HR in the Hot Seat: Alexis Corbett, Bank of Canada

Central bank’s HR leader says industry professionals should be putting their hands up for new challenges

HR in the Hot Seat: Alexis Corbett, Bank of Canada
Bank of Canada’s managing director of human resources Alexis Corbett is a business-minded leader with a background spanning learning and development, recruitment, and other specialties.
She helms HR services for the central bank’s employees and pensioners throughout their careers, and partnering managers to attract, engage and retain talent.
Corbett spoke to HRD about the challenges of HR at a major public organization, why industry professionals need to put their hands up for new challenges, and why you can’t beat common sense.
If you could give your younger self, or someone entering HR for the first time, one piece of advice – what would it be?
Throw your hat in the ring to participate in as much as you can, as early as you can. Don’t be afraid to change roles to get a real depth and breadth of experience. This will help you develop and leverage networks, and allow you to put yourself in other people’s shoes when you reach a more senior position. And don’t do it on your own: find a mentor, ideally someone who works outside of your profession, so that you can benefit from different perspectives early in your career.

Is there anything exciting in the pipeline for your HR department?
We are in the middle of a very ambitious three-year plan that will transform much of what we do and how we do it: embracing new technology, shifting to an agile development approach, employing LEAN methodology, modernizing keystone programs like performance management and core competencies. We have a lot of exciting stuff in the works!

What’s the biggest professional obstacle you – or your team – have faced and how did you overcome it?
Executing our modernization plan: It’s a real renewal of the Bank’s approach to HR and we have set very ambitious timelines. We have put in place a new performance and development framework that features ongoing coaching and feedback on the achievement of specific, identified annual goals, and focuses on both employees and leaders demonstrating new core competencies. What’s made the transition possible is our engagement with staff: employees across departments have been sharing ideas and input from the very early stages. They will continue to co-develop with us and help shape the way we do business.
What’s your biggest industry worry or concern right now? 
Attracting, engaging and retaining top talent in a competitive global marketplace. As a leading central bank, we operate in an ever-changing and increasingly complex landscape. We perform unique roles that are critical to the safeguarding and promotion of Canada’s economic and financial welfare. To fulfil our mandate and meet the needs and expectations of Canadians, we need top-level executives, frontier researchers, highly specialized and skilled professionals, cutting-edge knowledge and expertise, and innovators. It’s a tall order and an ongoing challenge.
If you could change anything about the HR industry, what would it be?
I think the industry is starting to realize that great things are born from common sense and simple, easy solutions. HR can have a lot of heaviness to it – policies, standards, legislation – and with very good reason. But that shouldn’t mean we park common sense at the door. HR is about balancing those critical elements with an employee’s need to have programs and processes that are simple to understand and access, and are tailored to their unique situation. We’re seeing more of that now, and I hope the trend continues.

What is the proudest moment or achievement of your HR career so far?
Working with the team I have right now – I am just so lucky. Over the past 18 months, we’ve been transforming the way we work. That’s required the various business lines in HR to work beyond their traditional roles, co-creating solutions and embracing joint accountability and ownership of results. This team is agile and creative and has shown a remarkable ability to design services and programs that are innovative, but also simple. They aren’t designing HR for HR’s sake – they are putting the true business needs of the Bank first.

What’s the most rewarding thing about being in HR?
Being able to directly help shape business outcomes. HR ensures that the right programs, the right services and the right supports are in place so that your organization can select the best talent, develop the best leaders and achieve the goals of the organization. 

How do you predict the industry will change, if at all, over the next five years?
Workplace culture has changed so much in recent years and I think that will continue: new technologies like cloud computing and artificial intelligence will revolutionize the way we work, more employees will expect flexibility to help manage the pressures of work and life, and more leaders will be expected to coach and develop teams, pushing them towards greater innovation. HR will need to anticipate the impact of these changes and be ready to quickly adapt their services and programs to support all of that. 

What would you like your HR legacy to be?
I am a bit away from identifying a “legacy,” but I will say that what I want most is for the employees of my organization to feel that they were supported throughout their career by a modern and client-focused human resources team – one that helped foster a superior work environment and provided distinct development opportunities.

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