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Human Resources leaders must be at the strategy table

Sep 28, 2022

Talent Leaders Forum

L to R: Vanmala Subramaniam, Larissa Chaikowsky, MBA ’04, Paul Trudel and Alison DeMille

Recruitment and retention of workforce talent is fast becoming the headline issue for business leaders. Employee turnover rates are running higher than normal, and two-thirds of Canadian businesses say labour shortages are holding them back.

Human Resources (HR) leaders are finding themselves at the centre of this emerging and prevalent issue, and bring a pivotal perspective for their firms.

So pivotal, in fact, Ivey strategy professor Tony Frost believes “it is vital for people and culture leaders to bring an ‘always on’ strategic perspective to their roles.”

The Ivey Talent Leaders Forum, recently hosted by The Ivey Academy, engaged senior Canadian HR leaders to embrace their role as key strategists within their respective organizations. Led by Ivey’s Frost and Organizational Behaviour professor Martha Maznevski, the day-long session brought experiential learning and coaching to life, probing important issues including HR’s role in strategy development, the impact of culture and values on a company brand, and the need for strong business acumen within the human resource team.

Sitting at the strategy table

To be effective in their roles, HR leaders must be at the table when strategy is developed, not just after it’s developed. The session was anchored on the notion that leaders of people and recruiters of talent are integral to the development of strategy.

Frost explains talent is the key reason firms can create value for customers and win against competitors. But this doesn’t happen effectively without a significant HR voice.

“First, surfacing and integrating talent issues during the actual strategy deliberation process can prevent the organization from setting strategies that have very little chance of success,” said Frost.  “Second, great strategies are informed by a deep understanding of organizational capabilities – what we are capable of doing; what we could do. That importantly means understanding the talent pools you have available in the organization, that you can use as resources to build strategy upon.”

Maznevski notes, though, bringing a strategy to life isn’t easy, and requires bold steps.

“It is much more comfortable to be planning a strategy, than to be executing it,” she said. “A lot of times when we say we need more planning, we say we’ve got to get it right, it comes out of a deep uncertainty and fear to actually try – and this is where we need a lot of talent leadership to encourage people to have courage to just try and say let’s go.”

Brand matters

Both current and prospective employees place a significant amount of weight behind a company’s values, which, in turn, is a reflection of the corporate brand.

As Alison DeMille, Chief Human Resource Officer for McCain Foods Ltd. asserts, brand values are the only thing that’s not trainable or developable.

“Most of my interviews we talk about the values of the company,” reflected DeMille. “People we are interviewing are looking for consistency in the messaging around values, beliefs, and purpose that is consistent with the management team. I think it’s incredibly important, and I think the bar continues to get raised on that topic.”

Along similar lines, Paul Trudel, SVP, People and Culture for EllisDon, views staying true to your corporate values and beliefs is imperative for retaining talent.

“If they don’t see those truth points they will leave. In a market where you have the sort of labour talent shortages that we are suffering through, they will deal with it by finding something else.”

Placing value on business acumen

It is vital HR leaders have a strong business acumen, increasing their ability to lead alongside with other business leaders within their organization. Understanding things like customer preferences, the evolution of industry value chains and competitor strategy are becoming table stakes for great talent leaders. 

“A great question for an HR leader to consider, and be always prepared to answer, if asked by their CEO, is: ‘How is our talent pool different and better than our key competitors?  What can we do that they can’t do?’”, explained Frost.  “That’s a very difficult question, but HR leaders need to be at least thinking about that question.”

According to Larissa Chaikowsky, MBA ’04, US CHRO and Head, Talent Reskilling & Acceleration, BMO Financial Group, effective HR leaders are able to see into the future, and have an external understanding of the broader industry as a whole. 

“We need to be super-hyper aware of what’s going on outside of our company,” stated Chaikowsky. “I think for the evolution of HR, it’s as much about being aware, and understanding what is coming down the pipeline so we can be proactive in our recommendations back to the business, and how the company can be successful.”