HR Influencers
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For Mary Silverthorn, human resources is about ensuring front line employees have the support they need to do their jobs effectively. 

As provincial commander, corporate services command at the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) headquarters in Orillia, Ont., Silverthorn oversees between 400 and 500 uniformed and civilian employees. 

All told, the OPP is Canada’s second-largest police force, with more than 5,800 uniformed officers, 2,400 civilian employees and 830 auxiliary officers. 

In addition to the typical duties of a chief administrative officer, Silverthorn is also responsible for the force’s uniform training academy, operational policy, municipal policing, fleet supply and weapons services. 

HR Professional joined her to discuss lessons learned during her 20-year career in human resources, a field that was just emerging when she decided to pursue it in university. 

Since then, the profession has come a long way. Indeed, Silverthorn is happy that people are now seen as the strength of an organization and HR policies and processes are recognized as the grease that keeps the organizational engine humming.

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

Mary Silverthorn: My father identified it as a career choice when I was in high school, trying to figure out what I wanted to be. I knew I wanted to work with people and follow my father’s footsteps in business. Back in 1986, human resources management was a new field of study at universities. At that time, there were only three or four universities that offered it as part of their business program. I did my undergrad at Brock University, which offered HR courses, and my MBA through the University of Ottawa. 

What was your first HR job?

MS: My first HR job was fresh out of university in 1991 and I worked as a training consultant for the then Ministry of Colleges and Universities. I worked with small organizations that employed less than 20 people, providing grant funding for them to identify and secure training opportunities for their employees. It was fun! I worked with everyone from plumbers to small manufacturers. I really learned how to assess the needs of my clients and how to communicate and establish rapport with anyone. Those are key competencies, then and now. 

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

MS: My job with the OPP covers everything from recruitment to retirement and all points in between. I’m also a partner in organizational development, design and change. I deal with the strategic elements of HR functions as well as being a corporate partner in support of the OPP vision, “Safe Communities... A Secure Ontario.”

What do you love about your job?

MS: I love working with people and collaborating with my team of professionals who support the organization. I love their enthusiasm for the work they do. No day is like any other, and that’s what is so exciting about it. You’re learning every day. Just when you think you’ve seen and heard it all, you discover something new!

What are the challenges you experience in your job?

MS: My challenge is doing more with the complement I have. That means making tough decisions about where the priorities lie. The OPP is publicly funded, so for an organization of 9,000, I probably have 65 HR professionals. I really have to make the most of the resources that have been allocated. For me, that’s always been the big challenge. 

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

MS: I think it’s important to be clear on what the top priorities are, so that my team knows where to focus their efforts. It’s important to have a solutions-focus and a can-do attitude. That’s where my team excels and it’s wonderful to lead a group with that kind of energy and enthusiasm. 

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

MS: The competencies that led you to success – being a good communicator, listening and understanding your partners, having a solutions-focus, being innovative – haven’t changed. Those are the requirements to be successful today, as they were in the past. I think what’s changed is the complexity of the issues we’re dealing with now. Twenty-five years ago, an HR practitioner was a generalist. Today, we require specialists. For instance, I’m doing a certificate in law at Queen’s University right now and I’m finding the law intersects with HR quite significantly. 

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

MS: I always think you must have a desire to help others. A can-do attitude and perseverance are important. Confidence is also an important element to success – people are drawn to those who confidently feel they can make a contribution. 

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

MS: What I’m seeing is an awakening of sorts. The strength of organizations isn’t the bricks and mortar – it’s the people. For the most part, it’s a knowledge economy and for that reason, people are our most valued asset. To see the focus and emphasis on our employees as members of a team and to see that their success translates into the success of an organization puts HR at the forefront. We’re widening the path for others to follow with a people-first philosophy and I think it’s an exciting time in the history of organizational development. 

What’s the future of HR?

MS: I think we’ll continue to see specialization in various elements of the HR function. I think we will end up with professional recruiters, professional trainers, ongoing designations for occupational health and safety, accommodation, etc. I think the medical profession is the best example. In the beginning you went to one doctor who did it all. Now, we have specialists. As our HR understanding has grown, we are able to focus on unique areas of study because it produces better outcomes. That’s not a bad thing. It demonstrates growth and maturity of the profession.




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