The Workforce Mentalist

How Finning International’s Rebecca Schalm found a way to apply her psychology background in the corporate world

Before finding her professional niche, Rebecca Schalm took a circuitous route to her current position as senior vice president and chief human resources officer for Finning International Inc., the world’s largest Caterpillar dealer.

“I knew early on I wanted to be a psychologist and took my first psychology class, the Biological Basis of Psychology, at the University of Alberta,” says the Edmonton native.

The decision, however, would prove to be unwise. “It was all about rats, and that wasn’t a part of the field that interested me, so I decided psychology wasn’t for me,” Schalm says.

After abandoning psychology, she got an undergraduate degree in general art and worked as a travel agent for several years before eventually returning to psychology. “I was listening to a dial-in psychology program on the radio and thought, ‘I need to give this another chance,’” Schalm says. The second time, the subject took, and Schalm received her doctorate from the University of Guelph in 2000, a degree that eventually led her into the business world and distinguished her approach as an HR leader in myriad ways.

Part of Schalm’s success the second time around was that she had a better sense of what she wanted to do, which was industrial organizational psychology. “I still didn’t like rats, but it was an important realization for me that there are some things in life you might have to struggle through to get where you want to go,” she says.

Postdoctorate, Schalm found work with RHR International LLP, a consulting firm of psychologists who work with corporate senior executives to define and accelerate business goals. “A client of mine, a CEO, asked me to help him find someone to fill the role of head of human resources, and when we couldn’t find anyone who connected, he suggested I consider filling it,” Schalm says. “I dismissed him as completely insane because I didn’t know how to do that job.”

Schalm eventually reconsidered, though, when she realized she was passionate about, and drew energy from, driving systemic change. “No one would ever offer me that kind of opportunity again, so [I thought] I’d be foolish not to take a chance and see if it worked out,” she says.

The position was initially challenging. Schalm knew the organization and its executive team well through her work with RHR, but she had never worked at such a senior level in HR before. “It was the most intense learning curve I’ve ever experienced,” she says. “My first two weeks I’d go home at the end of each day with my head completely full, and the next day I couldn’t even remember what I’d learned the day before because my head was full of even newer information.”

According to Schalm, though, her psychology background gave her a unique perspective that proved valuable in the position. “One of the things you learn through consulting is that an executive role in a large, decentralized international organization is all about stakeholder management and influence, so I spent a lot of time listening to and working with people so they felt like the programs we were trying to implement were a team effort,” Schalm says. “People have to want to be on the journey with you.”

Her consulting background, which exposed her to many companies, was also helpful. “My approach was to ask what would help the business move forward rather than coming in with an agenda around what any HR organization needed to have,” she says, noting that the latter tactic is a common mistake she has seen over the years. “HR leaders often get very caught up in building the perfect processes rather than solving problems to drive the business forward.”

Ultimately, Schalm says, “You have to deliver while you’re thinking about how you’re going to deliver, and that’s complicated. If I had focused on designing a talent-development program, it would have taken 18 months, and we’d have had a new CEO by the time I was finished, so I focused on attracting talent and getting people in the right roles.”