Archives for February 2013

Looking to the Future: What Will Make HR Successful?

In a recent article, Simon Parkin, founder of The Talent Company, a full-service HR consulting firm, identified three major challenges facing today’s HR professionals in a very to-the-point article (

  • Leadership Effectiveness
  • Talent Acquisition and Management
  • HR Capability and Capacity

I fully agree with Simon’s assessment: these are, indeed, the top challenges HR professionals must tackle to enable their organizations to compete and thrive in today’s environment. Not surprisingly, all three point to talent. I firmly believe the capacity to develop talent in a systematic manner will be the differentiating factor between success and failure: it is the new frontier. Let’s explore all three.

Leadership Effectiveness

Simon says: “Leaders have the largest impact on how well employees are working toward achieving the organization’s business strategy and goals. Unfortunately, most organizations hire and promote their talent into leadership roles without any formal leadership development, coaching and training. These new leaders are just not appropriately equipped with the insight, knowledge and tools to be truly effective.”

When asked about the importance of leadership to the success of any enterprise, most rank it high to very high, knowing that great leaders can turn average teams into outstanding ones, while poor leaders can destroy even great teams. Moreover, even with ample financial and human resources, corporations cannot perform without strong, effective leadership. Why, then, are organizations so reluctant to invest in the development of this crucial and precious resource? A baffling question, indeed.


Leadership is the energy that moves people and systems to action, performance, and results. To succeed in the global, competitive, complex world of the 21st century, organizations must significantly elevate their game. “Transforming” requires much more leadership capacity than simply “performing,” in terms of quantity (i.e., more people providing leadership at all levels), and quality ( i.e., strategic, bold, and innovative and visionary).

Current State

Unfortunately, this peak demand for leadership energy comes when supply is low, due to several factors. For me, the most salient are:

  • Baby boomers’ retirement is creating a huge loss in experience, expertise, and leadership
  • Succession planning has generally been inconsistent and haphazard
  • Workforce planning has been insufficient and short-term focused
  • Younger generations have different work values and expectations, which affects their leadership outlook.


Solid leadership development infrastructures are required to produce the abundant and reliable leadership supply needed to meet present and future needs. For instance, Canadian hockey is dominant on the world stage because we have the most complete, deepest, and totally integrated development infrastructures. Here are some revealing statistics:

  • Every year, Hockey News Magazine publishes a Yearbook describing NHL rosters. The 2012-2013 edition indicates that Canadians, on average, make up 52% of all rosters. Moreover, for 15 of the 30 NHL teams, 55% to 77% of players are Canadians (pp. 59-179). In Hockey for Dummies, John Davidson comments: “For decades, Canada has been the home of most NHL players. In fact, it was big news in the 1960s and 1970s when an American or an athlete from another country made it to the NHL” (p. 55).
  • Canada, a nation of about 35 million, boasts “617,107 registered hockey players (including male, female and junior),” while the US, a nation with a population greater than 300 million, “has 511,178 registered players” (see: Wikipedia feature on Ice Hockey,

Do we have more natural hockey talent than other countries? No. Do we have better development infrastructures? Yes. A solid talent development system is the top differentiator for consistent and abundant results. This applies to every type of talent, including leadership.

Currently, the leadership development field is more like Canadian soccer than hockey. Since Canada’s soccer infrastructures are still developing, we are a marginal player on the international scene. Turning Canada into a “soccer powerhouse” over the next 10 years would be a major challenge. Yet, this is the window for action in the leadership development field, because of the massive baby boomer exit from the workforce.

There are also other issues:

  • Leadership field knowledge is fragmented: most experts operate within subsets, such as coaching, mentoring, or assessment. Very few have a commanding grasp of the big picture and can act as system “architects.”
  • The business case (Why leadership? Why now?) is not clearly articulated, nor is it grasped by enough people, most importantly, senior executives.
  • Infrastructure investment is insufficient.
  • Infrastructure integration is weak: “the band is not playing together.”
  • Ownership of the entire development infrastructure is vague, fragmented, and piecemeal; nor is it clearly linked to other HR systems, such as performance management.

In most organizations, leadership development is like a smorgasbord: lots of offerings, including training, coaching, and assessment, loosely weaved into a program, mainly driven by participants, not the organization: definitely not a tight infrastructure designed to produce specific and consistent results.

Best Practices

However, there is hope on the horizon: sound leadership development systems are spreading like wildfire, providing role models. A prime example is British Columbia’s Leaders for Life, a healthcare leadership initiative which has been rapidly endorsed by all provinces, and is now extending to other sectors, as well as to other countries, such as Australia and the UK. Leaders for Life is anchored in the famous L.E.A.D.S. framework, applicable to all hierarchical levels and types of organizations. L.E.A.D.S. represents a search image of desirable attributes for today’s leaders:

L: Leads self
E: Engages others
A: Achieves results
D: Develops coalitions
S: Systems Transformation

Visit for a detailed description of the L.E.A.D.S. framework and information about the initiative.

Another stellar example is the Me to We project initiated by Ontario’s Keilburger brothers, empowering youth to take leadership action in order to transform their communities and the world. It has spread to numerous countries and millions of teenagers are now involved (see:

Learning from best practices is a great way to accelerate learning about effective leadership development systems.

Talent Acquisition and Management

Simon says: “Organizations are continuing to struggle with hiring and managing their talent effectively. Most corporate recruitment and talent functions are reactive and rarely are future focused. These functions aren’t aligned to their organization’s business strategy, aren’t part of a formal organizational talent strategy and in fact seldom even communicate with each other. Most HR Leaders and their teams aren’t spending the necessary time upfront to analyze and properly plan their organizational talent assets, needs, and gaps.”

In recent years, talent management has rapidly evolved to become a holistic enterprise based on performance imperatives. Sports and arts are ahead of other sectors in this regard, as their success is closely linked to how talent develops and performs: in sports, you have to win, and in arts, you have to wow! Therefore, talent development is a top priority, and producing an abundant supply of elite athletes and artists means extensive and integrated infrastructures. Here are some examples:

In Arts

  • Seeking to better prepare professional actors for the classical repertoire, the Stratford Festival of Canada set up The Birmingham Conservatory for Classical Theatre. It also boasts The Langham Workshop for Classical Direction, aimed at enhancing directors’ capabilities in succeeding in this genre. For more information, visit
  • Venezuela has become the largest producer of classical musicians in the world, thanks to El Sistema, which uses classical musicianship as a vehicle to provide a future for underprivileged children. “El Sistema is a state foundation which watches over Venezuela’s 125 youth orchestras and the instrumental training programs which make them possible. The organization has 31 symphony orchestras, and between 310,000 to 370,000 children attend its music schools around the country. 70 to 90 percent of the students come from poor socio-economic background. Studies on the more than two million young people who have been educated through El Sistema, link participation in the program to improvements in school attendance and declines in juvenile delinquency.” (see: Wikipedia, El Sistema El Sistema has also produced a prodigy conductor, Gustavo Dudamel, the current “face of the classical music franchise.” For a documentary on El Sistema, featuring Gustavo Dudamel, see

In Sports

  • Tennis Canada recently underwent a paradigm shift from “event organization” to “talent development.” For instance, “under the leadership of Louis Borfiga, September 2011 saw the start of year five of the full-time national training centre (NTC) program in Montreal.” As a result, Canada, for the first time in years, boasts tennis stars who shine on the international stage, such as Milos Raonic and Alexandra Wozniak. (see the Tennis Canada website: PAGE&pid=3)
  • China’s Olympic performance has been steadily improving, thanks to their sports school system. “At the present time some 3,000 sports schools exist in the People’s Republic of China, including full-time ones, and this system is essentially based on the powerful system of sports schools of the USSR”. (see Wikipedia feature on sports schools:

Sports and Arts’ Critical Success Factors

  1. Talent Development is the priority. Their corporate cultures are driven by performance excellence. Therefore, everything is geared towards identifying and growing talent to reach its full potential. For example, the structures behind Céline Dion (management, record label, voice coaches etc…) have developed her talent in such a way that she has become the bestselling female recording artist of all time.
  2. There is a healthy recognition that: Talent is not distributed evenly: it mirrors the Bell Curve. It’s impossible to achieve outstanding performance without sufficient talent, regardless of effort.
    • The most important category is the top 20%, because high performers drive success and excellence. For instance, Canada now boasts an internationally acclaimed piano prodigy: Jan Lisiecki from Calgary, known as “Canada’s Mozart.” Only 17, he burst onto the scene at 10. At 14, he performed at Carnegie Hall, and got his first record deal at 15. Extensive human and financial capital were invested in developing this exceptional talent and it is still ongoing. His success has raised the bar for aspiring classical musicians in the country and abroad. (see:
    • The 60% “average to good” category matters greatly, as it comprises the critical mass of solid, consistent performers who can be developed to ever greater performance levels.
    • As for the bottom 20%, there are two scenarios: either their performance improves and they migrate into the average to good category; or it doesn’t improve, and they get eliminated. They are then free to move to other areas/roles for which they are better suited. It is a harsh reality, but there is no escaping the performance imperative. In arts and sports, consistent poor performance will get you out of the game.
  3. Extensive, integrated development systems are in place: from talent identification, development, deployment, management, and retention. For instance, hockey talent is spotted very early on. The hockey community in Nova Scotia knew Sidney Crosby was an exceptional talent when he was six, and they took steps to grow it.

