HR leader profile: Carolyn Meacher of dentsu

'The HR profession is getting the recognition that is long overdue'

HR leader profile: Carolyn Meacher of dentsu

Like many HR leaders, Carolyn Meacher ended up in human resources by accident. But her story is different from many in that she previously worked in marketing — for 25 years.

So why did Meacher — who is now the chief people officer at ad agency dentsu international — ultimately make the change?

“I started thinking about: What kind of work life do I want? Do I want to be continuing to work in this way, in large corporations, etcetera, and what kind of work do I want to be doing?”

Meacher had always been intrigued by people who wanted to create positive change, and the “energy and excitement behind that,” she says, along with the “pockets of resistance” within organizations that could make work difficult.

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That led to greater curiosity about culture and leadership, and all the things that make people able to do the work they do, says Meacher, who is based in Toronto.

“I didn't really know how I was going to shift careers but I felt like I wanted to shift my focus from marketing more to how people work when they come together within organizations.”

As a result, Meacher started with coaching, obtaining certification in that discipline, and began working with senior leaders as part of that pathway.

“I ended up in HR simply when one of my clients finally said to me, ‘Why don't you just come on full time and do this for us?’”

Moving from marketing to HR

Interestingly, there are definite synergies that transfer over from marketing to human resources, she says. For example, marketing is all about knowing what the customer needs, and it’s the same for HR when you’re talking about people.

“It's really about understanding employees and what they need and how those needs might be shifting in the current environment and why they might be shifting and ‘How do we address that?’ So the actual process of determining an HR strategy is very similar to determining that marketing strategy or business strategy.”

But in transitioning to HR, Meacher says one of the bigger surprises — and challenges — is all the administration required.

“Often the administration, if not managed properly, can drive out the opportunity to really be more strategic and less reactive and more proactive in terms of really important people initiatives,” she says.

“When things happen in HR, you've got to deal with them. So you're constantly needing to switch gears into managing important people issues when they happen, because you can't let them ride.”

Encouragingly, even before the pandemic, HR is seen increasingly as a critical business partner, says Meacher.

“Organizations that have always embraced HR as a strategic business partner have really benefited from that. But now you're seeing that on a much more wide-scale area, so a lot more focused at the strategic level on the importance of people and the role that people in organizational development play in delivering against the strategy,” she says.

“The HR profession is getting the recognition that is long overdue… and certainly has a much more important seat at the table in terms of navigating change and positive growth.”

Connecting people at dentsu

When Meacher joined dentsu in February 2021, it felt like coming home, she says.

“There were a lot of things that really attracted me to dentsu. One is that it's a company that's going through a really positive transformation. And I think the vision is exciting, and the people that are leading it really care and are quite passionate about it. So, this whole idea of creating meaningful progress is important. And this is a company that's dedicated to doing that.”

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The company has roughly 1,000 employees and has several areas of focus for HR, including the talent-driven market, says Meacher.

“There's been a huge effort into really rethinking how we attract great talent and how we actually become one of those places where people just want to stay for longer than their career. There is a lot of longevity within dentsu, but we still face the same kind of turnover and churn as most communication agencies do. So we're really taking a look at so what makes it special to work at dentsu.”

That means looking at what’s important to staff, such as the opportunity to have autonomy in their work, to be able to make decisions and feel part of the solution, she says.

There’s also been a big focus on connecting people, says Meacher.

“We really value collaboration at dentsu… it's really baked into our system, but we want to amp it up even more because it really plays on so many different levels. First of all, it makes us all better when we can collaborate and bring many different voices to the table. But it also makes it a much more meaningful experience for people because they're able to contribute in different ways, every day, to the work that we do.”

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As part of that, the agency works hard to equip managers with critical soft skills so people can see that their work matters, she says.

“We do that officially through a goal-setting process that really links what everybody does up to the corporate strategy. But we also do it through some of those more nuanced leadership skills where people just remind people of why what they do matters on a regular basis.”

Emotionally intelligent leadership

On that note, Meacher has also been an instructor of emotionally intelligent leadership at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto for 11 years, where she leads workshops to support emerging and established leaders in accessing their best work.

“The portion that I teach is really a fundamental core layer of emotional intelligence that really helps people with their self-awareness, their ability to manage through difficult emotions, which allows you to help manage difficult situations, difficult conversations, etcetera,” she says.

The program also helps individuals learn how to tap into their own intrinsic motivation, passion and sense of values and strengths, says Meacher, and to put that to work for them more powerfully

“Critically, particularly now, there's a whole section… about how we connect with others through empathy, and there's a whole section on empathy training, which is just so critical for connection for embracing diversity, for understanding communication, etcetera.”

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