Real world education

HR professionals talk about what they’ve learned in non-academic settings

Harvey Foote began his career by pursuing a degree in economics from York University in Toronto and a master’s in industrial relations at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.

It provided a great foundation when it came to issues such as grievance administration, arbitration preparation, negotiation and understanding the legislative framework, says Foote, vice-president of HR at Kohl & Frisch in Concord, Ont., which has about 1,000 workers.

But there is much to be learned outside of the academic setting, in the real world of work, he says.

"As practical as it was, and it was a very practical program... until you’re in the chair — whether it’s negotiating a collective agreement or before an arbitrator — and it’s live and real, it’s a different experience than when you’re doing the mock negotiations and some of these other activities that you do in your studies. So it’s great but, again, you have to kind of get in and experience that in the real world to get the real learning," he says. "You need the formal education and then it’s (about) lifelong learning."

Foote worked at Ford in the early 1990s, where he spent time in operations and gained valuable experience in a line management position learning about resourcing and job postings, before becoming a senior employee relations representative.

"That allowed me to walk in the operations’ folks shoes for a year and really get a sense of what they go through," he says.

Foote went on to become an HR generalist at Bombardier and director of HR at St. Lawrence Cement before joining Kohl & Frisch, a health-care distribution company, in 2004.

He has been given additional responsibility for customer service and regulatory affairs, which meant learning when to wear an HR hat and when to wear a line manager hat, he says.

"Trying to balance that, you didn’t learn that in school."

Another key learning is around people — organizational savvy and how to influence positive change, says Foote, which can’t be covered in a one-day workshop simulation.

It’s about appreciating the importance of building trust in relationships and learning how to negotiate effectively, he says.

"Certainly, all of those delicate, interpersonal things that you learn over time working within an organization, you can’t get that in a classroom."

Through the years, Foote has also attended workshops and earned certifications such as the Senior Human Resources Professional (SHRP) designation, along with participating in seminars through the Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA) and Strategic Capability Network.

"I find the educational piece, attending conferences, is important. But to me, the real poignant learning and the real powerful learning is when you’re in the chair and you’re actually leading a project or restructuring your compensation system, revamping your pay equity plan — you can learn about that in the classroom but until you’re the one that’s driving the project, it’s more powerful learnings," he says.

For example, Kohl & Frisch recently went through a major acquisition, and integrating the cultures and compensation and benefits structures was a very complex endeavour — but also an incredible learning opportunity, says Foote.

"You have to have the basics in terms of understanding all of those things from an educational standpoint but, as you’re going through it, there’s no clear road map."

‘Just the basics’

When Dalene Friesen started university, she planned to major in accounting but after she took an HR course, she was hooked. Now managing director, human resources — talent attraction, diversity and engagement at Newalta in Calgary, she went on to attain a bachelor of commerce at the University of Calgary, majoring in the management of organizations and human resources.

"A business degree is essential, but one of the best realizations I had a few months after I graduated was how much I didn’t know. You think you can come out of university and, ‘Wow, I know everything.’ It was a really good foundation for getting a basic sense of business, but it’s so important to realize it’s just the basics, there’s just so much more to know."

Friesen has also achieved certifications in management, change management and leadership development.

For HR to truly have a place at the table, it has to understand the business and how HR fits into the business and can add value, says Friesen.

"If we’re not willing to even get out into business — for us it’d be into our operations, facilities — and to some degree to walk a mile in our operators’ shoes, our branch manager’s shoes, to truly see what they do, we run the risk of getting an ivory tower mentality where we think we have all the answers and we have no idea if the solutions that we’re suggesting and recommending would actually have any meaning or value or impact."

Co-op and internship programs, along with very practical projects, can really help people learn how to apply their work in a business setting, she says. It’s also about knowing how to behave in the workplace — the nuances, the interactions, and Newalta does a lot of work helping graduates prepare, says Friesen, who has worked at the 2,200-employee company for nine years.

"A lot of it is experiential," she says.

Back to school

Having joined the workforce at an early age, Bruce Beakley, director of HR at the 802-employee County of Renfrew in Pembroke, Ont., ended up going back to school to learn — and earn — his place.

"I recognized that I wasn’t necessarily getting the respect in my organization because I didn’t have any kind of formal education. And I found that the formal education complemented what I was learning on the job from an experience point of view and it set a good foundation, if you will, to have a combination of both."

Beakley’s background was in inventory and management control. While working at Storwal in Pembroke, Ont., he became interested in safety issues. It was then a natural segue to HR areas such as safety committees, program development, employee relations, collective bargaining and recruitment.

But the plant manager recognized Beakley could "polish the apple a bit" by pursuing formal education, so Beakley went on to attain a certificate in human resource management.

"It added a degree of recognition of a base knowledge that I had," he says. "There’s no question from a compensation point of view, it was a key difference, in terms of moving me along the compensation scale."

The pivotal moment was when he attained his Certified Human Resources Professional (CHRP) in 1990, he says, though Beakley has earned several certificates, in areas such as municipal administration, HR management, business administration and industrial supervision.

"The educational component gives you partial credibility and then it’s a matter of your skill set and the way you approach your job and the things you take into consideration — so your passion, your character as an individual, your intuition, types of judgments that you make — all of those become elements of it," he says.

Formal education provides an excellent base foundation, he says, but it doesn’t teach you everything.

"They don’t necessarily teach you how to deal with that blend of personalities at school. The real world allows you to learn that and it’s the opportunity to put that mix of people and personalities around the table and apply some of the principles and theory that you learned in school and realize some of those will fail, but they’ve got to be tried."

Having been in HR for 20 odd years, Beakley says he is still surprised by people’s behaviour.

"That exposure to human behaviour and the things people are capable of, you can never completely prepare for," he says. "You never stop learning."

Non-profit challenges

But HR training may not always be sensitive to the nuances of the non-profit sector, according to Neil Cohen, executive director of the Community Unemployed Help Centre in Winnipeg, which has seven employees.

"Courses have to be nuanced in some way so that HR management in the private sector may differ from HR management in the non-profit sector or public sector because the structures are different," he says.

Cohen has a bachelor of arts degree and a certificate in conflict resolution, specializing in leadership development, which is helpful for understanding the nature of conflict and alternative dispute resolutions, he says.

People should be committed both in their personal and professional lives to ongoing personal development, says Cohen.

"Sometimes, formal education tends to stop at some point. You know, ‘I’ve got the job, I have a certain level of education, I might take the odd course when it’s available to me,’ but the HR knowledge on the ground is something that you acquire each and every day," he says.

"Formal education tends to, in a lot of cases, put more emphasis on theory than practice, so what I’ve learnt on the job is the more practical component that formal education doesn’t always offer."

In the workplace, it’s about learning the art of conversation and messaging.

"With experience is becoming more knowledgeable and aware about the messaging and what’s being asked, and decision-making — is it consensus, is it collaborative, is it simple majority?" he says.

"So it’s understanding how to process the conversation and the HR work that’s done on a regular, ongoing basis."

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