HR Capability and Capacity

Simon says: “Too many business leaders and executives still view HR as a non-strategic cost center instead of a core, profit-contributing function. One of the most common complaints about HR, is that many professionals lack the forward thinking, strategic advisory focus needed to be an effective business partner. They don’t spend the time to understand the business they support and focus more on transactional HR activities that don’t have the impact the business desires. HR must be focused on becoming a trusted advisor to their business, to empower managers to drive improved organizational performance.”

Key # 1: Systems Thinking and Action

The first key to enhance HR performance resides is mastering systems thinking and action. Instead of operating within a narrow band of vertical expertise, such as compensation, recruitment, or labour relations, HR now needs to function with the big picture in mind.

This requires a holistic view, not just of the components, but of how they interact and affect each other. For example, a large organization launched a succession plan, putting in place talent identification and development systems. However, they had not considered talent deployment. Therefore, upon graduation, candidates had “nowhere to go” to apply their newly minted skills. A year later, most of them had left the corporation, in search of opportunities. All the effort and money invested in talent identification and development was lost, as a result of a poorly conceptualized system. Unfortunately, such mistakes are common occurrences. We are currently going through a “trial and error” phase, with high failure rates. It is definitely more difficult to operate at a systemic level. But we have to learn, and do so quickly.

Generating system-wide, consistent deliverables will require massive infrastructure re-designs, new collaboration frameworks, as well as engaging a variety of stakeholders with diverse interests and assets. HR can play a leading role in this transformation, if it plays its cards right.

Best Practice

However, many ground-breaking best practices are sprouting all across the country:

  • In 2009, The Alberta Government’s Housing First initiative set up a plan to eradicate homelessness over 10 years. After diagnosing the situation, they built a business case, from a social, as well as a financial perspective. They then consulted relevant stakeholders, adopted a framework, and started implementing. Since its inception, Housing First has provided homes for 4,000 people, with an 80% success rate. This means that 80% manage to stay off the streets, eventually transitioning from totally assisted, to partially assisted, to autonomous housing. For more information about this stellar initiative visit: Moreover, Housing First is delivered through a variety of third-party agencies. This requires alignment to a common vision and approach, as well as allowing for regional differences. Watch this moving testimonial about the project:
  • B.C.’s Shuswap Lake Accord: The region was becoming very popular, resulting in too much unplanned development, with negative consequences such as water pollution and untreated sewage. Wanting to protect the entire lake basin, the four levels of government (Federal, Provincial, First Nations, and Municipal) got together to create an integrated planning process. Finding there was no precedent to emulate, they crafted their own strategy, enabling governments and agencies to work together in an integrative, cohesive, strategic manner (see;

Key # 2: Innovation

The second key to enhance HR performance resides in innovation. Every country is responsible for creating its own wealth. Natural resources are finite, therefore, not a reliable vehicle to sustainable prosperity. Only pervasive innovation provides a lasting, renewable advantage. This means going beyond wishful thinking such as “We should innovate more!”, to a system that drives innovation through the system. It also means going beyond isolated occurrences, such as a new product invented by a lone ranger entrepreneur, to consistent and abundant innovation in all sectors and regions. Therefore, achieving pervasive innovation requires:

  • Solid, widespread infrastructures to produce, pilot, implement, distribute, and embed innovation in all systems, fostering sustainable adoption.
  • A radical change of culture and priorities.
Best Practice

Australia implemented a National Innovation Policy in 2005, complete with a strategic plan comprising clear goals and metrics for each sector and region. Below are some compelling excerpts from the first page of the Executive Summary, Powering Ideas: An Innovation Agenda for the 21st Century:

  • “Innovation is the key to making Australia more productive and competitive.”
  • Innovation “will keep people in work today and generate jobs for the future.”
  • “Our capacity for innovation and discovery depends on the strength or our national innovation system. This is the system we use to harness the creativity of our people.”
  • “Genius is wasted if you can’t capture it and apply it to the real world.”
  • “Our aim is to make innovation a way of life.”

Of course, much of the innovation capacity depends on research and development’s (R&D) effectiveness. Therefore, Australia harmonized R&D activities across the post-secondary system. Institutions are grouped in pods, according to their areas of expertise (engineering, science, medicine etc…), and allocated funds to conduct research in a strategic and coordinated manner, to generate leading edge innovation in the targeted areas.

Results are constantly monitored to track progress, and implementation is fine-tuned. A major review was conducted in 2008, and two sectors were found wanting: public and not-for-profit. Therefore, new targets were defined for these sectors, and they were provided with additional skills and toolkits to improve. “Making innovation a way of life” means that poor performance is not an option.

Instead of just wishing for innovation, Australia is actually doing it, and has the results to prove it. They have truly become an “Innovation Nation.” It is a national system fuelled by political, social and economic will. Here are a few examples:

In Canada, innovation happens in pockets. When it’s supported by a system, it consistently delivers. When it’s not, results are inconsistent … and we revert back to wishful thinking and isolated occurrences.

Best Practice

The Waterloo Region has been focused on a high-tech economic strategy since the 1960s. As a result, it has become the “Silicon Valley” of Canada, and produced breakthrough innovations such as the Blackberry. Their business growth model comprises a variety of infrastructures designed to support entrepreneurs at all stages of the process: from idea incubation to start up, medium and large size organization. Their system boasts several enablers:

The Accelerator Centre: “Focused on speeding the growth and success of its client companies: fledgling start-ups from a variety of technology sectors. The Centre’s advisors and mentors provide a unique range of support services and education programs, enabling clients to move to market faster, create jobs and stimulate economic activity. This includes the advice and expertise of a large network of volunteer community leaders” ( For a virtual tour of the Accelerator Centre, see:

Communitech: “Works to improve Waterloo Region’s cohesiveness, competitiveness and visibility as a world-class tech cluster. It also functions as the implementation arm of the province of Ontario’s commercialization and economic development. Finally, it stewards the Canadian Digital Media Network, an interconnected group of nodes that bridges the country’s commercialization gap by nurturing young digital media companies, interweaving regional resources and expertise and establishing Canada as a leader in the global digital economy.” ( For a virtual tour of the Communitech Hub, see:


Keys to success whether in leadership effectiveness, talent management, HR capability and capacity are always the same: solid, integrated, strategic, smart systems that will produce the quantity and quality of desired results. There is no way around this. So, start building your architecture and you will be amazed at the difference it will make in a very short time.

Let’s emulate the sports and arts model and make talent development a top priority, and let’s build those professional and solid talent management systems. HR Professionals are uniquely positioned to take a leadership role in designing, implementing, and managing these “top of the line” infrastructures. Let’s provide leadership to help our organizations succeed.


About the Author

Francoise Morissette

Françoise Morissette has been a facilitator at Queen’s University’s prestigious Industrial Relations Centre since 1994, and was made a Fellow in 2006. In 2009, she became an Adjunct Faculty at the University of Alberta’s Business School. As a consultant, Françoise is a major contributor to the field of organizational development. Her practice takes her within Canada and internationally. Her main area of expertise is leadership development. Through a variety of interventions, she helps leaders, organizations and communities enhance their leadership capacity. She co-wrote Made in Canada Leadership, the product of a large research project on best practices on leadership excellence and development. It has become a Canadian top ten bestseller and received many accolades. In 2008, Françoise was made a Fellow of the innovative Wallace McCain Institute at UNB for business leadership, whose mission is to expand the leadership capacity of New Brunswick most promising entrepreneurs.



