How to Make Leaders

Donna Pascal is driving a two-to-one succession plan at Acklands-Grainger

“It's important to step outside of your comfort zone to challenge yourself and try new things. This promotes real learning.” —Donna Pascal, Vice President of Human Resources
“It’s important to step outside of your comfort zone to challenge yourself and try new things. This promotes real learning.” —Donna Pascal, Vice President of Human Resources

The next time you feel overwhelmed by the immensity of a new job, consider for a moment the impressive calm and command of Donna Pascal. Hired in September 2012 to lead the HR team at Acklands-Grainger Inc., she was quickly tasked with developing a strategy—alongside her team and the company’s leadership—to help the business achieve significant growth over the next five years.

“In order to grow this business at that rate of growth we’re committed to, we’ll need a talented bench of strong leaders, so talent development and succession planning have been a big focus,” Pascal says. “For every leadership role in our business, we want at least two individuals ready to take on that role. We call it two-to-one succession.”

That’s no small feat for a company with Acklands-Grainger’s breadth. The business was founded in 1889 and has since become Canada’s largest distributor of industrial, safety, and fastener products, with approximately 2,500 employees working in 175 locations across Canada. But thanks to Pascal’s experience, she has been able to approach her company’s growth strategy step by step and with an eye toward the future.

According to Pascal, every company needs a systematic process to identify, assess, and develop team members to make sure they are ready to assume key roles. “The way this is accomplished is by top-down executive support,” she says. “Executives need to model the way and hold leaders accountable.”

As for the succession planning, many companies don’t find the time to start until it’s too late, so Pascal is working to address it early on to avoid having to deal with a talent gap for a critical position. “Succession planning and talent development should not be an event but rather the way you do business,” she says.

One critical initiative that Pascal has enacted is an effort to help every Acklands-Granger team member create and document an individual development plan. “Some of the learning opportunities are experiential, stretching on different projects; some are through mentoring; and some are through access to other learning vehicles, whether internally or externally,” Pascal says.

Before joining Acklands-Grainger, Pascal cut her teeth in a number of different roles that shaped her perspective, including an early role in the nonprofit sector, which she said presented an opportunity to learn about human nature. “It’s not just about the money you provide people; it’s how you connect and help them personally develop,” Pascal says.

Along the way, she encountered some great mentors, two of whom stand out: a business leader and an HR leader, both at Sysco Food Services, where Pascal worked from 2003 to 2007. “They really challenged me to focus on becoming both a business leader and strategic HR partner,” she says. “It’s important to step outside of your comfort zone to challenge yourself and try new things. This promotes real learning.”

In 2004, Pascal became involved in Women in Food Service, an organization that helps elevate women to executive roles. The organization taught her how to develop her executive presence and overall confidence in the business world, and she says it was a critical turning point in her career.

From her experiences, Pascal has learned that you have to be a business leader first and an HR leader second. To get there, she says, you have to get out of the office and connect with people and business processes. “To have any ability to influence the organization, you must really understand the business you are working for,” she says.

Pascal’s driving philosophies are confidence and fearlessness. As she sees it, what often prevents people from being successful is fear—fear of failure or of disappointing others. “If you rely on the world to inflate you with compliments, then the world will deflate you with [its] criticisms,” she says. “It’s important to approach life with humility, self-reflection, and confidence. Throughout your career, mistakes will happen; you have to accept that, learn, and push forward.”