Breaking Barriers

Sarah Mortimer targets, attracts, and retains talent at Manulife Financial by emphasizing connectivity and collaboration

“HR is no longer simply administrative but instead has become a respected profession and a true partner to the business. Someone in HR needs to have business acumen, analytical abilities, and strong relationship skills. See yourself as a businessperson with an HR slant.”
“HR is no longer simply administrative but instead has become a respected profession and a true partner to the business. Someone in HR needs to have business acumen, analytical abilities, and strong relationship skills. See yourself as a businessperson with an HR slant.”

A few dots need to be connected to understand how Sarah Mortimer’s interest in foreign languages led to a career in HR. After a false start in journalism, the Toronto native completed her BA in English with minors in French and Spanish. Then, upon graduation, she approached a bilingual job-placement firm that sent her to a service centre as an HR coordinator.

“I remember the interviewer mentioning HR, and I wondered what she was talking about because HR didn’t have a presence then,” Mortimer says. “It wasn’t the profession it is today.”

She found that the interactive nature of the business was a good fit with her personality, though, and as she got comfortable and began to flourish, she quickly climbed the corporate ladder. Today, she’s the assistant vice president of talent acquisition in North America for Manulife Financial, one of Canada’s largest financial institutions, and her belief in the power of collaboration is as strong as ever. “With HR, you are independent, but it’s a connected profession with peers and businesses and clients that you support,” she says. “I love that it’s not simply me at a desk alone with my computer.”

Mortimer is currently in her second go-around with Manulife, whose revenues were about $37 billion last year. After leaving in 2006, she returned in 2008 to take over as an HR business partner in the company’s investment business, and last April she earned her assistant vice president position. “It’s exciting because you engage with people coming into the organization and all the good things that come with that,” she says. “People you bring in never forget you, and you can look around and see all the people you’ve helped welcome into the company.”

In addition to tackling the tasks associated with her new role, Mortimer has worked to facilitate and expand Manulife’s Global Workplace Flexibility Program. While similar initiatives at other companies allow employees to work remotely from home offices equipped with Wi-Fi, Manulife is aiming for a larger transformation that will include changing its physical workspace. “People need the right technology, the right resources, the right tools, the right support, and the right environment to work effectively,” Mortimer says. To address that idea, Manulife is creating more hotelling stations for employees who work in and out of the office, and it’s removing rarely used dedicated work stations and replacing them with concept office spaces that are more collaborative. The moves will tear down literal and metaphorical walls and encourage Manulife employees to interact.

Mortimer says she and her colleagues agree that those who can healthily balance their careers and lives perform the best at work. “We are only as good as our people, so we are committed to providing the best tools to balance employee and business needs,” she says. Such rethinking of the way work gets done makes Manulife adaptable and increases Mortimer’s ability to attract and retain talent.

When it comes to recruiting, Mortimer’s philosophy is expansive and covers everything from sourcing to passive and active talent to the interview process to working with hiring managers. The goal, she says, is to create a great experience for candidates and hiring managers alike by doing the same thing that’s being done in the workplace flexibility program: taking down walls. “We share and broker talent where possible,” Mortimer says. “If we find someone in Boston who is a great fit in another city, we should share to attract the best and the brightest talent.”

Mortimer works to engage passive talent to build the Manulife brand and raise awareness. The newly engaged candidates then complete a robust and focused interview process in order to better understand the organization, its structure, and their potential position in it. “It’s not just getting someone with the right experience; it’s getting the right person who is the right fit for the job and for the company,” Mortimer says.

When Mortimer’s 20 recruiters (who fill 2,500 positions a year) make hires, they hire for potential rather than simply trying to repeat past successes. And, in fact, this practice is so important that Mortimer uses it to gauge her own success on her own team. “I’ll feel like I’ve done a good job if I can develop people and see them leave for bigger and better things,” she says. “It’s important to grow and export talent to the rest of the organization.”