Commonwealth of Australia. Powering Ideas: An Innovation Agenda for the 21st Century. Executive Summary. 2009.

Davidson, John. Hockey for Dummies, 2nd ed. New York: Hungry Minds Inc., 2000.

Hockey News. Yearbook, 2012-2013 ed. Toronto: Transcontinental Media, 2012.

Linking HR Strategy with Business Strategy: Optimizing the Impact of HR practices on Business Results

We have moved into an era where traditional support services – HR, Finance, IT, Administration, Legal etc. – are under increasing daily pressure to produce a more direct impact on business results. The business rationale for this pressure is easy to understand. Organizations – both public and private – are being pushed by customers, boards of directors, analysts, and investors to do more with the resources they have or – in many cases – do more with less. Deliver more services. Deliver them faster and with more value in more locations. Customize the experience. Gather, analyze and integrate data in a multitude of ways to enhance controls and cross-selling. Provide 24/7 access. Allow flexible work hours. Provide life-long learning and work-life balance. Move everything online – and make it accessible everywhere, with full privacy and security.

You get the picture. And we well imagine that if you are reading this article you are – in many ways – living that picture.

To be taken seriously as HR professionals, we need to be relevant to our audience. To be relevant to the organizational leaders and C-Suite executives we serve, we need to understand and adopt the goals and objectives of the organization and make them our goals and objectives. To do this requires that we directly link our HR strategies to the strategies – and ultimately the success – of the business we are serving.

A strategy is an articulated plan that enables an organization to make optimum use of its people, resources and investments in order to achieve its goals and objectives. In this article we offer a small taste of what it means for HR practitioners to connect their HR strategies to those of the business leaders they serve. These ideas, mindsets, and skills are explored and expanded upon in a hands-on, interactive programs offered by Queen’s IRC called Linking HR Strategy with Business Strategy.

Where do you start if you are an HR practitioner who wants a relevant and impactful relationship with the leaders of your business or organization? We offer the following actions you can take to start to build those relationships and begin the journey.

1. Understand the goals and objectives of the business – and make them your own

To be relevant we must understand what our business colleagues are working to achieve and the strategies they are employing to achieve them. Read their documented strategies, mark them up, ask clarifying and challenging questions, and discuss the objectives and strategies with your HR team. Most business leaders love to talk about their businesses. Where possible, set up a monthly meeting to go through the strategy and the needs of the business unit. If you are embedded within the unit, analyze their plans and results, attend all the meetings and invite team members to coffee or lunch to soak yourself in what they are trying to accomplish and how you can help.

One challenge you may face is that your organization may not have a written strategy. If that is the case, then use the business ideas below to piece together those areas of strategic focus that will help you to create a deliver a relevant HR strategy. Every organization operates to some strategy, whether they state it or not. Sometimes our job as HR professionals requires that we figure out what that strategy is before we are able to serve it.

2. See your HR practices through a business lens.

Lens #1: The first lens focuses on key business drivers. As you work to understand and digest the goals and strategies of the business, remember that business goals can usually be directly connected to one of three primary objectives: revenue growth, cost control, or risk management.

By starting with these primary objectives, you can then trace back the HR practice you are recommending through the value chain to show how it directly impacts that objective. Let’s use the example of recruitment and how it might impact a growing sales force. The primary objective of a talented sales force is revenue growth. Our experience shows that a structured recruiting process that combines the candidate’s previous sales results with scenario testing and experienced-based interviewing, when conducted in partnership between HR and the sales leader, dramatically improves the sales success of new recruits and helps to drive faster revenue growth. In discussing HR practices, work to tie your story or recommendation back to one – or more – of the three primary objectives – revenue, cost or risk.

Lens #2: The second lens for HR professionals to look through is how a customer’s needs and how they make decisions are impacted by the business’s value proposition. To attract and keep customers, successful businesses create a value proposition designed to satisfy their targeted customers, deliver outstanding value, build loyalty and differentiate the business from its competitors. It is your job as an HR professional to enhance that value proposition with relevant and focused HR practices. For example, in a sales or service organization, compensation plans and training and development programs need to be tailored to specifically build the motivation, skills, knowledge and confidence of the front sales and service staff. In this way, the investment in HR practices can help those staff members execute the value proposition in a way that creates a unique and positive customer experience.

The leading HR expert Dave Ulrich says this is one of the fundamental mindsets that drives the impact of HR practices in specific organizations; that HR professionals must learn to look at the business from “the outside in”; that we must start with the point-of view of our customer’s customer and how those customers make decisions if we want to have a meaningful dialogue with our customers, the leaders of the business.

3. Make the connection: Link HR strategy and practices to business results

Once you understand the goals, objectives and strategy you can work to directly link everything you do to the success of the business. You build your strategy and execute your practices to serve the overall goals of the organization. This is true in commercial, union and public sector organizations. There are sound strategic reasons why the top organizations in the world execute a suite of progressive HR practices, including performance management systems, learning plans, organizational design, change management programs, and employee feedback and engagement initiatives. When they are well designed and professionally delivered, these programs enhance the overall value proposition of the organization and provide a key piston in the engine that drives success.

4. Talk their language: Numbers are the language of business

One of the biggest complaints we hear from business leaders about their HR support teams is that HR practices are rarely discussed in the same financial or numerical manner that other business decisions are discussed. If you want to be relevant with business leaders and C-suite executives, you have to speak their language and their language is numbers: numbers are the language of business.

Numbers come in two forms when looking at business decisions. The first and most obvious one is dollars and cents, the financial impact. Value is measured and decisions are driven by the financial impact that an investment or program can have on a business. We will acknowledge that for many HR practices it is hard to calculate a specific dollar benefit, but we have to at least show estimates and potential impact. Most executives are not draconian about needing a business case for all HR initiatives. They understand that the building of a strong, knowledgeable, informed staff is a key strategic need for success. But our willingness to at least estimate or wrestle with the financial impact of a program shows them that we understand what they wrestle with in making investment decisions; it places us on their side of the table in looking at the best use of the organization’s limited financial resources.

The other numbers you must be familiar with are activity and satisfaction surveys, and operational and change measurements. If your firm runs a balanced scorecard that identifies customer satisfaction, financial results, operational processes and change or learning initiatives, then take the time to study in depth how these numbers (or scores) are derived, how they link to the value proposition, and how the executives who run the business units are shaping their strategies to achieve top scores and thus strengthen the long term sustainability of the business. HR practices can directly influence the majority of the scores that make up a balanced scorecard. But to have an “informed” discussion about how the business units can best take advantage of those practices, you have to understand these numbers and how to impact them.

5. Who do you show up as?

Finally, ask yourself: “Who do I show up as?” for conversations with my organizations leaders. Do you show up as a well-informed business professional who is deeply immersed in their strategy and value proposition? Do you show up as someone who understands how your customers make decisions, and who is willing to have in-depth discussions about the measures of their success? Do you show up as a professional who can help them implement change in a way that maximizes effectiveness and minimizes risk?

For HR professionals, the challenge is to show up with compelling arguments to business leaders that show the positive impact of HR practices and programs on the results of the business or organization. But in order to make those compelling arguments and have a positive impact as HR professionals, we need to directly link our HR strategies and practices to the strategies of the business.

To be invited to the table, our programs need to have impact. To be invited back, we need to establish ourselves as trusted partners who understand the issues, can speak the language and can deliver practices and programs that have a direct and sustained impact on everyone’s success. It is an exciting challenge for all HR professionals, to be a key player in the work to grow and sustain a business, union or public sector organization. And the time has arrived when we all have to rise up to meet that challenge.


About the Authors

Paul Juniper, Director, Queen's IRC
Paul Juniper
Paul Juniper

Paul Juniper became the sixth Director of the Queen’s Industrial Relations Centre (IRC) in 2006. Paul is a leading and respected figure in Canada’s HR community, with over 30 years of experience in human resources and association leadership.

Paul is particularly sought for his views on the future of the human resources profession. He speaks regularly at national and international conferences on trends in human resources, and the ways in which individuals and their organizations can continue to raise the bar on HR. Paul developed and designed the IRC’s Advanced HR programming to meet the increasingly complex professional development needs of HR practitioners. His research focuses on the state of the HR profession both in Canada and around the globe.

