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Why people really are your company’s most important asset

Human Capital: The global economy may still be struggling to find its balance, but Alberta is doing just fine, thank you very much

Jan 3, 2013

by Max Fawcett

According to the government of Alberta’s most recent estimates, the province’s economy will create more than 600,000 new jobs by 2021. That’s the good news. The bad news, according to Margot Ross-Graham, the vice-president of integration at Williams Engineering, is that companies in Alberta are going to have a heck of a hard time filling them. “Where are those people going to come from? We don’t even have them right now,” she says.

Illustration Eduardo Bertone

It gets worse for the province’s HR managers. Over the same period, tens of thousands of baby boomer employees will be retiring, and taking their experience, their skills and their aptitudes with them. Barring some sort of unforeseen economic disaster or the invention of drone workers, good employees are going to be at a premium going forward, and the businesses that thrive will be the ones that manage to attract and retain as many of them as possible.

And while it might be easiest to throw money at the problem, that’s unlikely to be a particularly effective strategy. Bryan Arthur, a partner with executive search firm BluEra (one of the honourable mentions in Alberta Venture’s 2012 Best Workplaces program), says money just doesn’t move people the way most employers think it should – and if it does, you probably don’t want that person in the first place. “I’ve found, through the work here with BluEra internally and also clients that range from small organizations up to major oil and gas players, that people generally don’t walk across the street for a few dollars more,” he says. “They want something more out of the work itself.”

Instead, says Glenda Rouleau, the director of HR services for Riata Partners and one of the judges in last year’s Alberta’s Best Workplaces program, businesses need to start treating their human resources with the same care and consideration they devote to their financial ones. “I think I’ve probably come across 10 companies in my career that have HR sitting at that table with the other leaders of the company, and being equal, if not elevated,” she says. “That’s the big difference.”

You don’t need to be a multibillion-dollar company with a robust HR department in order to join that group, either. Instead, Rouleau says, it’s about communicating the fact that everyone is responsible for the management of the company’s human capital. “The minute you step into any position of leadership or authority – if you have any people reporting to you – you’re an HR manager.”

If you’re with one of those 10 companies, you can probably skip over the rest of this guide. But if you’re not, don’t panic – we’re here to help. In this, Alberta Venture’s Guide to Building, Motivating and Retaining Your Workforce, we offer up some advice on how to attract the people you need – and keep them with you for the long haul.

Three employee demographics you need to understand to be successful

How to Build

These days, finding the right people is a bit more complicated than it used to be. Holding a job fair or putting an advertisement in the local paper might get you a stack of resumés, but chances are they won’t be the ones you’re looking for. Instead, Ross-Graham says, leverage your social networks. “We can use social media to leverage our recruitment efforts in a way that we were never able to do before. For example, we might tweet a position and you might tweet it to 10 of your friends that would never, ever have seen our posting before.”

Incite Marketing’s Ted Kouri finds that his best asset when it comes to finding new people is the people he already has. “We’re able to fill 80 per cent of our positions by going to our current team and asking if they know somebody who would make sense,” he says. “That usually generates five or six good applicants.” It’s equally important to cultivate former employees, Kouri says. “Our alumni, the people that have worked for us in the past, are still some of our biggest boosters – and that means a lot to us. We’ve had people that have come to work here because an ex-employee referred them to us.” BluEra’s Bruce Arthur says that an approach like Incite’s, a kind of “build-it-and-they-will-come” strategy, is a highly effective recruiting tool. “If you have your team talking about how great it is to work there, that message gets out quickly,” he says.

It pays to be proactive, too. When a job does open up at Incite, Kouri says, they usually already have a few people in mind for it. “We always have this inventory of potential people,” he says. Ross-Graham thinks this is something that every company could, and should, be doing. “Have a plan,” she says. “Absolutely, have a forward-thinking plan, not of what you need today but what you need out into the future.”

If you don’t, it could end up costing you more than just time. During the last boom, Rouleau says, a lot of companies were forced into hiring the nearest available body to fill a position rather than waiting for the right one, and it rarely worked out well. “People understand, after they went through the last labour crunch, that it costs more money in the long term to make a bad hire,” she says. “All of your energy goes into making that person fit into the round hole when they’re really a square peg.”
And while it might sound a bit too touchy-feely to some, it’s important to know what you stand for as a company. That’s what Epcor’s Marcie Chisholm refers to as an “employer brand,” and it’s a powerful recruitment tool that a lot of companies overlook.

“There’s lots of competition here, and it’s not just about money,” she says. “It’s about meaningful work at a company that people can be proud to work for.”

When to bring in the pros

BluEra’s Bryan Arthur says there are two situations in which a company ought to consider using the services of a firm like his.

For a key executive hire
“You want to ensure that you’re canvassing the market for the best person,” he says. “You’re not just looking to put a bum in the seat.”

For someone in a highly visible role
“You want to make sure you’re getting the best talent out there, not just somebody who’s looking to make a move.”

How to Retain

Rouleau has spent the last two decades working in the human resources field, and if she’s come to one over-arching conclusion, it’s this: a good working relationship isn’t much different from a productive marriage. Both, after all, are built on a foundation of mutual respect and shared interests. “Not every person is meant for the other, and not everyone makes a good match,” Rouleau says. “The best employers understand that – they take a look at their company and its goals and values, and go out and look for the kind of people that are a good fit for them.”

And like a healthy marriage, a good working relationship between employer and employee also depends a great deal on communication. That’s not something that comes as naturally as it used to, as technologies like email, instant messaging and Twitter gradually chip away at our ability to form complete thoughts or even complete sentences. “We need to go back to talking to people and getting to know them,” Ross-Graham says.

Buffing up those conversational skills can be particularly useful, she says, when it’s time to have a more difficult conversation, whether it’s about why an employee didn’t get the raise they wanted or something they need to be doing better. “We’re losing the art of having those critical, crucial conversations,” Ross-Graham says. “We don’t have to do that. We don’t even have to say hello anymore.”

In the end, it’s all about creating – or recreating – a sense of community at work.

How to Motivate

Money and motivation might seem to go hand-in-hand, but for many companies the correlation between the two is weaker than one might expect.

That’s certainly what Incite’s Ted Kouri has discovered in recent years. “It’s one of the most frustrating things that we do, I find, because I don’t think [bonus pay] has a big impact on anyone in terms of their motivation or morale. It’s not that it’s a negative, but it’s not a positive either – it’s just a fact of life.”

Instead, he’s found, people are far more likely to respond positively to motivational incentives that demonstrate an interest in the person. His company, for example, has a program that celebrates tenure-related anniversaries for people who have been with the company for at least three years. They’re given a gift that reflects their personality and what they’re passionate about, the size of which ranges from $500 to $2,000 depending on how long they’ve been with the company. “The reaction I’ve seen from someone getting a $500 gift compared to a raise or a bonus – it’s not even comparable,” Kouri says. “It shows that you get them.”

And here, again, good communication matters. “It’s pretty hard to motivate someone if you’re not willing to sit down and have a conversation, and really ask them what they’re interested in,” Ross-Graham says. “Ask them: what do they want to be recognized for, and what makes them tick?”


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