HR Leader: Barb Keenan of LCBO

Barb Keenan, chief people officer at the LCBO, spoke with Sarah Dobson, editor of the Canadian HR Reporter group, to discuss how and why she entered the HR profession, the rewards and challenges of HR, her experiences at Ontario Power Generation, and plans for the future.


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Sarah: [00:00:12] Hi there. I'm Sarah Dobson, editor of the Canadian HR Reporter Group. And joining us today is Barb Keenan, who is the chief people officer at the LCBO. Thank you for joining us. 

Barb: [00:00:23] Oh, my pleasure, Sarah. 

Sarah: [00:00:25] So I'm looking forward to learning more about your career. And let's just dive in. To begin, can you talk about why and how you decided to join the HR profession? 

Barb: [00:00:36] Well, to be quite honest, I kind of fell into it. I had a summer position at Canada Trust in the HR office, personnel office at the time. That's what it was called. And what I realized is I quite enjoyed it. I saw there was an opportunity to positively impact people. And after third, third year, I actually took an organizational behavior course which I just loved. I ate it up and I could see there could be a broader impact from kind of a corporate, corporate, cultural, organizational perspective, which intrigued me. So that was one. The second is I also saw it was super multifaceted, so there was lots of opportunity to grow, to go in different areas, which I found quite intriguing. And the last is it felt really natural to me. It felt like it played to some of my strengths and things that I enjoyed. And I don't know if I realized at the tender age of 20, but what I have realized is congruence is really important and being able to bring your true self to work and it just felt right. So that's, that's the short story and I've continued to grow in it ever since and just being able to have a really fantastic career. 

Sarah: [00:01:48] Great. Well, good. Good to hear. So, yeah. Can you talk a bit about looking back, how the industry has changed over the years? You mentioned it was once called personnel, but what were some of the other ways you think it's changed? 

Barb: [00:02:01] I would say it has changed significantly. So if I think back to when I started, it really was seen as kind of a backroom transactional function and we have come a long way since then. And often the other thing I would say is I was often the only woman at the table and was for a great part of my career. So what's changed? I think the real shift to us actually being a strategic partner. I was just on a panel with two other CHROs. We were all long tenured and we were talking about having that seat at the table now and how that was earned over time. And I think that's been influenced by a number of things, a lot of the things circulating around us in terms of the environment, but really shifted to a partner and the recognition that people and culture are strategic and they make a true difference to the business. So we've all heard the cliché phrase that culture eats strategy for breakfast. And I think that's very true. And I'm a firm believer that a good culture and a strong people strategy results in sustainable financial results, and that's being borne out. So if we think about the shift over the last number of years, I think the big one is focus on inclusivity, diversity, inclusion, mental health. Second would be around data analytics and how that's enabled us to play a much stronger role in from a place of strength. And then thirdly, I'd say the whole I mean, more recently more in talent, but that's been going on for a long time and the whole leadership piece and just the incredible importance of that and throughout the pandemic, that's kind of changed the game for everybody. And I think with the pandemic, how and where we work and lead has changed dramatically and put a whole different lens on the importance of the function, which is being really fabulous. 

Sarah: [00:04:10] Yeah, definitely some some great highlights there. Well, more challenging question maybe, but what would you say are some of the more top awards and some of the top challenges that you face in HR 

Barb: [00:04:22] Yeah, from a from rewards perspective, I'd go back to what my inkling was as I was starting my career. That's really born itself out. And that is it really is an opportunity to make a difference for both individuals and an organization, but the organization at large. So if you implement a people strategy that's completely aligned and supportive of the corporate strategy, I think it bears fruit in so many different ways. And when I think about the path I followed and the impact it's had in some of the organizations, it truly makes a sustainable difference to the organization, whether it be the engagement of the individuals which translate into productivity and the employment brand, which I think is just so very, very important. I think another rewarding thing specifically for HR and for me has been it allows me to really lead from a place of authenticity and to me that's paramount. I often think about the three, three legs of a stool. So as an individual, there's kind of your career, there's your family, and then your personal part. And if any one of those legs of the stool is shaky, then it doesn't work. And if you work in an organization that's congruent with who you are and your values, that provides a really powerful foundation. So when I'm during my career, as I've looked for where I work, that's been really important to me. And then I also think that it's a super wonderful position to help people grow and set up the leadership fundamentals so that it supports individuals personal growth in so many ways and in a culture. So those are three things that for me have been really rewarding when I think about challenges. Challenges. If I go back to it being personnel or having less of a seat at the table earlier on in my career, it would be the challenge of getting things done and achieving goals through influence. That's changed a lot over the years. There was also that was a challenge, but it was also kind of an opportunity too, and made it fun. But more recently, I'd say with the pandemic and I've talked to my colleagues a lot about this, is there was no playbook for anyone, anywhere. And what that forced us as a profession, it thrust us into the spotlight and that strategic leadership role. And I think that was a really good place to put us. And we were able to really demonstrate the value we had. And what we also had to do is move into a place of accepting a little more risk, being less perfectionist and doing things on the fly. 