Paul is currently a member of the Advisory Board for the Banff Centre for Leadership. He is also a member of the Board of Directors for the Global Organization Design Society. Throughout his distinguished career, Paul has served as Vice-President of Human Resources for national and international companies, and also managed a Toronto-based consultancy, focusing on strategic planning and recruitment. Paul was an interim CEO of the Human Resources Professionals Association of Ontario (now known as HRPA), President of its Board, and was instrumental in the adoption of a degree requirement for certification in human resources. He is a former member of the Board of Directors of the Canadian Council of HR Associations, and sat on its Independent Board of Examiners for many years. In addition, he has taught in both college and university environments, including the Strategic HR Planning course for York University in Toronto.

Jim Harrison, Queen's IRC Facilitator
Jim Harrison
Jim Harrison

Jim Harrison is an international consultant focused on relationship management, senior level strategy, and business development skills for large organizations. He has a background in financial services and professional writing, and has more than 18 years experience in consulting, training, and development. He teaches in North America, Europe, the U.K., Australia, and Asia, and has facilitated training programs for Manulife, Clarica, Deutsche Bank, HSBC, and Bank of Nova Scotia. He designed and delivered a sales and negotiating program for Group Insurance Representatives that supported significant increases in business for a major group life insurance supplier.

In recent years, Jim has focused predominantly on helping senior sales executives understand, plan for, and build trusted advisor relationships with senior business executives. There are specific requirements of building relationships in the “C-Suite” and Jim has chosen to refine his knowledge in helping others to succeed in this realm.

Through his continuing work with Accenture, Agfa, Deutsche Bank, and IBM, Jim has developed the expertise and focused tools to help account teams land large dollar contracts and to build meaningful long-term relationships. Jim has also helped structure and deliver strategic partnering workshops with long-term clients.

Jim received his B.Sc. in Finance from Florida State University and Masters Degree in English from University of California, Irvine. In addition, Jim has won the Canadian Junior Golf Championship and the Ontario Amateur Golf Championship.

From Confrontation to Collaboration: Making Union-Management Relationships Work

With thirty years of experience working in a unionized environment, I have observed a variety of collaborative relationships between employer and union. Much of my career has been spent helping to evolve the management-union relationship from confrontation to collaboration. I was directly responsible for nurturing and supporting this relationship for six years, from 2000 until 2006. I served as the Central Union Management/ Staffing Liaison Officer for the Government of Saskatchewan. The Government of Saskatchewan and General Employees Union (SGEU) jointly funded this position. In this article, I share my insights on the collaborative relationship.

The Collaborative Relationship: Why Bother?

The management-union relationship feels like an arranged or forced marriage without the option of divorce. You’re in it together, so you might as well try to get along and perhaps you can find some commonality of interests for the betterment of the workplace. If the collaborative approach is to be effective, there are some things to take into consideration:

  • The need for a continuous relationship
  • How to meet the needs and goals of each party
  • How to minimize the negative effects on each party
  • Cost containment
  • How to achieve a solution by consensus, where both parties agree, as this promotes a greater chance of success and acceptance

In my opinion, there have been different forms of collaborative relationships that have achieved various levels of success and failure throughout government during the last few decades in Canada. The newest are the lean initiatives, which primarily identify efficiencies in work processes. This is done by tapping into the knowledge of the organization’s employees. This process uses mapping and is able to identify cost savings through increased use of mathematics and charts. The common thread amongst the collaborative approaches is a process that allows for input from its employees. This input is sought prior to making decisions, so it enables the employer to make more informed and effective decisions.

Where to Start?

In order to move towards a more collaborative relationship:

  • Upper levels of management must demonstrate the desire to initiate this type of relationship change with its union counterparts. If the organization provides direction without explaining the benefits available under the change in relationship, then success will likely be short-lived.
  • The two parties, management and the elected union representatives, have their respective roles and there needs to be recognition and acceptance of these roles.
  • Management’s primary role is to make decisions in order to operate the organization in a safe, efficient, and profitable manner.
  • The union’s primary role in the collaborative relationship is to improve the working conditions for its members. Unions usually have different communication avenues, which may diverge from the organization’s, but these can be tapped into by management to increase communication.
  • If the union representatives are allowed to provide input prior to the decisions management are required to make, then hopefully better decisions are made by incorporating input from front-line employees. In addition, the decisions made will be better received by those most affected.
  • The interests of the two groups may diverge in the short-term, but they can be made compatible, since both parties need an efficient and profitable organization to survive.

From Confrontation to Collaboration

Promoting the collaborative relationship is much like fostering and supporting an infant in the early stages of development. Continuous support and open, frequent communication is required early in the relationship and will assist in building trust between the parties. This scaffolding, or support, will diminish as the relationship ages and levels of trust are established. There may be an inherent level of distrust from the many years of participating in the confrontational environment. This may be difficult to overcome and will only be successful if the commitment is demonstrated from upper management. Senior-level management will need to take the initiative to instruct and convince the middle managers of the benefits and the potential for administrative savings that could result in this type of relationship.

A consensus decision-making model ensures that there is no eroding of authority from either side of the relationship. In a consensus decision-making model, consensus must be achieved prior to implementing any changes. Management must operate the business, so if there is no consensus on a decision that has to be made, then management may make it without the involvement of the other party. This is used to keep both parties engaged in the collaborative relationship until all options are exhausted. It is acceptable not to use this process for all the issues, but rather, decide which ones might be solved using this approach.

Union representatives and the membership will have to enjoy some benefits from participating in the decision-making process. It is best to start with some non-controversial issues, where benefits can be easily obtained. It is important to celebrate successes in a very public way, as this promotes union acceptance of the new relationship amongst its membership. Trust is very fragile and there is a need to place special emphasis on communicating frequently with the union and management. This builds a level of trust incrementally with the union and vice versa. Any disputes or disagreements will need to be worked through quickly and management needs to explain clearly why a union’s desired change might not be possible. Trust is crucial to establishing a solid foundation on which to build the desired collaborative relationship.

The Collaborative Relationship: Examples of Possible Benefits

An Uncomplicated Example

In order to sustain this relationship change, there will need to be successes achieved. For instance, if management presents organizational financial reports and affords the union the opportunity to ask questions, this creates a forum for providing information. If the union has the opportunity to understand the pressures and demands the corporation is facing, then the parties can discuss issues of mutual concern, while at the same time not yielding any of management’s authority. These are simple things that do not require a lot of resources, but demonstrate a change in how management functions.

An Intermediate Example

This is an example where the union can demonstrate its commitment to the relationship, but not yield its authority obtained through collective agreements. For example, a Department/Ministry in government was in a position where they were overstaffed, due largely to equipment efficiencies obtained through a new fleet of snowplows. Several locations were no longer needed and employees were going to be out of work. The decision was made to hold a draft, based on seniority, to choose locations and positions to be transferred, when employees’ positions were affected. The employer agreed to transfer employees to the chosen location and provide all benefits under the collective agreement. Thus, this agreement did not infringe on the union rights and the employees’ period of uncertainty regarding their future employment was drastically reduced. This lack of job security may cause unrest for months within the organization, negatively affecting employee morale and productivity. The draft was held and all decisions were made within two days, through a jointly developed committee, using the interest-based, problem-solving process. Both sides reaped significant benefits, while incurring minimal costs in terms of money or authority. This is an example of the potential that a well-established collaborative relationship has in the workplace.

A Complex Example

Another example of the benefits that can be achieved is related to the issue of accommodations made for injured workers returning to the workplace. The union and the employer may experience frustrations regarding injured workers’ prolonged absence and delayed return to active employment. The union may advance grievances, due to a lack of accommodations for its member or a member filing human rights complaints. The employer might incur the perceived liabilities surrounding the grievances/human rights complaints and have no mechanism for accomplishing a successful return to work from injury. In an actual case, the employer and the union worked on this issue jointly from 1997 until 2000. During the collective bargaining, the joint committee recommended language to the parties of the collective agreement that was eventually included in the collective agreement. The language allowed for superseding of normal staffing provisions to enable qualified employees on adjudicated injury/disability claims first access to vacancies over employees with more seniority. In exchange for this provision, once the employee provided medical clearance to return to work, the employer had six months to find a suitable accommodation or to begin to pay the employee’s full salary until a position was found. This involved balanced concession on both sides to put these provisions in place. These were leading-edge provisions at the time, still exist today, and have resulted in both the employer and employees enjoying better provisions for injured workers.

Negative Pressures

As with most initiatives that promote change, there will be some individuals who will not be in favor of the change. If you fail to understand this and do not put strategies in place to minimize the negative influences and pressures, the collaborative relationship will not survive.

