Getting HR off the back burner

Silence. Drop dead silence after a presentation can mean only one thing: the general attitude among members of the audience is “You are on your own!” Two partner guest speakers from the HR division of a prominent Canadian bank came to speak to students at the Rotman School of Management. They trolled through their extensive bios, their poorly designed slide deck, and limped through an incomprehensible case study based on TD’s acquisition of VFC. It was in the questions from the audience that the key issues of the case study came out: Luke Earl: What are the strategic reasons why TD acquired VFC? Mathew Thomas: What is the corporate culture of TD like both internally and externally? Jack Xu: Did they consider the integration issue before actually acquiring the company?

The issues in the case could have been concisely summed up as: TD acquired VFC, which was a small finance company. At the time TD already had a business unit which also did the same business as VFC, so the resulting organizational design choice was one of three options: A) continue with the status quo B) integrate both into a single business unit C) create a separate subsidiary organization with its own brand, organizational structure and strategy etc. What are some of the pros and cons for each option? Let’s list them on the board, and then discuss what the best option. 3 crisp sentences and one directive could have been delivered in 60 seconds, and the subsequent period spent in that bubbling discussion that characterizes Jim Fisher’s class (to which the guest speakers had been invited).

Interestingly enough, Jim Fisher did manage to turn that around in the last 30 minutes of class. The most interesting question he raised was about if Mr. Joe Manager (one of the guest speakers) would stay up at night worrying about organizational design issues. Probably not, and why not? Dawn-Marie King observed that given the relatively de-prioritized position of HR within an organization, perhaps that passivity is inevitable. Jim’s position is clear: “If I am running the organization, then I organize it; HR can come in afterwards and do the paperwork.” Ed Clark seems to be the organizer, as is evident in his statement on TD’s website: “Our mission is to be a better bank, and we believe the measure of our progress is not just our financial achievements; it’s whether or not our employees are proud to work for us, our customers are satisfied with the service we provide and the communities in which we work value us as a good neighbour and a positive contributor to their development and well-being.” Jack Welch also organized GE by empowering HR to take an active role (Assertive and committed statements start with “I believe we should do…” and they are dangerous because you are going out on a limb; you are taking a stand). How is this possible? I think it comes from taking ownership over your job, whether as CEO or as HR executive. In the case of Welch’s GE: team matters, culture matters, and winning matters. As we read from his books, Welch and his HR team DID stay up at night worrying about it. And maybe that is why Jack is Jack, and Joe is Joe.

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