'We're making a difference' – 3M's HR leader on being at the table

'We're no longer asking for that seat at the table, we're being invited in and asked for our opinion'

'We're making a difference' – 3M's HR leader on being at the table

Janice Nicholas says she never set out to become an HR leader, but, upon reflection, it was always going to transpire that way.

In her 20s, Nicholas held a management role at a contact centre where her people management skills drew praise from her team members even then.

Those skills blossomed into a career. Nicholas is now the HR operations leader for 700 people across New Zealand and Australia for global conglomerate 3M.

“There were elements of that contact centre role that I absolutely loved and the parts that I loved were the people parts,” Nicholas told HRD in an interview. “I loved bringing good talent on board, training and developing them, and setting them up for success.”

Alignment to support business

Nicholas said that the HR function, when she started, was largely about record-keeping, data, and processing payroll. But these days, there’s a real alignment with supporting the business in delivering key strategies, and finally, partly due to COVID-19, HR has found its way to the C-suite table.

“We’re no longer asking for that seat at the table, we’re being invited in and asked for our opinion on key initiatives or challenges,” said Nicholas. “It’s so exciting. There are always challenges with every role regardless of where you are in an organisation, but I wake up most days and go, ‘there’s some really cool stuff that 3M is playing a part in and we’re making a difference’.”

The challenges have been vast for HR in recent years but Nicolas’ optimism in the face of pandemic disruption and the most severe talent shortage in modern history is unwavering. “Turn every challenge into an opportunity,” she said. “If it’s the talent shortage, get more creative and open-minded to fill those roles,” an area where 3M has been ahead of the curve, Nicholas said.

‘Work Your Way’ program

3M applies a trust-based approach to its global workforce through the “Work Your Way” program it launched in mid-2021. Employees can select when and where they most efficiently work, with remote, hybrid, and onsite options all available.

“It makes a heck of a lot of sense. Large sectors of the workforce are looking for that flexibility and at 3M, it’s not just a tagline, we’ve really embraced it and embedded it into our systems and processes,” said Nicholas.

“I’m a big believer in meeting people where they’re at. You’ll hear the word ‘people’ from me a lot: I’m very focused on people, on creating the right environment, the best environment,” she said.

She cites a quotation from Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh, who inspired the modern concept of mindfulness: When you plant lettuce, if it does not grow well, you don't blame the lettuce. You look for reasons it is not doing well.

“You have to allow people to bring their best selves to work because if you don’t, they’re not going to grow and the organisation isn’t going to grow either,” said Nicholas.

“You have to remember that people turn up to work, not as an employee in the first instance, they turn up as a mother or a partner. If people are set up in their personal lives and they’re in a good space, that means they can bring their best selves to work.”

Nicholas said she didn’t necessarily see herself as a leader because for her it’s all about collaboration: “Surrounding yourself with good people and tapping into their knowledge and insights because I don’t have all the answers, but I know that the people I work with do.”

On the future of HR, Nicholas said we’ll continue to see the evolution of hybrid work and increased collaboration across borders. Heightened awareness of effective change management will be key in 2023, she said. 

“If we think we’ve seen change in the last couple of years, it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Organisations and employees will need to be very agile and open-minded, so from an HR perspective, we will really need to work with our teams to position them well for ongoing change.”

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