HR Influencers
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By Lisa Gordon


Since 1991, Maura Richardson has been creating human resources strategy and driving execution for top consumer brands such as Estée Lauder, Shoppers Drug Mart, L Brands and Sephora.

She has led HR teams and developed people and talent strategies – including talent attraction, training and retention plans – for various organizations during periods where business has doubled or tripled in size. 

Richardson is certainly no stranger to the challenges posed by aggressive growth. 

During her 27-year human resources career, she has often been tasked with creating a nimble, flexible HR strategy that will mature with a rapidly expanding company. 

HR Professional connected with Richardson while she was transitioning to her next role as chief people officer at Woodbridge, Ont.-based VetStrategy. The conversation covered lessons learned during her career and the importance of developing sustainable, scalable HR strategies for organizations of all shapes and sizes. 


Maura Richardson headshot









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

Maura Richardson: I was naturally drawn to coaching, training and helping others. Through that interest, I started my official HR career as a specialist in the training function. It was a bit of an accidental choice. I gravitated towards anything related to teaching and supporting people.


What was your first HR job?

MR: I was a regional trainer with Estée Lauder. It was my first corporate experience and I spent 10 years with them, working in two countries and three cities: Toronto, San Francisco and New York. I would say that first human resources job is where I learned how critical it is to connect HR functions to the business. The company also taught me the importance of a handwritten note. Even in today’s day and age, nothing replaces a handwritten note to show appreciation! 


What do you love about HR?

MR: I feel HR is like the funnel for the business. You need to be connected with what’s happening across the organization. That feeds through your talent strategies, design and programs. It’s a critical function in the business; I love the diversity of HR. You can go very deep as a specialist or very broad as a generalist.


What are the challenges you’ve encountered in your HR career?

MR: I’ve worked at four organizations that went through very aggressive growth periods: Estée Lauder, Shoppers Drug Mart, L Brands and Sephora. There’s a big theme for me around how you scale and grow your talent strategies in parallel with rapid growth. Is what you are doing today sustainable, scalable and adaptable? Also, how can leaders let go of responsibility and reassign it in high-growth situations? You can’t lose what made the company successful in the early days, so how do you keep those elements while evolving and growing rapidly?


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

MR: Two things stand out to me. One is transparency: be as honest and open as possible. I think if you’re not transparent, people tell themselves stories, and those stories are often far worse than the truth. The other thing that stands out to me is that businesses often have to make difficult decisions. How they communicate those difficult decisions is where HR adds value and supports employees through change. Employees can often accept the “what,” but if the “how” isn’t handled properly, people don’t forget that. To me, that’s the heart of great HR.


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

MR: I think honesty and integrity are the foundations of HR, and I don’t think that will ever change. The traditional interpersonal skills – how you motivate, develop people, build relationships – that will always be important. In terms of competencies that are evolving or changing, I think that change agility, driving results and business acumen in a changing global world will be even more important. 


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

MR: First, focus on mastering your day job versus the job that lies ahead. If you’re amazing at your day job, the next opportunity will come! Second, never stop building your network and your village. Mentors come in all shapes and sizes. Find people you trust and invest in them; they’ll invest back. Third, be curious. I think the brightest people I know are the most curious. They’re constantly learning and adapting. Finally, ask for what you want. Don’t wait for it to come to you. Step outside your comfort zone to take risks and grow your career. 


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

MR: There are a few. I think the idea of remote teams and different ways of working excites me the most. How do you create culture and connectivity when you have teams working across multiple time zones and different parts of the world? Technology is another area – it’s moving so fast and is changing the way companies interact with their employees and their customers. Corporate social responsibility is another one that stands out because I think HR can absolutely shape it in any organization. Engagement will become more critical as companies compete for talent and the companies that empower and engage their employees will set themselves apart as the best places to work. 


What’s the future of HR?

MR: Technology and how companies leverage it will drive the future. Talent management systems give companies the information they need for their internal employee database. Most importantly, they simplify the experience with user-friendly tools while diminishing the old school paper process. That’s a big piece because understanding the workforce is going to be critical for the future of HR. Companies can’t take a one-size-fits-all approach when you have so many different generations in the workforce. Culture, social impact and engagement are all intertwined. Culture is about being part of a place where you want to go to work and participate; social is about giving back; and engagement is about finding purpose with the work you do and being able to contribute through thought leadership versus title.



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