Barb: [00:07:21] And that has been amazing. I mean, I draw on my experience with LCBO in that area and we never shut our doors. Throughout the pandemic. And what that meant is while we had our front line staff in the stores who were always there, we had our warehouse staff who were always making sure that the products got to the stores. The corporate staff went on a full court press to make sure that we were there to support the organization and those individuals to be able to continue to deliver a product to the people of Ontario. And that was amazing. It was a challenge. But when I think about what we achieved and having to come up with those preventative and health and safety protocols to make sure we kept our people safe, our customers safe, that was really rewarding, although challenging. And I'm pretty proud to say that a CTV study, as well as the Chief Prevention Officer, set LCBO up as the gold standard in terms of retailers of keeping keeping our people safe. So that's really proud. So out of challenges come opportunities and that was a great moment for us as an organization. 

Sarah: [00:08:38] Great. Yeah, absolutely. A lot a lot of lessons learned with the pandemic. Well, you mentioned LCBO, but looking back a little further, you of course, were at the Ontario Power Generation for 13 years. Very impressive. Can you talk a bit about some of the highlights there? 

Barb: [00:08:57] Absolutely. So, I mean, OPG was a great place to work as well. And first and foremost, it was people people make an organization and I worked with some really wonderfully talented and terrific people. But when I think about highlights, I had the good fortune to be in the head of HR rule for just shy of a decade. And during that time one of my pleasures was to implement a new HR service delivery model, which enabled us to be a much more effective partner to the business and also deliver a way better employee experience. And of course, it also made it a lot more rewarding for our team. So that was a real highlight for me. And in parallel to that we implemented a new ERP system that facilitated that data and analytics piece that I think is so powerful and important. Another moment was a moment. It was a long journey, but we underwent, as many businesses do, business transformation. And one of the things that we really tried to drive out of that transformation was shifting from more command and control to a facilitative leadership style. And doing that, I think, really had a palpable influence on the organization and the people. And I remember a watershed moment when we as part of this journey, we did evaluations and assessments of all of our leaders to help give them the tool kits to shift and develop and to facilitate leaders. And we had a bit of an open kimono session with the executive team where we talked about our own results. And that ended up being truly a watershed moment because when we sat up there as an executive and our leaders heard that they knew that we meant business and it was an open kimono and we were committed to change. So for me personally, that was a really rewarding time in my career as we made that shift and it made a huge difference for the organization. And then lastly, and this is something I'm super passionate about is diversity, inclusion, mental health. We laid all the foundations for those programs and strategies. And as an example, with mental health, we trained 2000 people, leaders in terms of the Ontario shores, mental health first aid program, and the satisfaction rate was over 95% for the program. And what we saw in spades was a shift in terms of results in absenteeism so that employees were able to seek help sooner, the duration of their absence, which shorter and it just made for a much reduce the stigma and it also provided leaders with a tool kit to really support our team. So I would say that was super rewarding. And then near the end, this Canadian Center for Diversity Inclusion actually recognized me as the senior executive, but I think it was an award for OPG and our whole team for being the leader in diversity inclusion. So really powerful and felt like we moved the needle. 

Sarah: [00:12:15] Great. Well, very impressive. Lots of lots of good work there, for sure. And then, of course, in June 2020, you moved over to the LCBO. Can you talk a bit about what prompted that change? 

