Looking to the Future: What Will Make HR Successful?

What Will Make HR Successful?
Human Resources

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 (http://hrandtalent.com/2012/10/30/the-3-biggest-challenges-facing-hr-today/):

  • 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, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/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 http://leadersforlife.ca/ 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: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c_hA8pFVABA).

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 http://www.stratfordfestival.ca.
  • 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 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/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 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=43tqQhOTCgQ).

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: http://www.tenniscanada.com/index.php?title=HOME 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: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sports_school#Sports_schools_in_other_countries)

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: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5uD83Y42e-Y)
    • 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: http://humanservices.alberta.ca/homelessness/14601.html 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: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h5qi4sBwy6U.
  • 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; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XokCYxRWfpA)

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” (http://www.acceleratorcentre.com). For a virtual tour of the Accelerator Centre, see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sahSGZNM3uk

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.” (http://www.communitech.ca). For a virtual tour of the Communitech Hub, see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u7ks0xVZlLA.


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.

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