  • Both union and management have increased opportunities for improved communications throughout the levels of the organization, but this can be a two-sided sword. If management is deemed by the union membership to be insincere in its commitment to the new relationship, this will become apparent.
  • The union would deliver the jointly developed messages and gather input to be shared in the decision-making process. The union might also be facing negative pressures from facets of its membership, with allegations of being co-opted by management into a more submissive relationship.

Collective bargaining becomes more continuous through this process, particularly when it leads to improvements in the workplace. It is, however, extremely difficult to bargain monetary improvements, as the two parties have divergent interests in this regard. When there are opportunities to discuss non-monetary issues, quite often the discussions produce a result that neither party envisioned prior to examining the issues to be negotiated. A solution reached between the parties is almost always more desirable than one imposed.

In the collaborative environment, the participants play a very important role. They can be either direct contributors to the success or directly attributed to the failure of change in their relationships. Union elections do not always produce the most capable participants, as there are no minimum qualification thresholds in place. Education for the participants should be detailed and ongoing to ensure the participants are fully trained. As long as the union membership and management commitment continues, so does the evolution of the relationship. The success of this relationship will need to be celebrated to ensure continued support.

Canadian values are such that the majority of people prefer collaboration to confrontation as an approach to resolving disputes. To enjoy long-term success, organizations should include some form of collaboration in their working relationship with its employees. This assists in developing a fully engaged participatory workforce for the 21st century.

About the Author

Rod McCorriston, SGEU, Director of Labour Relations

Rod McCorriston started working for the Government of Saskatchewan in 1982 as an Equipment Operator for a Department/Ministry. He was elected to the Public Service Negotiating Committee and was responsible for bargaining the 1994-97 and 1997-00 collective bargaining agreements. In 2000, he was afforded the opportunity to perform work as the Central Union Management Committee/ Staffing Liaison Officer during the next six years. After this experience, he began his current career with the SGEU. He has held several positions with SGEU; as a Long Term Disability Advocate, Staff Representative, and his current role as Director of Labour Relations. Rod is also a recent graduate of the Queen’s IRC Labour Relations Certificate program.

The Art of Mountain Driving: Navigating the Curves

Driving mountain roads can be very tricky. With the exception of those who drive a super-powered something able to negotiate a significant vertical climb, mere mortals learn that reaching the top of the mountain requires learning the skill of turning switchback corners. Go too slowly around the curve, and you run the risk of the vehicle stalling in the climb. Go too fast, and it can be a kissing-the-guardrail moment, or over the edge you go.

I love mountain driving, but I’ve also learned to be very respectful of switchback curves. Just the right acceleration and your right hand on the wheel keep the vehicle on the road. Rounding a corner without going over the edge brings you to a whole new “aha” moment. There is a vista there that you could not see ten minutes ago. The mountain was in the way. The corner had to be negotiated to take in what was waiting around the curve. Signs point the way and tell you the speed at which to take the corner, but they cannot possibly capture what is waiting around the bend.

Moving from one level in an organization to the next is a lot like negotiating switchback corners. Go too slowly, and you can stall out. Go too quickly, and you can go over the edge. For the HR professional moving from a Specialist to a Business Partner role, learning to negotiate the switchback curve is critical. The road tells you what you need to know as you make the turn. It is a matter of paying attention and learning to be aware of what all your senses are telling you at the same time.

In the book, The Leadership Pipeline (2001), the authors describe passages, or bends through pipelines, as one moves from one level of the organization to the next. Each of these passages, they assert, “represents a change in organizational position – a different level and complexity of leadership – where a significant turn has to be made”(p. 6-7). These turns, they contend, “may involve a major change in job requirements, time applications and work values” (p. 7).

From this writer’s perspective, there are several significant changes in skill sets, values, and how time is spent that must be learned for a highly skilled Human Resources Specialist (no matter the area) to successfully meet the requirements of a highly skilled HR Business Partner. In the IRC’s Advanced HR program, we talk about this shift of moving into an HR Business Partner role as learning to lead in a more advanced area of HR. The complexity of the Business Partner role changes significantly and the capability and skill set requirements are dramatically different than those of a Specialist role. It is a “coming around the mountain curve moment” in an individual’s career.

The Scenery Ahead

The first–and perhaps most poignant–shift for most individuals moving into an HR Business Partner role is that the space within which they work changes. This can be as simple and complex as changing their physical location in the company. Many organizations require their HR Business Partners to move into the business unit, to be one with the everyday comings and goings of that part of the organization. Preparing to move from a centralized “everybody thinks and talks like me” HR unit requires a downshifting pause. The Business Partner is moving to their business unit’s space, culture, and group, complete with all its interesting dynamics and quirkiness. It is entirely possible that you will look like a complete stranger whom your colleagues are not so sure they want in their midst. At best, on first arrival you may appear to be an accidental tourist to the locals who are very comfortable in their own environment.

From my mountain driving experiences, it is like coming around a curve, only to see ahead a herd of mountain sheep standing on the side of the road. To this day, I still stop the car, pull out whatever photographic device I have with me and get as close as I can to the critters to observe and snap a photo or two. The locals, flying by in their vehicle of choice, either smile and wave with an “ain’t it grand” kind of air or do some other version of hand signaling to indicate their displeasure that I’ve pulled off the road for my own look at the local wildlife. From their perspective, my need to see and be with the critters results in yet another traffic element to be attended to on the drive up the mountain.

Learning to live with the locals, while taking in the interesting sights, is a skill set that can be developed. I’ve learned it in mountain cafés, listening to the conversations around me. Yes, I am a flatlander, I’ll never be one of them, but I am respectful of what they know, who they know, and what they can teach me. Showing up as some sort of expert is not helpful–for any of us–as we learn to be together in what is my new place in their space.

David Ulrich and others (2012) describe this learning to live with the locals as becoming a Credible Activist (p. 88). In describing this competency, he states, “credibility comes when HR professionals focus their time and attention on issues that matter to the business” (p. 87). Further, he states, these same HR professionals, must “do what they promise, meet their obligations and commitments, communicate effectively and build relationships of trust with line managers” (p. 87).

If a move to a business unit is part of your next role as a Business Partner, learn to see the space as they see the space. You will never be one of them; that is not why you’re there, but you can learn to see and hear what is important about the unit and what drives their part of the business. The first responsibility in this new space is yours. Yes, they should welcome you, but no, they may not.

Enter their space respectfully. Learn to see what they see. Learn about what they value–what’s important, what is not important, how they think, and how they gather as a group. As a Specialist, you were part of a group who understood you. Accept that your new neighbours may never completely understand you. With a little time and patience, you can win them over to accepting the flatlander in their midst. Breathe a little and learn to enjoy their space. Your credibility depends on it.

Jam Sessions on Friday Afternoon

There is a certain kind of music that happens in mountain cafés. Someone starts pickin’ on his guitar; another just happens to have her concertina accordion in the truck. Someone else grabs a pair of spoons and you’ve got music. The next thing you hear is “Hey Lila, call down to the house and have Joanna Rae bring her fiddle up here!” Fingers and toes start tapping out the beat, a couple starts dancing, the kids are clapping, and even the cook starts humming along. Just like that, you’re making music and the whole place is involved.

Finding and keeping good talent is an accountability that belongs to everyone in the organization. Yes, the hiring manager needs someone capable of doing the role. Yes, the group VP is always on the lookout for the next rising star. Yes, the HR Recruiting Manager is overloaded and knows which university or agency is the best for sourcing good talent. No, the organization does not always take time to document the full extent of internal talent. And you, the HR Business Partner, are right in the middle of it all.

Developing the skill set to know that Joanna Rae and her fiddle would make the music even better is another key to coming around the corner on a mountain road. In HR from the Outside In, Ulrich and others (2012) describe this competency as an “innovator and integrator domain” (p. 164). The factors involved in that domain include: working with managers to understand the talent requirements of the organization, assisting in developing that talent, hearing the needs of the various managers, and integrating the search for talent. Often, it may also include helping to construct the compensation systems and packages for finding and keeping talent.

Moving from the role of a Specialist, highly effective in a particular area, to one of Business Partner , requires a whole new framework for making music. The move, as Ulrich describes, requires the HR professional to “move from the outside in” (p. 8). You are living and breathing strategic planning, talent development, and day-to-day challenges with the business unit. You are now seeing up-close the benefit of having the right talent in the right place. You are living, right along with the rest of the team, the pain of having someone who is not quite right for a role. In the constant search for talent in the organization, you are in a linchpin role. You are the one who can work with the manager to ensure the right person is in the right role, as well as coordinate the work with the HR Specialists.

