Wanted: HR vice-president, no experience required

As a strategic planner in advertising, Siobhan McCarthy has long been adept in an influencing role, deploying a mix of skills — in consumer insight, brand engineering and what she calls “creative pencil sharpening,” which is helping people come up with ideas.

“As a planner, you’re gently surfacing truths. And in my role, I’m still doing things like that,” said McCarthy of her new role as senior vice-president of organizational development.

“I know quite a lot about psychology, and my career for 20 years has been about influencing people. That’s why I was surprised to discover, as I got comfortable in the (OD) role that I was using the same skills — though I’m now doing something different.”

McCarthy joined BBDO Canada, a Toronto-headquartered advertising agency employing 350 people, more than eight years ago. And despite having no HR training, she was promoted to this executive role two years ago.

BBDO’s decision to promote her to the role is an example of organizations seeking HR leaders not among HR professionals, but among those who know the business, said McCarthy. While stressing that she doesn’t disrespect the HR profession, she explained that BBDO needed an HR leader with the utmost credibility with the staff. This is credibility built on what the workplace knows of her experience and values, certainly, but it’s also a credibility derived from knowing the work and what it takes to inspire the work, she said.

McCarthy stepped into the new role when BBDO was changing into a values-based company and needed a full-time champion of the change.

“That person needed to embody the values and role-model them.” The person also needed to be an insider. “If the person comes in from the outside, it’s harder for the person to get the buy-in.”

McCarthy steers clear of the technical requirements of the job, leaving compensation, benefits, pensions and other technical HR portfolios to two HR employees working below her. Her role is to ensure policies, letters of offer, termination decisions and all the other day-to-day decisions reflect BBDO values.

Advertising people are cynical people already prone to sniff out any hint of insincerity. “So you don’t go into the creative department and tell them you’re going to be enthusiastic,” said McCarthy, referring to one of the new company values. “They’ll laugh at you. You can’t send them a handbook and say, ‘Now we’ve got to be this.’ You’ve got to be more subtle — which makes my role a people-influencing role.”

When it comes to business decisions, McCarthy said she’s not at all out of her depth. “When we’re sitting in a meeting and somebody is speaking of a creative work or a client, I can take part. I can talk not just of the organizational side but the communication strategy, the consumer insight, the business problem, the competitive context… I am at the centre of the matrix.”

Neil Conway, senior vice-president of talent management at BMO Financial Group, said looking outside the HR profession for HR senior managers is a “legitimate staffing strategy. The key is to be clear on what roles you are going to use this staffing strategy on.”

Although there are roles within the HR function that absolutely call for a subject matter expert — roles in performance management and compensation, for example — there are also more generalist roles “where having some line experience is very, very beneficial.”

For example, the bank’s vice-president of equity and employee engagement, Leysa Balych-Cooper, is a lawyer who worked in wealth management. With her as head of equity and employee engagement, the bank benefits from “having a line perspective brought to the table,” said Conway.

“It’s always good to have, within the HR division, a balance of perspectives that come from the business side of the organization.”

Conway doesn’t see this strategy as an indictment on the credibility of HR. “They bring a different kind of credibility, not necessarily a better kind of credibility.”

Organizations are putting human resources “more at the core of their company’s business than ever before,” he said. “And that calls for more professionalism and more sophistication on the part of HR people.”

That’s why, at BMO Financial Group, the HR curriculum has been revised to include more training on financial literacy and business acumen. Along with this shift, added Conway, should be a rise in HR people moving into other business lines within an organization as well.

Kathy Brooks, a Hay Group senior principal specializing in leadership, said while she wouldn’t call it a trend for organizations to look outside the HR profession for HR leaders, more organizations are looking for a strategic partner in HR.

“And there’s not always the view that HR people are strategic. There’s sometimes the view that they are very tactical in terms of the activities they have to deal with. And when organizations look for strategic skills, they sometimes look outside,” said Brooks.

Monica Belcourt, director of the graduate program in human resources management at York University in Toronto, said it was more common in the past to see organizations put non-HR people into HR leadership roles. With HR starting to prove its professionalism through such tools as the Certified Human Resources Professional designation, there should be fewer instances of such practice.

“It’s a strategically bad decision for companies to (put non-HR people in senior HR roles). HR is a profession. There’s a body of knowledge that you have to master, including a great deal of technical knowledge. I would worry for the organization that doesn’t have an HR professional as its vice-president of HR.”

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