Katie Hunter is inspired by collaboration. “When people start to connect in a way they hadn’t before, I think, ‘Wow, we’re now harnessing our collective experience and strength,’” says the senior vice president of human resources for Wajax Corporation. “That’s so powerful.”
Given her particular passion, Hunter is in the right place. Wajax, divided into three divisions that are engaged in the sale and support of mobile equipment, industrial components, and power systems across Canada, has grown quickly through acquisitions, forcing the company’s leadership to find ways to facilitate cross-divisional and cross-functional teamwork. Hunter’s department is tasked with streamlining this initiative.
“Through our strategic-planning process, we identified significant organic-growth potential, and because of that, we’re engaging in projects to drive efficiencies across the three divisions,” Hunter says. “It’s the first time in this company’s history that we’re really thinking about ourselves as one powerful company with a collective strength.”
For Hunter’s department, the first step was listening to the company’s 3,000 employees, located in 128 offices across Canada. Its first employee-opinion survey, conducted in the fall of 2012, had a 78 percent participation rate, which Hunter says is solid, especially considering the company’s distributed workforce, 35 percent of which is nonwired (meaning not seated in front of a computer).
While the survey showed that Wajax employees have strong organizational pride and are highly engaged in the work they do, it also highlighted some needs, including improved employee communication and leadership effectiveness.
Luckily, Hunter has devoted herself to the subjects of leadership and learning (that was even the title of her master’s degree field). “I’ve been fortunate to work in multiple businesses—and, more importantly, multiple business contexts,” she says. “I’ve been in a start-up scenario, where I had to build the HR function from the ground up; a high-growth scenario, where I had to recruit and develop leaders; and a turnaround situation, where I was focusing on divestitures and layoffs.”
To enhance communication, Hunter supported the CEO and the senior leadership team in their launch of a quarterly business-update meeting, at which 250 midtier leaders from across the company now get direct access to Wajax’s top management, including the CEO, the CFO, three divisional presidents, and Hunter herself. “We engage the leaders in the company’s results, challenges, and opportunities, and then support them with training in communications so they can cascade those messages and engage their teams in the conversations,” Hunter explains. She also implemented a cross-functional task force to inventory the company’s communication channels and investigate technology-based solutions to connect its employees further, and she expects to have recommendations ready in the fourth quarter of 2013.
To help raise leadership effectiveness, Hunter’s team has put a great deal of effort into ensuring that employees in leadership positions clearly understand what Wajax expects of them. “First, we made sure leaders are clear about the hard quantitative financial results they’re accountable to deliver, and we identified the effective leadership behaviours required to achieve those results,” she says. “We’re now embarking on the next step of the process, which is to put approximately 130 of our leaders through the process of having their leadership effectiveness assessed and development needs identified. And, in 2014, we’ll launch a series of initiatives to better support development of leaders and increase the ability to promote from within.”
According to Hunter, by bringing its three strong divisions together, Wajax now has more to offer each of its employees in terms of a career. “You have the option of working in 128 locations, including many small towns, and you can grow within your division but also across other divisions,” she says.
The key to succeeding, Hunter says, is looking at the facts. “Obtaining hard data and looking at quantifiable measures is important so that we can measure effectiveness and report results,” she says. “When people can see the business case for what we’re doing, that will build engagement and further support the effort, which is to make sure we’re doing everything we can as an organization to help people achieve their career goals.”