The skill sets, turning this mountain corner and coming into a new view, require savvy and sophistication. You are doing multiple things at multiple times–listening to the individual players, hearing the tune as they play, how the music comes together, and where to go for help if something is missing. With this coming around the curve, you move from being an expert in guitar pickin’ to the guy or gal who hears the whole tune. And, you have learned where to go for help in finding what the group needs to make the sound even better. It’s about the music, not just your own particular tune.

Becoming a Mountain Muse

Part of the mountain experience is learning to navigate the trails. As Specialists, we are part of the outfitter’s team. We know where the boots and poles are located. We can help program the GPS and make sure the climbers have the right trail map. We know that the bears wake up hungry in the spring. We know the sound a magpie makes when angry, and we know that bull elk can get aggressive in the fall.

When moving into a Business Partner role, we join the climbing group. The manager is always (hopefully) the leader. The group is climbing the trail. They see the trail in front of them, but they cannot always see the whole mountain. They’re on it, living in it, and working toward a collective goal to get to the next place in the trail.

On the climb, our role as Business Partner is an interesting combination of medic, muse, and encourager-in-chief (especially on the high country trails). As Specialists, we learned how to serve as medic and encourager-in-chief. We know how to triage a painful situation. We know how to encourage someone having a tough time. We train others, we know how to plot an organization map, and we are experts in the (employment legal) environment.

At the risk of taking Greek mythology to a whole new meaning, it is the muse role that is the new learning for most HR Specialists, as they move into a Business Partner role. The handy Oxford American Dictionary (1980) I keep in my writing desk has two definitions for muse, useful in this framework. The first, muse as noun, is “one of the nine sister goddesses in Greek and Roman mythology, presiding over branches of learning and the arts… a poet’s genius” (p. 587). The second useful definition is in the verb form. To muse is “to ponder” (p. 587.)

If you accept that managerial leadership is both a science and an art, it is in that creative artist place of “musing” that we can be great partners for line managers. Sometimes, the managerial leader just needs someone they can talk with to get their ideas out of their head; someone who can hear what they are trying to do, and frame it in a way that the team can understand. In my own work as a consultant, I find that managers at all levels of the organization often just need someone who will listen and help them paint and frame what they are thinking about and how they envision leading their team. Individual members of the team each have their own goals while working to meet the group goals. They are also subordinates, and as such, it may not be appropriate that they serve as a manager’s muse or thinking partner. Done well, an HR Business Partner can serve a huge role in an organization, by learning to help managers think through and create what is important for their unit. This is not about the strategic planning process, although strategic partnering is a critical component of this skill.

This role of muse is more about listening and helping the creative learning to come to the forefront. It is a matter of moving away from “I have to be an expert at (insert HR Specialist area here)” to “I am becoming someone who is respected for her listening, thought organizing, and framing skills.” If active listening is tough for you, if you have a high need to inject what you think the speaker wants to hear before they have finished their thought, you will have a tough time going around this mountain curve. You acquire the skill set to listen, summarize what you’ve heard, and ask the next “just right” question to successfully navigate the curve. Anthropologists do this well, clinical psychologists do this well, and kindergarten teachers are the true masters (as in, Bobby… “I think I just saw you put your paintbrush on Jen. Is that really what you meant to do?”).

Becoming a mountain muse to a group of creative managers climbing their own mountains is not about you expounding on your own expertise. They know you have expertise; you know you have expertise. When they are climbing the mountain, sometimes they just need someone to listen and ask them when they might be okay pausing by the side of the trail for a rest. They need someone who can help them hear what is happening with everyone on the trail. That is, who is lagging, who is holding back to take their own photos, and who is itching to run ahead. Learn to listen–to individuals, the group, and the mountain. They need to know that you see it, get it, and will help them create the next opportunity.

Remember to enjoy the view…

The organizations in which we work face many challenges. We live in dynamic times, with constantly shifting expectations. We have big mountains to climb. We have switchback curves to navigate. We have climbing teams who need us to listen, hear, and experience right along with them. Learn to do these well and you will be respected as full partner on your team. Good luck and watch the curves…


About the Author

Sandi Cardillo

Sandi Cardillo is president of Conrad Associates based in Omaha, Nebraska. Sandi consults with both profit and not-for-profit organizations applying accountable management principles in structuring, talent management and improved managerial practices. She has over twenty years experience in management, human resources, organization development and internal consulting.

Sandi has been vice president, human resources, and director, human capital development for a major national financial services organization. In her director role, Sandi served as assistant-to-the-president and worked with executive leadership teams to implement organizational structure and roles needed to meet future business needs, providing clarity in the development of key accountabilities and managing “right person, right role” concerns. During her tenure in this role, she led the internal consulting team for a five-year business unit merger project that resulted in significant structure change, role clarity and increased profits.

She was corporate human resources director for a major manufacturing firm responsible for recruitment, selection, employee relations, organizational development and training. Her experience includes senior merchandising and management positions in several major department store groups and product manager for an importing company. These positions required extensive travel throughout the USA and abroad, including the Far East and India.

Sandi’s work with not-for-profit groups includes the recent Girl Scouts Spirit of Nebraska Council merger of five area councils into a statewide organization. She assisted the CEO and Leadership Team in developing the appropriate structure, roles and talent to meet the strategic vision for the emerging council. She has also worked with the CEO of the Institute for Career Advancement Needs (ICAN) in developing structure and roles to meet strategic expansion goals for the future.

Sandi brings practical management and human resources experience to her consulting work. She is known for her ability to integrate high-level conceptual frameworks for the executive level, assisting them in breakthrough thinking in the application of accountable management principles. Sandi is well respected for her ability to simplify complex principles and practices for mid-level and front line managers through her teaching and consulting style. She has over ten years experience teaching accountable management principles and practices to all levels of managers.

Sandi has presented at national and international conferences on topics including managerial leadership, talent management and using accountable management principles in managing process change. She teaches in the Executive MBA program at the University of Nebraska at Omaha using a curriculum focused on the application of requisite organization theory and accountable management principles in change management.

Sandi earned both Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from the University of Nebraska. She is a Fellow of the Global Organization Design (GO) Society and a Certified Coach Practitioner.



Charan, Ram, Stephen Drotter, and James Noel. The Leadership Pipeline: How to Build the Leadership-Powered Company, 2nd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001.

Ehrlich, Eugene, Stuart Berg Flexner, Gorton Carruth, and Joyce M. Hawkins. Oxford American Dictionary. New York: Avon Books, 1980.

Ulrich, Dave, Jon Younger, Wayne Brockbank, and Mike Ulrich. HR from the Outside In: Six Competencies for the Future of Human Resources. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2012.

The Forgotten Risk: Dealing with Project Manager Departures

Projects are often the means by which much change is instituted within organizations. As such, the literature and concern with project management are also increasing. There does not seem to be the attention in the literature that specifically looks at the impact when a change in project leadership occurs during the life-cycle of a project. This is an important practical concern and project risk, as it happens often enough to be raised by senior executives. Given that there is little evidence in the project management literature, I have turned to the literature in the management field on leadership, change management, and dealing with the unexpected that provides some insights.

I begin with an exploration of the role and importance of the project leader, and then discuss the types of changes going on in organizations that might impact project leadership. I conclude by evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of the literature reviewed in helping us deal with this practical problem. Finally, I provide recommendations for practitioners facing this situation and for further research in this area.

Key Leadership Characteristics For Successful Projects

This review recognized that there are many levels of leadership required within a project, however for the purposes of this review, I focus on the project leader/manager as the person responsible for the overall execution of the project (Briner, Hastings, & Geddes, 2001). I want to focus on when a project leader change takes place mid-project and how this loss impacts the project. Having an understanding of the role of the project leader and competencies required for a successful project outcome, will help the reader understand the impacts caused by a sudden leadership departure.

There seems to be general agreement on common characteristics required of project managers including a variety of leadership and interpersonal skills, organizational competencies, technical expertise, team building, project management, and relationship skills (Ammeter & Dukerich, 2002; Benimadhu, 2003a-b; Mourier & Smith, 2001; Pinto, 1998; Story, 2003). Likewise, Pinto (1998) and Mourier and Smith (2001) underscore the value that the leadership component of the project manager’s role is one of the single most important characteristics in successfully implementing projects. While there are a number of factors related to the success of organizational change efforts, among them is having a strong project manager. And intuitively, Mourier and Smith add that correlated with failure, is a project manager’s departure before the project is completed. This suggests that it is the project team leader who is a critical component to the success of the project and, in fact, may be perceived by team members as highly influential on the performance of the project team.

