Five Minutes With… Sherri Wright-Schwietz

HRM talked to the Canadian HR Leader of the Year about industry worries, hind-sight advice, and godforsaken administration

After ATB’s head of talent and mastery Sherri Wright-Schwietz picked up the coveted prize of Canadian HR Leader of the Year, she said the award was validation that employers can be innovative in their people practices and become one of the best places to work – without being a cutthroat organization.

“You can actually love who you work with,” she told HRM on the night.

Here, we caught up with Wright-Schwietz again to ask the venerated leader about the benefits of hind-sight, her biggest industry concerns and the blight that is excessive administration.

HRM: If you could give your younger self, or someone entering HR for the first time, one piece of advice – what would it be? 

SWS: Stop thinking you know everything and should be a VP by the time you’re 30. You actually have no clue how much you don't know. Be humble and understand how much there is for you to still learn and that only time, age and failure are going to teach you all you need to know. Be confident that if you work hard, your good work will be recognized when it’s the right time. Be open to feedback, and try to incorporate that feedback to see if it actually does make you better. You might be pleasantly surprised. Generally, if someone is taking the time and energy to give you feedback, they care enough or think enough about you to put themselves out there and give you the feedback.       

HRM: Is there anything exciting in the pipeline for your HR department? 

SWS: I am lucky enough to be leading a project to design the workplace of the future. We are calling it Workplace 3.0.

ATB financial has this amazing team who looks at big data all the time. They provide us with innovative insights and ask brilliant questions that force us to think completely outside of the box. One of the ways we’re doing this is by using their research as a filter to better understand what the demographics of our future workforce might look like. For example, in the past, HR and leaders "felt" women liked flexibility more than men due to the need for life balance. Guess what the data says? Both genders equally value that. Surprised? Many are. Another great question with some implications would be, what is the generation distribution of the future and how does the workplace of the future take into account the needs, beliefs and values of boomers to digital natives? What does technology look like in the future and how does it help or hinder relationships and collaboration? What kind of organizational structures have been created to allow for quicker, lower cost, better results? It’s this kind of thinking that will help us better understand the future workforce and design a workplace to best suit the needs of future generations.

HRM: What’s the biggest professional obstacle you – or your team – have faced and how did you overcome it?
SWS: This could also be my answer for the question asking me about my younger self as it’s really advice and 20/20 vision when one looks back and reflects. It is so hard to admit to oneself, but honestly, I have been my biggest obstacle. I can remember so many times in my career when projects or promotions didn't go my way and I felt it was because there was someone blocking me, or someone undermining me. But when it comes right down to it, I didn't have a skill, a vantage point or maybe even a connection with someone to make those things move forward. It was my job to be successful. It was my responsibility to earn that promotion. Stuff happens. Budgets get cut. Bosses get fired. You have to be equipped to navigate all of those situations. You are the driving force to navigate through it. I can be the best leader I know how to be to clear the way for my team, but in the end it comes down to their passion, their drive, their skills and abilities. I can't promote or support something that isn't there.

HRM: What’s your biggest industry worry or concern right now?  

SWS: We are watching disruptors affecting all kinds of industries that are game changers. Will banks even deal in dollars and cents in the future? Will retailers still need bricks and mortar to sell out of, will we go to a person face to face to get advice? Will we order fast food from machines all the time? All these disruptors make me wonder what the implication will be on people. All those can make jobs go away. So what jobs and careers are created from them? What are the skills and knowledge of the future that we’ll need? How do we in HR be disruptors instead of becoming extinct? It's up to us to help people find purpose and passion and happiness amid all this uncertainty.

HRM: If you could change anything about the HR industry, what would it be? 

SWS: Administration. No matter what level of HR professional I talk to or what discipline they specialize in, the number one complaint is not enough time for the value added client work. Why? Due to the pointless processes, the amount of changes and updates and unnecessary questions people ask us instead of looking for themselves. We get caught in wanting to help and don't redirect, thus "doing", problem solving and finding answers. But what we all want to do is proactive work. We want to have strategic conversations on where the business is going and all the people implications and how the data we now collect and analyze affects that future. But instead we are fire fighters. I want to solve that. I haven't seen a HR model or organization that has honestly solved that yet.

HRM: What is the proudest moment or achievement of your HR career so far? 

SWS: The announcement in Toronto in September when they said my name for Canadian HR leader of the year. It meant so much to me, as it validated the hard work of the whole team back in Alberta. We are a regional financial institution trying to be innovative and forward thinking and this brought that to the forefront. 

HRM: What is the most rewarding thing about being in HR?

SWS: We support people's whole career life cycle. The good, the bad and the ugly. What my team and I design and innovate actually affects people's happiness. We can go to bed at night knowing we helped people be the best they can be and live their best life. Their whole life. 

HRM: How do you predict the industry will change, if at all, over the next five years?

SWS: Our clients will want more and more future predicting data analysis. They will want more proactive ideas and solutions they don't even know they want yet. We will be creating roles and looking for skills we have never thought of before. We will see roles that were traditionally HR, like people change, moving into business transformation teams and roles that weren't HR, like analysts and high performance coaches, part of HR. As much as it is daunting, it’s exciting and I feel so fortunate to work for a company that isn’t afraid of the seas of change.

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