No easy answers to questions around AI, hybrid work, says CPO at Questrade Financial Group

HR leader profile: Emma Horgan discusses highlights of career, transformational activities

No easy answers to questions around AI, hybrid work, says CPO at Questrade Financial Group

Even though they have been workplace issues for at least a couple of years, hybrid work and generative AI are two top challenges facing HR these days, according to Emma Horgan, CPO at Questrade Financial Group, along with associated challenges for leadership development.

These are frequently a topic of conversation among her HR peers, she says.

When it comes to hybrid work, with people working both at home and in the office, the issue still feels “unresolved,” says Horgan.

“It’s very individual to each company... But even within the company, you can have very polarized views of what actually makes sense.”

And the pros and cons of hybrid work are not easily debated because both sides can plead their case.

“For example, if you have a view that people are more productive when they're in the office, you can find research to support that; if you have a view that people are more productive when you don't enforce the move to the office, you can find research to support that,” she says.

“And I think part of the challenge is that there really isn't a conclusive data-driven truth around that yet.”

Two lenses to understanding AI

AI is a particular challenge, because there are different degrees of understanding what it really is, what it can do, and what it can't do, says Horgan.

“I think from an HR perspective, it's really [looking] through the two lenses of: one, you can look at it through the function-specific lens of ‘How can these types of capabilities be better used to deliver value to the organization in terms of how we, the HR profession, do our work and deliver our value and services?’

“On the other side, also, more broadly, the applications across the organization can have a potentially huge impact on the workforce in terms of needing less of some skills, more of other skills. So [it’s about] the whole workforce composition, the change and communication management [and] if there are shifts in terms of how work gets done as a result of it.”

Also relevant in considering AI? The policies, controls and governance around it from a people perspective, she says.

“There's a lot of talk about it and opportunities that people can see, risks that people can see. But I think, potentially, there are ways to boil it down into more practical or tangible ways to consume the whole topic of AI and what it means for HR professionals.”

At Questrade, teams are exploring proof of concept applications for AI, says Horgan.

“I say broadly in the organization, but specifically as it relates to HR, we're looking at a number of ways that we can potentially leverage it both for efficiency from an automation perspective, but also from an employee experience perspective too. So can people get their questions answered more easily and more quickly, for better employee experience, but also driving significant efficiency.”

Joining HR to have an impact on people, business

Horgan joined Questrade in February 2017, having previously worked for Maple Leaf Foods for more than 17 years. But her career in human resources began when she started working at a recruitment agency, through an acquaintance, which outsourced HR work.

“I came to the conclusion that the recruitment agency world was not a long-term place for me, but I really enjoyed some of the HR part of it. And that's really what led me into doing it more [intentionally and determinedly],” says Horgan.

“In particular, I think it's the positive impact you can have on people and businesses, the variety of the type of work that comes under the umbrella of HR — it's really an opportunity to make an impact, so that is what led me down the HR path.”

Through her career, Horgan says she has developed a particular passion for leadership and leadership development, and that’s where you can see the meaningful impact that HR can have on both people and the business.

“A number of times, I hear that people have taken something from a development program or a new insight through some of the self-awareness programming or coaching or any of those sorts of things that they've been able to apply both personally and professionally. Anecdotes like that are a highlight to me.”

Transformational activities involving HR

Also a highlight? Transformational activities, as seen when Horgan worked at Maple Leaf Foods where she progressed to become VP of HR and leadership.

“There were some major transformational initiatives that I was the HR lead for, really complex and impactful opportunities there.”

The same is true for Questrade, which Horgan joined in 2017. The online brokerage firm and wealth management firm is almost 25 years old and is Canada's largest discount broker.

While it was a “difficult decision” for Horgan to leave Maple Leaf, she was looking for growth through different industry experience.

“It was an opportunity to lead the function end to end versus a piece, and also an opportunity to work with a fintech. So it's such an interesting industry, being on the innovative edge of things was really appealing, and an organization that has a great mission,” she says.

“It's been such a rapidly growing organization, and being able to fuel that growth through the people and culture side has been a huge impact. And all the change that you have to do when an organization is growing, becoming more complex.”

HR priorities at Questrade

One important and continual priority at Questrade is the focus on culture, which has “intensified,” says Horgan, citing the company’s acquisitions over the years.

“When you have a great culture, and then you're adding a lot of people to it en masse, both through regular recruitment channels from organic growth, as well as through new team members through acquisitions, it just really increases the need to focus on that unifying culture and make sure it doesn't get diluted, and it becomes all additive, and everyone’s united and bonded by it.

“So we have a big focus there.”

Questrade is also at the tail end of a massive operating model shift in ways of working, she says, “so we have some work continuing on the change management, training and monitoring sides on that, and then just a huge focus on every aspect of talent, from acquisition, development, succession planning, and we’ll double down on leadership development.”

Overall, the amount of disruptive change in the world, particularly around the technology side and coming out the pandemic, are notable challenges for HR, says Horgan, and “having really profound impacts on the way businesses do business, the way they engage with people, the way that work is done, the way that we communicate with each other.

“I think that's a huge ongoing challenge is just the shifting tides and ensuring organization resilience and advancement through that.”

It’s hard to think of another profession where the mandate has evolved so dramatically over the last few decades like it has for HR, she says.

“It really speaks to the resilience and forward thinking that this is a profession that evolves so much to continue to find the best ways to drive value in organizations.”

Latest stories