Choose your own adventure: HR at Parsons Brinckerhoff

by Iain Hopkins24 Mar 2010

What does size have to do with it? Not much, judging by engineering firm Parsons Brinckerhoff's HR team winning a national award for their graduate recruitment campaign - titled 'Choose Your Own Adventure'. The Australian Association of Graduate Employers (AAGE) award put PB up against 15 other nominations from the likes of giants Ernst & Young, NAB and Telstra.

The PB campaign evolved from recruitment workshops and feedback from engineering graduates, many of whom revealed that Lego had inspired their interest in engineering. This seed of an idea was combined with the concept behind a series of popular adventure books ('Choose Your Own Adventure') to explain the career opportunities available at PB.

In the notoriously talent tight engineering field, where any advantage must be seized upon, the campaign was a hit with students at campus fairs. Following this campaign, PB's director of people, Sylvie Vanasse, admits they were inundated with applications. "We worked hard at developing the marketing strategy for graduates, so it was nice recognition of that work," she says. "Plus we recognised that we would be missing skills in a few years if we had no graduates this year, so we kept it going and hope to move it forward even more in coming years."

PB's efforts don't stop with getting grads in the door. A program has been implemented to provide graduates with development opportunities on their journey from graduate to emerging professional and on to technical professional.

Known as EVOLVE, the first phase is Consulting 101. This is a series of modules designed to help graduates to understand the role of a consultant at PB as well as enhance some of the personal skills required in our business. Subsequent phases of the program include selected Project Management, Business Development and introductory Leadership modules.

EVOLVE is a blended learning experience, combining face-to-face and self-paced e-learning activities with on-the-job experience and self-reflection. Participants are supported and encouraged in achieving external recognition through relevant professional associations, for example Chartered Professional Engineer, Certified Environmental Practitioner or Certified Practicing Planner.

From Canada to Australia
Given Vanasse's background, this concentration on developing and nurturing talent is hardly surprising.

"I came from a talent management pathway," she explains. "Some people come from IR or from other business lines into HR but I've always been involved in and studied social sciences, human behaviour, and learning & development."

After completing a Masters in Educational Technology in Canada, Vanasse commenced an academic career, conducting research, becoming a research assistant, and then receiving a research grant to further her studies. Her focus area was how to utilise technology to promote learning. She worked with IBM in the US at their User Interface Institute on how people behave around computers, and how to help people learn different software and systems. "It was known as minimal manuals, so making things slightly easier for the end user. It was really the start of those '...for dummies' books," she says.

Vanasse moved into the corporate world, first working in L&D in the Canadian railway corporation, and then other roles in OD and human performance. She moved to Australia with her husband 15 years ago and has since worked with Fairfax and IBM, where she learnt consulting in their human capital management group. She joined PB four years ago as talent director. Six months into her tenure she was promoted to head the HR team.

"My passion remains talent management but I've started appreciating the other pieces of HR because it's all about human behaviour, team behaviour, and organisational behaviour. I'm fascinated by people and I enjoy all aspects of HR because of that," she says.

Rapid growth
Four years ago Parsons Brinckerhoff employed 700 staff across Australia-Pacific and this has subsequently grown to 2,300. In Australia the company has worked on major infrastructure projects for more than 40 years - but this is dwarfed by PB worldwide, which employs 12,000 people and was established 120 years ago.

In 2009 PB was acquired by Balfour Beatty, a London-based construction and engineering company. Vanasse believes this is a win-win scenario for both companies. "Basically we filled the gap in professional services for them. For us, it provides opportunities to continue to grow. Even though we tripled in size over four years, that was all organic growth. But you cannot keep the pace of hiring 800-900 people each year," she says.

PB will retain its own logo and branding and will largely remain its own entity. "The biggest change has probably been becoming publicly listed. We were employee owned and now we are on the London stock exchange. That has meant changes to financial reporting and tracking but fortunately all the metrics they asked us to report on we had already," says Vanasse.

Vanasse's current role entails HR responsibilities across Australia-Pacific, which includes Australia, New Zealand and Indonesia. She has 32 HR professionals and nine direct reports in her team.

Leadership and succession planning
Alongside the aforementioned graduate recruitment program, Vanasse is proud of one HR initiative in particular. She recognised some time ago that the company's leadership and succession plans needed refinement so she took steps to overhaul both.

"We didn't have a very good succession plan in place and to me that's a critical long-term strategy. When I addressed leadership the first thing I looked at was what type of leaders we wanted and how would we develop them. The succession plan fits in well with that, and so far the retention rate of those taking part in the formal succession plan program has been 98%. That means over the last year we lost three people from 55, which I'm very proud of," she says.

Vanasse believes the program has been successful for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is robust, with a number of assessments for potentials and current performers. Secondly, the program has support from the executive team, who work closely with high potentials. "High potentials are given a mentor or coach to work with, and every quarter they get the opportunity to report on their projects and have a discussion with the MD and three other directors. The projects steer away from the theoretical and are instead practical, on-the-job, business relevant projects," she says.

Tied in with the succession plan overhaul was a refinement of the performance management system. "It was very tick the box and we've transformed it into an employee and a manager having a meaningful conversation with meaningful objectives emerging from that. We run it twice a year, and we link everything. So for high potentials, their project is part of the development part of their performance review. When we finish the strategic plan we cascade it down and people can actually see how they will contribute to the business by aligning their objectives to the team strategy," Vanasse explains.

She adds that it's still challenging to get set in the right habits, and have the right conversations. However, for those who do it well, there are direct correlations to the results of culture surveys. "We've found that respondents who say they've been supported to develop themselves and have undertaken their performance reviews have a very constructive view of the culture. Those results are fed back to the manager and the correlation with retention is quite striking. It's very powerful."

2010 and beyond
Given the turmoil of the past 18 months, Vanasse's HR strategy for 2010 is remarkably straightforward and refreshing. It's a case of consolidating and bedding down. She's also looking to tweak the EVP, "which is a bit wobbly", and then take the company's workforce planning to the next level.

"We want to do be doing everything extremely well," she says. "We put a lot of new programs in place - sometimes I think we did too much - and for a company it can be hard to absorb. You need to survey people, then brief them, then roll it out and monitor everything and get feedback. It takes time to do it properly but we'll get there."

In her own words...
What do you consider to be your biggest greatest career achievement so far?
Taking this role at Parsons Brinckerhoff. Coming from talent management and being a consultant and all of a sudden having to deal with all HR issues - including grievances and IR - was tough. We rarely get any grievances but last year was a tough year. We had more insecure people, more stress, more uncertainty. To me that was an achievement, to come through that tough time with few redundancies. We reduced work weeks and the feedback we've received since indicates that although it was hard at the time, most people are relieved that they have a job. Everyone is now back full-time.

Also, building a team. I have the most marvelous team. You cannot do everything in HR by yourself, so you do rely heavily on your team - and I'm fortunate that their engagement and commitment is phenomenal. 

What has been the biggest challenge you have faced in your career?
There are always challenges, but I think one of the key challenges of taking this role was taking it on without having a role model. I overcame that by joining professional networks and that was fantastic. I'm still in these networks. You must be able to discuss things. Where does HR go when you need HR? Who is there for me?