HRD Podcast: Sobeys's CHRO reveals career highlights

Simon Gagné speaks to HRD on the highs and lows of the ongoing pandemic

Simon Gagné, CHRO at Sobeys, spoke with Sarah Dobson, editor of the Canadian HR Reporter group, to discuss how and why he entered the HR profession, how the industry has changed over the years, his priorities and challenges on the job, and plans for the future.

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Speaker1: [00:00:01] The. Hi, there, I'm Sarah Dobson, editor of the Canadian HR Reporter Group, and joining us today is Seema Kennedy, who is the Pro and Sobeys, a leading Canadian grocery retailer and food distributor where he has worked since nineteen ninety seven, which is very impressive. So welcome.

Speaker2: [00:00:32] Nice, meet you.

Speaker1: [00:00:34] Yeah, well, no, thanks for joining us, and let's just get started first off, can you talk a bit about how and why you decide to get into the HR profession?

Speaker2: [00:00:43] Actually, my first when I started it was an engineer. You know, my goal was to become an engineer. But after a year at the university, I realized that, like I did not have what it takes, I did not know I had no 3D vision, so spatial vision and so so I was really not good at it. And then I, you know, like I did some probing and look around and I was hesitating between actually becoming a lawyer or going in industrial relations. So I finally end up in industrial relations, and I've been doing this since, like it's 30 years now.

Speaker1: [00:01:26] What in particular did you like about the HR profession, what drew you there

Speaker2: [00:01:31] Was more the labor relations side of it out of the gate. So it was less the HR side, more the labor relations. But with time I learned to to see the power of transforming culture to help businesses accomplish their strategic plan or whatever they want to do when they grow up. So then then I realized the power of the power of the HR function in a strong organization. So, so yeah.

Speaker1: [00:02:02] Well, how would you say, I mean, you've been in it for quite a long time? How has the HR industry changed over the years?

Speaker2: [00:02:09] Was more, and it's still, in some cases, very more administrative. Like, I mean, very transactional and in the stretch of the great organization are the one that the the HR function is more strategic. That helps, you know, transform the culture so it can support whatever the business wants to do, like I said earlier. So, so so I think this is the biggest change since I've been around from tactical like recruitment, which is it's all important recruitment training the but the culture of an organization is so key, right? Seven. I read I read that seventy five percent of the transformation. A fail not because of their strategic plan, but they fail because of the they have the wrong, the organization and the wrong culture. So, so so if you don't if you don't act on your culture, if you're not deliberate around, you know, making sure that your culture will support whatever plan you have, you may be in trouble. My mantra and I've been seeing that forever, and it's not. It's Peter Drucker, Drucker. I think that said, that is culture eats strategy for breakfast and and this one I read. I've seen it. I've seen it about seven eight years ago when we bought Safeway at Sobeys, and we did not act on the culture as strong as we should have. And we end up we end up with some problem that that we had to fix for a couple of years after.

Speaker1: [00:03:54] Ok. Yeah. Interesting. I was going to ask about some of your priorities and challenges at Sobeys, so it sounds like culture was definitely and has been one of them.

Speaker2: [00:04:03] Oh yeah, culture is one of them, for sure. And I also the diversity and inclusion like, I mean, you know, like in our industry, in our business, 70 percent of the decision making in-store is still made by women. And when we look at our organization four years ago, we realized that we, our leadership team, was not representative of our customer base. So, so so every decision that were made were not made with, you know, like. The same profile than our customers, so we said we need to act on it. Plus, you know, like we realize that the power of inclusion and the power of diversity by seeing all kinds of success by other organizations. So we said, well, you know, like if we want to be as successful as we want to be, we need to be. We have to move on this. The needle on diversity and inclusion.

Speaker1: [00:05:08] Well, and I should ask just how the pandemic had an impact on showbiz, we've heard lots of stories, but how it's gone and how you're sort of moving forward.

Speaker2: [00:05:18] Obviously, it was tough, you know, because, you know, all of a sudden you become an essential service from, you know, like I still remember March a couple of years ago when we were looking at what was coming in other countries and saying, you know, like, how hard is it going to hit us? And all of a sudden, you know, like. We're in the crisis mode, all. And we I was I'm so proud of how the team reacted because, you know, like we always talk about a company should have a sense of purpose. And, you know, basically we're selling food, you know, like, I mean, we knew it was important to eat, but we never were in a situation to become an essential service. All of a sudden, you know, like everything would close but us. So it was not all of it. All of a sudden, our team made rally behind that wanted to make a difference. But our first priority for sure was, you know, we can't expose them to being at risk in any way, leader or customer. So our focus was we have to make sure they're safe. We have to keep our shelves stocked.

Speaker2: [00:06:25] We have to make sure our customer is safe and we embark on the journey not knowing really what what was hitting us right? It was like building a plane in the air. And it was quite interesting, quite interesting. But again, I'm so proud of the of our all the teammates we have across the country because they're the one, you know, like, it's OK, you're in the back office, you work in an office. But all the ones that were in store facing the customer, I think also their own challenges, like the they have families, they have all the same problem. But on top of that, they have to continue to serve the customer and help the Canadian supply chain to resist to this crisis. So so it's it was quite a journey and I'm honestly, I'm at work. We're seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Hopefully, it's not another train that is coming, but so far, so good and I think we'll all need the rest. You know, like, we don't realize how taxing those events can be until, you know, like until it's after. So we'll see.

Speaker1: [00:07:39] Yeah, well, that was that leads me to my last question, just I mean, given the continued uncertainty and as you say, hopefully it's it's going well and up, but what how do you sort of plan ahead for air and some of your strategies, your policies, your programs?

Speaker2: [00:07:54] On the health side of our workforce, we're working a lot right now to make sure that mental health is being supported and that our our teammates across the country have access to all the resources because sometimes sometimes it's a lagging effect, you know, like it takes, it does not happen during the crisis. It may happen after the crisis. So that's an important thing. The other thing is we are there's a war for talent out there, and it's it's usually years ago like we would compete with the usual suspect when it was time to compete for talent. But now we're competing with banks with it in tech. We, you know, like the everybody is after the same, the same talent. And there's there's not that I'm sure you read all the newspaper like I do and you know, like it's on every it's in every newspaper. There's a lack of talent. And so so the employers will have to really think about their employee value proposition to make sure. That that they can attract and retain the talent.

Speaker1: [00:09:08] Well, thank you for all that I know we could go on for a long time, but this is perfect, just a quick snapshot. Thank you for talking to us today.

Speaker2: [00:09:17] Well, my pleasure. It's nice to meet you.

Speaker1: [00:09:20] Likewise. Take care.