The New World as an HR Leader – A Conversation with Giselle Blackman, CPHR

"You have to be five steps ahead, anticipating and collaborating with your professional colleagues to figure out what others are doing, because no one has had to do these things before." - Giselle Blackman, CPHR

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Giselle Blackman, CPHR, the head of human resources at Connor, Clark & Lunn Financial Group. We discussed HR in 2021 and beyond, and how our profession has changed forever in many ways.

Here is some of the insight from our conversation.

How Is HR Different in 2021? The New Community
HR has always formed a more coherent community than most other professions, and with the turmoil of the past year, that tendency has been magnified. With so many of today’s work issues falling directly to HR to address, as Giselle said, “You have to be five steps ahead, anticipating and collaborating with your professional colleagues to figure out what others are doing, because no one has had to do these things before.”

Seeking out our thought leaders, whether local or not, can be especially beneficial during a time of upheaval. Whether through LinkedIn, Instagram or elsewhere, there are more good ideas being shared by more experienced professionals than ever before.

“All of a sudden, as an HR community, there is an alignment of issues and initiatives across almost all organizations. Geography suddenly matters less, different cultures matter less. What matters is we have people that we need to take care of and how do we do that.”

Everything Old Is New Again: Organization Culture
Many of the traditional challenges in which HR professionals have led the response have been accentuated recently. As we emerge from a global pandemic and optimism slowly returns, the war for talent is heating up again.

Increasingly, it seems, employers are having to deal with employees who are receiving offers elsewhere. And part of the response is often to provide a counteroffer.

“We’re having to look not just at how we attract new people, but how we keep the talent that we have. How do we keep them engaged? And it’s not just an employee engagement survey.”

She’s right.

Employers are working to determine what they’re doing well and trying to do those things even better.

They’re also looking for opportunities to improve weaker elements, whether by providing new or improved programs or by further developing a strong organizational culture. The latter is no easy task today.

In the absence of office activities that would normally help to define and reinforce a strong culture, the onboarding function becomes key. In addition to training a new recruit in the relevant hard skills needed to be successful in their job, we also have to share with them the best parts of our corporate culture, and allow them to understand how they can be a part of it and how they can complement it. But let’s not forget about the staff we already have.

“Many of them are ‘culture carriers,’ and if I lose them, how do we then perpetuate a strong culture successfully? How does the next generation come in with ideas of how they can help build if they don’t understand our history?”

The Way Forward: Diversity and Inclusion
A new type of employee has surfaced in the past few years, one that is more socially conscious.

And they’re expecting the company that they choose to work for to be as socially aware, and to acknowledge them, and all employees, in a personal way.

“Today’s employees expect their employer to say ‘I see you. You’re not invisible to me.’ How do you demonstrate as an employer that you see me?”

Giselle was part of a small team that led her company’s first ever diversity and inclusion survey last year. Understanding the various identities and interests that make up a workforce is the first step.

From there, we can acknowledge and celebrate the various celebrations, occasions and observances that are part of the lives of our employee population. These aren’t always obvious, so it helps to ask.

As a personal example, not everyone would know that Vaisakhi is something that is celebrated in the Saulnier home. It is a very big deal in our house and something that we love to share with others.

More importantly, how do we incorporate our employees’ various beliefs and customs into our work environment, so that it becomes richer for everyone?

Beyond that, how do we ensure our work colleagues know that it’s OK to bring the full extent of who they are, along with their identity, interests and passions, to the workplace?

This is the workplace of the present and future.

Technology as Our Friend
For the most part, HR has moved from the administrative function of the past to being a true business partner, but we are still charged with a number of administrative tasks. How do we minimize the time and effort required for these so that we can spend more of our time on the value-added part of our roles?

There are some obvious ways that have been around for a while, such as using an effective ATS so that we’re not having to screen and file applications manually. But there are important new ways that organizations can leverage when using technology today.

Giselle shared her plan for her company to use online learning to facilitate and manage training sessions for 650 employees. This system will allow an employee to log in to a session, receive training on the specified topic, and then answer key questions on that topic.

This will not only ensure a sufficient level of comprehension by each employee but will also save an enormous amount of time that would otherwise be spent by trainers on each topic.

Critical Skills for Tomorrow’s HR Professionals
I asked Giselle what skills she thinks will be increasingly important for the HR profession of the future.

She mentioned some important ones, including agility, the ability to transform and move with the pace at which business is moving.

Continuing to develop our business acumen is another important area.

She also mentioned a skill that doesn’t make most lists: the ability to show empathy. Since being seen as empathetic is sometimes considered a more traditional HR skill, this surprised me. So often in the past, empathy was something that was occasionally even frowned upon.

“In today’s world where individual employee situations are brought into the workplace, whether in person or remotely, the ability to understand each person’s unique situation and how it might impact how they show up in their role, has become fundamental to being an effective leader.”

Finally, I love the last critical skill that Giselle identified for effective leaders of the future, whether in HR or other parts of the organization.

Having Fun
“Sometimes it just means don’t take yourself so seriously, allow people to just be able to connect and create the space where those connections can be fun. I think if we can remember to maintain a sense of humour, it will help to make the journey a lot more enjoyable.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Published in PeopleTalk Summer 2021

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