As projects increasingly become the means by which major organizational change is instituted, project manager skills and behaviours have greater influence on contributing to the success of projects; projects that are both complex and continually affected by change. Several Corporate Leadership Council Research studies (2003a-d) indicate that companies undergoing corporate transformation are at risk of the change initiative failing, due to people issues. Their work supports this paper’s theory that losing key people will contribute to this risk and that strong leadership is essential to successful change implementation. While their specific findings address broad corporate transformations, if we consider the project environment during this time of transformation as characterized by any number of changes: personnel changes, resource shortfalls, budget cuts, design failures, requests that speed up delivery, management changes, new government regulations, and the list goes on (Deeprose, 2001; Kotter, 1996, 2005), they all add to the complexity, urgency, and impact on the organization and team.

While any number of changes can affect organizations today, my focus, the change that influences project manager departures from projects, warrants a closer look at what might be the contributing factors to those unexpected departures occurring prior to the completion of a project. In particular, losing a key project leader is fundamentally important to project success and businesses should understand the importance of understanding the impact of leadership change on a project.

The developing model (Table 1) illustrates the types of factors affecting organizations that contribute to project manager turnover. Given today’s turbulent and uncertain business environment, I suggest that organizations consider the following model to understand the change drivers contributing to unexpected turnover of project leaders. This model outlines:

  • Contributing Factors to Changes
  • Impact on Projects contributing to Project Risk
  • Impacts on Project Team Members

This model lays out the root causes, impacts on projects and the organization, and team member perceptions that have to be addressed. Depending on the impact, the model indicates the possibility or project risk the unexpected change in project leadership has.

Given the limited research on managing the risk of a project manager/leader change in the literature, this might suggest, as my article title indicates, that this a hidden risk on projects.

Table 1
Contributing Factors to Changes in Project Leadership

Contributing Factors to Unexpected Turnover of Project Managers

Impact on Projects

Strategic Options

 Long-Term Strategic Options

Labour market

  • Macroeconomic growth
  • Consumer changes
Scarce skilled resources

High turnover due to other opportunities

Disruption to project continuity

Offer challenging work

Competitive compensation

Strategic planning

  • Leaner, more dynamic
  • Restructuring, downsizing, acquisitions
  • Business models becoming obsolete
Availability of resources to draw from at all levels

Difficult to predict whether employees will still be around

Loss of job security

Huge costs in process re-engineering and improvement initiatives

Lack of motivation within organization for projects of this type (flavour of the month)

Offer challenging work

Create sense of urgency

Honesty about business case

Multi-skilled leaders in leadership and project management competencies

Create career opportunities

Business Changes

  • Organizational priorities shift
  • Increase in change initiatives
  • More complex and global business challenges
Inconvenience, transform, or terminate project

Transition to project culture and adapt to team’s working behaviours

Time and quality of information provided by team members, hidden agendas, trust might take time to re-develop

Too much to manage

Too few and different capabilities required

Understanding cultural issues

Watch for signs and prepare for changes before they happen

Seek alternative resourcing options including external

Strategic planning to remain focused on key business priorities
Crisis Events

  • The boss drops dead
  • Catastrophe
Shock and unexpected effect on team members

Unexpectedness leading to unprepared replacement plan or inexperienced/not fully capable replacement

Information/knowledge not documented/shared

Counseling services provided to team

Ensure appropriate documentation procedures in place

Develop a high reliability performance organization, practicing mindfulness
Human Resources

  • Lessening organizational loyalty
  • Rapid turnover of senior staff
  • Incompetence
  • Increased importance of human capital
  • ‘Accidental’ project managers assigned due to availability
Quick and frequent departures

Mindset/expectations and priorities of employees are different/changing and need to be managed differently

Team unity (i.e., team member behaviours become guarded, control becomes an issue)

Feeling loss of senior management support

Questioning roles and responsibilities; team struggles with issues, assessing whether their roles will change or be understood by new leader

Frustration, lack of hope, lack of commitment

Lack of results

Departed can become an easy target to blame project weaknesses

Competition both internally and externally for resources

Knowledge gap

Competitive compensation

Challenging work

Networking opportunities

Team workarounds

Reporting and monitoring

Paying attention to results

Operational audit

Strong team skills

Project manager selection review process

Legally contract to end of project

Maintaining organizational competitive advantage

Succession management

Knowledge management

New thinking and new frameworks

Filling the knowledge gap through resourcing plans

Managing the Risk

What can organizations do before losing a key project leader to mitigate the risk of this unexpected event? Weick and Sutcliff’s (2001) work suggests that high reliability organizations have developed ways of managing the unexpected and demonstrate five characteristics:

  • Preoccupation with failures rather than successes
  • Reluctance to simplify interpretations
  • Sensitivity to operations
  • Commitment to resilience
  • Deference to expertise

Organizations that establish themselves by these characteristics are better able to notice the unexpected. Weick and Sutcliff term this “mindfulness” (p. 17). For the purposes of this review and how a change in leadership affects a project, Weick and Sutcliff is suggesting that if your organization is a high reliability organization and demonstrates mindfulness, then the capability for catching the unexpected happens earlier. This means the organization would be in a position to see the signs that a leader might jump ship or leave for better opportunities, thus minimizing the impact felt by the organization and the project team. Identifying the unexpected does not disable these organizations and their ability to cope does not make the situation worse by being caught off guard.

Anticipating and becoming aware of the unexpected before problems become severe requires taking action before the event happens. This requires watching for signs in the organization regarding resource trends/movements and putting measures in place before project managers depart. Containing the unexpected when it does occur would require equipping project team members as well as senior management to develop capabilities to cope with project manager departures, swift learning, and flexible role structures. Weick and Sutcliff suggest that high reliability organizations would be capable of helping people bounce back from unexpected events after they begin to occur quicker.

Managing the Unexpected

How is the project affected after the fact, is this a project risk that has been overlooked as an increasingly common project occurrence? What transitions take place when a project leader leaves mid-project, what mechanisms does a company have in place to address this change in leadership?

The developing model outlined in this paper suggests a number of key contributing factors that might lead to unexpected changes in project leadership. The questions in the preceding paragraph suggest the complexity of this situation. These questions have been addressed by several researchers (Conner, 1993; Harrington, Conner, & Horney 2000; Pullen 1993; Weick & Sutcliff, 2001) and provide interesting insight into managing under trying conditions.

The organization can anticipate and develop an awareness of the unexpected and act before problems become severe, watching for signs in the organization regarding resources and putting measures in place before project managers depart. Perhaps Pullen’s (1993) Strategic Shocks: Managing Discontinuous Change further supports an abrupt leadership change characterized by uncertainty, as a risk. His advice suggests developing a strategy for managing this discontinuous change, in our case, a project manager departure represents this discontinuous change. Following this abrupt leadership change, there is a period of uncertainty experienced by team members and a need for the organization to quickly consider the different perceptions that team members may experience under our different scenarios of project manager departure. What would you have to do to manage those perceptions/expectations?

Understanding the reasons project managers leave and the impact the departure has on projects is the first step in addressing issues for this project risk and in developing strategies for preventing the event and managing the transition. Part of assessing the situation involves looking at the affects the change has had on the project team and stakeholder population and developing strategies for managing the perceptions and expectations. This becomes evident in reviewing our developing model that indicates that varying contributors to project manager departures sets off a variety of impacts on projects, differing perceptions, and emotions from team members leading to the development of strategies for both the short-term and long-term.

So where does this leave the project? We have looked at contributing reasons for project manager departures, the impact on organizations and projects, and reactions by team members. This model indicates that the reactions and resulting impacts vary depending on the contributing reasons for the departure. So how can organizations manage this, how are some organizations managing this now?

Managing the Transition

Work by Kotter (1996, 2005), Roberto (2002), and Pullen (1993) supports the need for planning, strategy, and good management in managing organizational change. Roberto recognizes that leaders must cope with ambiguity and uncertainty and to make sense of this and to deal with it effectively, it involves redefining the situation in small steps. This has merit, given our situation, as project managers leave a project for a variety of reasons outlined in our model. The organization selecting the incoming project manager and the incoming project manager need to develop strategies that assess the situation into manageable pieces and have a variety of strategies to use. These strategies are dependent on the situation and reason for project manager departure in the first place. Developing a variety of strategies that simplifies this complex situation allows managers to make sense of their confusing situation.

