HR LeadersTalk: Donna Wilson Strives for HR Gold


Donna Wilson has held executive level positions since 2001 in both the public and private sectors. Having always given her best, she also served on the Olympics Organizing Committee. Most recently, she transitioned into a new role as vice president of people, performance and Lower Mainland Medical Laboratories at Provincial Health Services Authority (PHSA). Prior to this she was senior vice president of people, community and strategy with Lifelabs, where she was responsible for leading their HR, labour and government relations and corporate social responsibility initiatives.

Why did you choose HR or how did it choose you?
When I was at university, I thought I wanted to be a teacher. However, after a short practicum, I realized that I wanted to work with people, but in an office environment. This drew me towards human resources. I didn’t know a lot about HR at the time and my interest really evolved based on my interest in the human mind and related behaviours. I took psychology in University and working with people and people behaviours was important to me.

What was the breakout project or thing you did to really accelerate your career?
I have a couple of key moments that taught me a lot early in my career. After university, moving through from administration to a professional role was the first break. I started as a member of a team at BC Hydro that was implementing a new job evaluation plan. That project helped me get great exposure across the organization and allowed me to get exposed to a wide variety of roles.

A second break was moving from management to working for the BC Nurses Union. Four years working on the union side of employee issues gave me great insights and appreciation for health care issues and labour relations. Following this, I shifted into a management role in labour relations with Canadian Airlines. These experiences really taught me the value of having an open mind and how we need to treat people fairly when resolving workplace issues.

A third break came when I moved into customer service in a senior operating leadership role. Being the operating manager was hugely impactful for my career. I could see the impact HR had on the business. I could see when HR came in and helped, but also the impact of HR programs that didn’t meet my business needs. This helped me become a better HR leader.

What advice do you wish someone had given you earlier in your career?
If you have a chance to run an operation outside of HR, take it. That is the experience that allowed me to transition into an executive role. The strongest HR and executive leader is someone who understands how the business runs. The sevens years where I ran the community customer services taught me a lot. Dave Mowat, CEO of Vancity at the time, took a leap of faith based on my understanding of how business works and provided me my first chance to run the HR function at the executive level. I now look for people who have combination of HR and business leadership experience when I fill my most senior HR roles.

What do you think is the greatest emerging opportunity/challenge for HR professionals?
HR is now an expected part of the senior business discussions and decision tables. I see lots of room for specialization in the HR function, but creativity in the area of total rewards is probably the area where you can truly stand out. Business needs to know how to attract and retain talent in a changing or tough market.

As an HR professional, having the ability to work with numbers is a huge asset. You don’t have to be an accountant, but numerical orientation really helps—especially, as businesses try to do more with less cost. They need creativity from HR.

Linked to attraction and retention of talent, ongoing talent management and succession planning are emerging as key strategic roles for HR. Finally, an HR professional should never underestimate the value of highly refined communication skills.

You had opportunity to be part of the executive team for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games. What was it like to be a member of the games?
There were some very hard moments. When we were just ready to launch the games, we suffered the loss of an athlete’s life. This was traumatizing. HR had to mobilize trauma counsellors out to the site and they stayed through-out the rest of the games. HR had to really dig in and help.

This was a “greenfield” opportunity to develop and build an organization from scratch. Set up for what works well in your region is really left up to the local organizing committee. The level of creativity needed, and the limited time we had to complete our plans, led to a mantra of “best for us” when we were looking at ways to build the programs needed by the project. Because we were a project our, programs needed to have immediate return—we could not have a 10 year ROI.

Most everyone had a passion for the purpose of the organization. So it made it easy to hire as you had your choice of good talent. We created values/vision and mission for the games, which was really exciting. These set the stage for how we would identify who would be part of the games and how we would approach them.

Our values were Team, Trust, Excellence and Creativity. At all levels in the organization you were hired for alignment to those values. Decisions were made to ensure we were seen to live our values—an example was deciding that everybody (volunteers and paid employees) would wear the same colour jacket. This came out of the fact that we were a team and values driven organization.

Drew Railton, CPHR is managing partner, Western Canada for Caldwell Partners.

PeopleTalk Spring 2018

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