Barb: [00:12:28] I love to. So I guess I was at a point in my career where I'm getting on the end of my career side and I was really looking for my might be my last gig, I'm not sure, but a place where I could really have an impact and pull together all of my experience. And so I took the time to refresh, reflect and think about what that might look like. And what I realized is there was some key things that were important to me in terms of my next opportunity. One was value alignment that was absolutely critical that it was an organization that was purpose driven, that had really strong values around recognizing the value of people and what a difference they make to not only the business, the bottom line, the sustainable results, and that those values included things like sustainability, diversity, inclusion. So that was one. A second was transformational change because I just think that's super fun. And that would allow me to draw on some of my experience doing that in the past and leveraging my experience in a unionized environment and both professional services and different sectors, including energy. And then lastly, I would say the opportunity to learn a new sector. So when the LCBO opportunity came up, I had a number of people actually push it out to me, the opportunity and I thought, okay, let's give this a whirl. 

Barb: [00:13:57] And I have to say, the more I did my research, the more I talked to people. LCBO had it in spades. What I came to learn is it's a company who this past year gave 2.5 billion back to the coffers of Ontario for important things like health care, infrastructure, education. So that feels pretty good. Has we have a very powerful program called Spirit of Sustainability. So good people, good partner, good planets. You might have been at if you visit your local LCBO asked to give a donation to a charity. So for instance right now we are love pairs with everything so pride month and we're aligned to a number of different charities to give back and last year it was 16.5 million that the generous our generous customers have given back to charity. So that was pretty meaningful. And also I had leadership and a CEO who truly did believe in DNI and mental health. So we've been able to really make a difference and pull together people strategies have focused on building a health, safety, inclusive culture. So that's that's meaningful. Lots of transformational change. And I must say, I love the product and that's great and had the opportunity to do retail. So it's been an amazing decision and I'm just thrilled to be there. 

Sarah: [00:15:21] Absolutely. Well, that sounds it sounds like a great decision. And so, I mean, speaking more in LCBO, we're hopefully coming out of this pandemic, but can you talk a bit about some of the big priorities you have there? 

Barb: [00:15:34] So it is continuing to drive a really positive employee experience and make it a good place to work. That's paramount. And that means our goal and I'm going to repeat the phrase continue to build a healthy, safe, inclusive, accountable workplace and culture where every employee feels valued, respected, heard, and that's to produce sustainable business results. So continue that journey. We've done a lot of really wonderful things. We created a role called Good Culture Ambassador, where we have over 700 folks throughout LCBO in the province who are our investors on some of our key initiatives around mental health, diversity, inclusion, as well as our spirit of sustainability. And that's been really engaging for them and our people. We've done fireside chats where various levels of leaders really get vulnerable and talk about their own experiences on various topics. For May, it was mental health month. For June it's Pride Month. So and then before that it was Black History Month. So that when we hear the feedback from our people, it's like putting a pebble in a pond. The ripple effect has been really important and impressive to make people feel like they really can bring their true selves to work so that you can feel the passion, but that's come out. Second is making sure that we really are living in our employee value proposition and creating that world of opportunities for our employees and creating a space where well being is valued. And the. Third, as we've heard about the great resignation or the great reshuffle, and so much as I mentioned earlier, has changed in the pandemic about how and the way we work. And it's shifting, whether it be implementing a hybrid work and really shifting to become an employee market in many ways and making sure that we're responsive to those changes and those needs as we go through that transition and journey. So, I mean, overall, it's really about making sure that we're creating a really excellent employee experience and that our people really do feel valued and heard because that's going to ultimately result in great financial results. 

Sarah: [00:17:59] That's great, Barb. Thank you so much for all that. Any final words you wanted to share? 

Barb: [00:18:04] I just really would love to give a shout out to my own team for the incredible and tireless work they've done throughout the pandemic. And I really being supportive and the whole LCBO team I mentioned earlier, we never shut our doors and the retail team and our warehouse staff have done an amazing job. Everyone rallied together and it's really been a wonderful, difficult but wonderful journey and I'm just so very proud to work with the LCBO. 

Sarah: [00:18:33] Great. Well, for more profiles of Canada's HR leaders, be sure to check out HR reporter.