The incoming manager can develop responses to this period of uncertainty experienced by team members and stakeholders. The strategy and subsequent plan will depend on the reason for the project manager’s departure and an assessment of how things are handled. Key aspects of this plan should focus on strong leadership, an emphasis on the team and or groups within the project, improving and sustaining improved internal communications, and providing counseling, should the situation warrant it (Pullen, 1993). These responses strongly support this model and an understanding that the unexpected departure of a project manager for reasons associated with business and human resource changes has the greatest impact on project team influences such as team member behaviors, questioning roles, and team unity.

Sudden changes in leadership can be costly, no matter how well they are handled and managed (Parker & Skitmore, 2005). In order to minimize the impact and avoid disaster, the focus needs to be on not only what the incoming project manager might do, but also the selection of the right replacement. We know that the project leader has a tremendous influence on team members and on the success of the project. The significance of a leadership change can lead to team members having to adjust to a new leadership style and approach. It is important that the leadership replacement is on the same page as senior management and the project sponsor and that communication of expectations is clear. Selecting the right replacement leader is further supported by the work of Harrington et al. (2003). Harrington et al’s work demonstrated that good leadership is essential for dealing with unexpected events and unanticipated risks and that the key leadership characteristics include team building, resilience in the face of change, successful negotiation, clear communication, and effective project management.

The new incoming project manager and the right project manager can contain the affects of this change when it does occur. Developing a plan that focuses on helping people bounce back from unexpected events is a small first step. Equipping project team members and senior management with capabilities and an awareness to cope with project manager departures can help ease the transition. As senior management has a role to play in this transition, we can now turn our attention to the organization’s role in managing project manager departures and minimizing the risk to the organization and projects in general.

Managing the Transition and Succession Planning

Reviewing the literature on succession planning provided insight into how organizations think about and deal with the risks associated with rapid turnover in leaders. Several researchers (Mellina, 2003; Sauer, Li, & Johnston, 2001) all support the need to identify backups for key management positions and create a pool of skilled project managers because changes occur more quickly now than in the past. The reality is if a key management person drops out of the picture unexpectedly, it puts the company at risk. Much of the work in this area recognizes the impact of losing a project leader mid-way through implementation of a high visibility assignment (i.e., change initiative or project) but does not address what needs to be done. While Sauer, Li, and Johnston (2001) and Longenecker and Scazzero’s (2003) work is specific to IT firms, they go a step further in identifying the need for development plans and processes in place to support project management leadership capability. Thus, once the organization has project managers with the skills, then the appropriate assignment of project managers to projects can be made.

I found that characteristics of replacement planning and succession planning programs tend to emphasize the ability to anticipate short-term, unexpected departures of senior managers, while succession management systems offer some depth and breadth in managing layers of senior leadership and their supply routes. And in some succession planning literature, I found that it is questionable whether succession planning is really of value when business requirements change so rapidly. For example, Parker and Skitmore (2005) suggest today’s rapidly changing business environment makes it impossible to predict who will still be around, what positions will exist in the future. This is important for organizations to recognize, as it may be a contributing factor to why firms are not engaging great effort to identify and develop project leaders/managers.

The literature (Mellina, 2003; Parker & Skitmore, 2005; Sauer, Li, & Johnston, 2001) strongly supports a dynamic, changing business environment and the need to develop key leadership talent in response to this environment; however it is Parker and Skitmore’s work that provides an understanding into the unexpected affect this has on team members and the potential risk this creates for the project.

Given this brief literature overview, it suggests that in dealing with the unexpected departure of a project leader, companies can develop succession plans and have a number of approaches to consider so there is a reservoir of talent and bench strength available to replace a project manager. An organization that moves in the direction of developing a pool of resources, where leaders are available who can take over at a moment’s notice, who can meet organizational and future needs, provides companies with the needed flexibility and confidence that they will have the leadership talent when needed. Succession plans that are living documents that take into account the unexpected also places an organization in a position to react quickly and with the assurance a project will be lead to a successful completion.

It is widely accepted that dynamic changes are taking place within business and project environments, affecting the stability of project manager tenure. Most of the literature is practical and does not clearly connect the impacts of project manager departures to the project, to team members, or to the organization. Some researchers have shown the need for developing transition plans, but evidently more research is required in this area.


Where do we go from here? The key challenge in addressing this project risk is to create and identify strategies, programs, and opportunities that build on how, when, and why leaders change unexpectedly and link these changes to strategies for transitioning team members in order to ensure continued project success. I suggest a number of short-term recommendations that both the organization and the individual project manager should adopt, offering a quick solution to the situation. I also provide some long-term recommendations.

Short-Term Recommendations

For the Incoming Project Manager:
  1. Develop a transition plan to help the project team deal with this unexpected change. Reassess where the project team has developed to and ensure there is alignment on common purpose and goals; re-establish roles, accountabilities and working relationships. Become familiar with teamwork plans and how things are done.
  2. Provide counseling to manage the uncertainty, stress and possibility of reduced productivity.
  3. Implement motivational fixes to address lagging motivation. Celebrate success, demonstrate appreciation for team members’ efforts, and refocus on the project goal.
For the Organization:
  1. Prepare the organization and its leaders to cope with constant change and transitions that require reorientation or re-creation. This involves developing the necessary skills in leaders and staff.
  2. Create practical strategies that managers can use to engage and retain talent, such as a compensation strategy focused on retention and creating a management style and corporate environment that is supportive.
  3. Challenge leaders with opportunities that keep them at the cutting edge of their profession and equip them with the skills to meet the organization’s current and future needs.
  4. Identify within the project plan, training replacements, shadowing opportunities, and rotations; ensure a resource plan has been created, recognizing key issues, compensation initiatives, challenging work, and legal contracts that specify commitment to the end of project.

Long-Term Recommendations

For the Organization:
  1. Develop a pool of backup resources for developing project manager capability.
  2. Examine the external and internal supply routes for developing project managers and for ensuring that resources are available for unexpected events.

There are a number of short-term and long-term recommendations listed in Table 1; however, for the purposes of this paper I have selected a number of key recommendations to emphasize immediate actions that can be taken. This paper recognizes the need for taking this research further and exploring how organizations develop and implement actions for coping with the unexpected departure of project managers.

Future Research Agenda

This review set out to discover what management literature there is to help organizations deal with the need to replace a project manager mid-project and I have found that more work needs to be done. Below are some ideas for future research on dealing with project management departures.

  1. Limited information could be found in the management literature. If frequent, unexpected changes to project leadership is a serious risk to the project, then a number of areas could be further explored:
    1. Acknowledge the risk once identified and assessed as having an impact on the project
    2. Incorporate into contingency plans.
    3. Identifying the risks of staff turnover – managing from both a planned perspective and being able to manage the unplanned staff turnover.
  2. The literature provides guidance on the after situation, after the unexpected turnover has occurred, rather than the before situation, when the event has been recognized. This is a gap that needs to be explored.
  3. What kind of change management tactics do organizations employ to facilitate the transition from project manager to incoming project manager?
  4. What methods should companies utilize to support leaders during this transition?
  5. How do companies retain key project leaders during high periods of change?

We know that the marketplace is more volatile, with a higher degree of uncertainty, and that turnover of key executives and leaders is rapidly increasing. These recommendations assist organizations and project practitioners in understanding the impact felt by organizations and teams when project leaders depart unexpectedly.


About the Author

Kathy Cowan Sahadath

Kathy Cowan Sahadath is a Program Manager and Change Leader in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Her current position involves supporting the increasing number of strategic organizational change transformations. She specifically addresses the people side of change at all levels of an organization, working in concert with business leaders, project leaders, and with change teams. Their aim is to improve overall organizational capacity for managing change, by developing and mentoring change leaders from within the business and supporting them as they take on change-related assignments.

Kathy’s professional education includes an undergraduate degree from the University of Waterloo in Psychology, an MBA in Project Management from Athabasca University, a Masters of Arts degree in Human and Organizational Development from Fielding Graduate University, and a PhD in Human and Organizational Systems specializing in the area of organizational change and leadership also from Fielding Graduate University, in Santa Barbara California.

In addition to Kathy’s corporate responsibilities, she is involved as a volunteer/board member with the Project Management Institute, Project Research Institute, Toronto Forum on Organizational Change, The International Council on Organizational Change, the Academy of Management, and the Association of Change Management Professionals.



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