HR Influencers
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Leadership through Engagement

By Lisa Gordon

When Matthew Savino started his human resources career 24 years ago, he was quite literally working in the salt mines.

Matthew SavinoAfter spending a few years with the Canadian Salt Company in Windsor and then Montreal, Savino decided to shake things up with a series of progressive HR roles. He eventually landed in Peterborough, Ont., where he founded Savino Human Resources Partners (SHRP) in 2009. 

A boutique consulting firm that offers customized HR services to clients of all sizes, SHRP represented a big leap of faith for Savino, who left behind the world of guaranteed pay, health benefits and corporate pension to pursue the dream of founding his own company. 

Today, he is the managing partner and senior consultant at his four-person firm, and he’s loving every minute of it. 

HR Professional asked Savino to discuss the challenges of entrepreneurship within the ever-changing field of human resources, where the influence of technology is greatly impacting traditional roles and functions. 

When did you decide you wanted a career in human resources?

Matthew Savino: Like most people, it wasn’t a conscious or deliberate decision. My father worked for 40 years in personnel management, as it was then known, and I never consciously thought I would follow. I went to Queen’s University and got economics and law degrees, and then after my education, I was hired by an American mining company to work with their Canadian HR department in labour and contract negotiations. I did that for a while and then they moved me into more of an HR role. I learned the ropes on the job with them. 

What that your first HR job?

MS: The mining company was the Canadian Salt Company Limited, now known as Windsor Salt. They hired me at their Windsor operation in 1994, and I spent my first month with a crew working under the Detroit River; they mined for salt all the way under the river. It was a fantastic job and I stayed for about seven years. They started me in Windsor and ultimately promoted me to the top HR role at the Montreal head office.

Tell me about your current role. What are your main areas of responsibility?

MS: My HR consultancy is based in Peterborough. Larger companies make up about half our clientele; we do some executive search and sometimes fairly complex compensation and organizational work with them. The other half includes small- to medium-sized businesses that drive employment and the economy here. We support those small businesses and effectively become their HR department. A couple of years ago, we developed an HR web platform; it’s a human resources information system that we install in smaller organizations that don’t need, or can’t afford, a solution like Workday, PeopleSoft or Oracle. It allows us to be there with them without physically being there. So basically, I’m a generalist. I do everything.

“I would say empathy is key if you are in this business, or if you are in any leadership role, for that matter.”

What do you love about your job?

MS: We love our bigger clients because that’s what got our business started and keeps it going. But, I really enjoy engaging with the small businesses and I think that’s because you do become a partner in their business and they see you as that. You are solving problems for and with them, and you are giving them tools and resources they never had. It’s very satisfying.

What are the challenges you experience in your job?

MS: I started all by myself in a home office. Now, we have an office at the Peterborough Airport. People identified solely with me, so as we grew it was difficult getting clients used to dealing with other people in the business and not just me. Really, the most difficult thing is finding the right staff and the right people that can do this kind of consulting work, and then keeping them engaged. We have the same challenges all of our clients have in terms of developing our own organizational profile.

What’s key to leading HR during a difficult time for a client organization?

MS: I think it’s important to be honest and transparent with your staff about what’s going on and the impact it will have. Be frank with them if there are challenges and understand that all your staff members deal with change and challenge in different ways. 

What are the necessary competencies for success in HR and how do you think those have changed throughout your career?

MS: I would say empathy is key if you are in this business, or if you are in any leadership role, for that matter. Empathy is something that HR must apply every day. That will never change. But now we also have technology in the workplace, and we are dealing with its impact and finding out how to leverage it for our work and to benefit people in the organization. Technology has been a big game changer. At SHRP, we’ve had success being a business partner first – a partner who happens to have HR expertise. That gives us more credibility with the operating partners. Secondly, it allows us to deliver the HR strategy or system in a more informed way with a business-first perspective.

What tips do you have for new grads or those in entry-level HR jobs who want to move up the ladder?

MS: The first thing would be to define what climbing the ladder means to you. In my case, I liked frontline HR, but I had less interest in leading a large HR department in a big corporate environment. I think for people starting out in HR, it’s important to be really careful about defining the success quotient. What does moving up the ladder mean to them? Is it climbing the corporate ladder, finding work-life balance or having an impact at a not-for-profit organization? Understand what that looks like before you put your head down and pursue it. Also, I think if you get the opportunity to work directly in operations or a business-line, you should take it, because it will better inform you and give you more insight and credibility when you go back into the HR world.

The HR field has been evolving. What changes excite you the most?

MS: I would say technology and data. When I started in HR, there weren’t a lot of quantitative measures being used. The quantitative analysis, the tracking of information and the ability to interpret and model it with all of the technology platforms that are out there now is significant. I would also say that technology has become more accessible and economical. The price and the access to it is more entry level for any business. I would have never imagined that when I started in HR or when I started my consulting business a decade ago.

What’s the future of HR?

MS: I think it is going to be increasingly strategic and increasingly partnered with the business. A lot of the transactional and administrative functions of HR are becoming automated with technology, and technology can (fortunately) do a lot of the heaving lifting for us. I think HR professionals will be shifting their focus more and more to strategic and organizational development – the things that most HR people really long to do, but for the fact that they have had all this “heavy lifting” work. Whether you embrace it or not, technology is taking over all of those administrative tasks.


First job: I had a part-time job after school at Zellers; I was in charge of vacuuming the ladies wear department.

Childhood ambition: I wanted to be an engineer. I still tinker with a lot of things around the house to figure out how they work; I take them apart and put them back together (most of the time)!

Best boss and why: I think the best boss I had was Guy Leblanc. He was the VP of operations at Canadian Salt. He gave me my big break into HR when I got that job in Montreal. He trusted me, but he also appreciated that I was still young and early in my career, and he made resources and mentors available to me, and those supports helped me be successful.

Current source of inspiration: My wife. She was the one who really encouraged me to pursue my consulting practice when I had doubts and leave the comfort of the corporate world. She’s always encouraged me to keep going because she could see the potential in the business – and that I enjoy doing it.

Best piece of advice ever received: Lee Iacocca once said, “Management is nothing more than motivating other people.” In my experience, I really do believe that is true. If you can motivate people, you don’t need to manage them.

Favourite music: The Tragically Hip. I have all their albums.

Last book read: The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss. I have read it a couple of times; it’s very informative.

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