arrived in Toronto.

“It was extremely challenging. And in addition to being challenged as employees, we were all definitely challenged as humans because there were all these fears and aspects of our lives that had to change due to the pandemic.”

As a result, wellbeing and mental health were top of mind at the company — alongside business results, she says.

“The team has done a great job of supporting the employees, making them feel comfortable, but also being very agile in how we managed to help employees adapt to the remote working or work-from-home environment.”

RBH has 80,000 employees worldwide, including 700 in Canada which includes manufacturing facilities, an office and field sales.

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Another big focus for HR is employee centricity, says Kamenskaya, which means not only meeting the needs of employees but meeting the needs of society to stay competitive as an employer.

As a result, the HR director is a big proponent of employee resource groups (ERGs), with one focused on racialized group and another on women at the company.

These kinds of groups are “in response to this societal trend where the employer is… very much integrated into society and has much more of a role to play,” she says.

“The perception of employers is not only judged by the products that the company produces, or the way they treat people internally, but also… the impact that they have in the society at large.”

Challenges and rewards

Overall, HR brings with it both challenges and rewards, says Kamenskaya. For the former, it’s not being able to see the immediate impact of your efforts, after a conversation or a program, so that lag between action and results.

“You don't see immediately great adoption or satisfaction from the people, and that sometimes becomes a little bit frustrating… it's more the unpredictability of your efforts and the impact of your efforts.”

On the other hand, seeing the results is definitely rewarding, she says.

“When you actually see how the little things that you are doing with the organization, with a particular employee, with a manager, with a program that you deploy, how in the end, all those small pieces of a puzzle actually form a beautiful picture, I think that's the most rewarding part of it.”

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