When Isabel Pouliot returned to Resolute Forest Products after her third maternity leave, the company that had been her home for 10 years was in a tough spot. The global paper- and wood-products company was strapped with debt, it was filing for Chapter 11 in the US and the Canadian equivalent in Canada, and it wanted to negotiate with creditors so it could continue to run as an operating business.
At that point, Pouliot, who’s now vice president of HR, corporate compensation, and services, was working in the legal department, where she’d risen in the ranks for the past decade since joining Resolute in 2000. She had become the managing counsel, overseeing the entire department, but she’d taken a step back down to be able to spend more time with her family. Then, when the creditor-protection restructuring arose, she and her department suddenly found themselves considering their company on a far more individual level.
“There was no one in the legal department that was really knowledgeable about employee benefits, pensions, and executive-compensation matters,” she recalls. “Our reorganization proceeding had significant impact on various employee matters. It ended up turning into a full-time job handling HR matters. We had a lot of very big matters to resolve in order to be able to present a successful plan of reorganization. I worked in close cooperation with the senior VP of HR.”
As Pouliot continued to handle nettlesome legal and HR issues, she gained enough knowledge of her company’s benefits system that the senior vice president of HR offered her the chance to transfer to HR entirely to focus on corporate compensation. Six months later, Pouliot was running the entire corporate HR office, overseeing the design of compensation and HR policies for all salaried employees at Resolute, which operates mostly in North America.
At first, the transition to HR was a smooth one. Much of what Pouliot was concentrating on—corporate and executive compensation—was an extension of what she had been doing in the legal department during the reorganization. The difficult part, she says, came when she started handling soft HR initiatives such as employee branding, succession planning, and recruitment efforts, all of which required a thorough understanding of Resolute’s operations and needs. “I had no HR background, so leading workforce-renewal initiatives to support our operations was quite a challenge,” Pouliot says. “I wanted our measures to be relevant and useful for our operations.”
Simply ensuring the usefulness of her initiatives has actually been one of Pouliot’s primary objectives. “[It’s all about] getting alignment and making sure what we do is responding to a real need and that it is being supported both bottom-up and top-down,” she says. “To me, that’s the biggest challenge, and I find myself investing a lot of time on that to make sure we are aligned. If you don’t take the time to fully explain what you’re doing, how you’re doing it, and why, at several layers within the organization, you won’t get there.”
Since taking on her new position in January 2011, Pouliot has put in place fully renewed compensation plans and launched various workforce-renewal initiatives, including an internship program to recruit new graduates.
One of the challenges Pouliot and her company face over the next few years is an aging workforce headed toward retirement. This is why she has continued to focus her energies on recruiting and hiring initiatives, but she also wants to make sure new workers aren’t confused by Resolute’s newly reorganized structure.
“We did a tremendous job in reorganizing our operations to become more competitive and leaner, and we’re still in that process,” Pouliot says. “But that has a very positive impact for employees, in the sense that it brings a set of challenges and looks for ways to optimize business. We need to pay attention to the impact of changes on our workforce and adapt our HR practices to make sure they’re still adapted to the ever-changing reality in our mills.”