HR Influencers
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By: Lisa Gordon


Marla Allan didn’t plan on a career in human resources, but one of her early managers thought it would be a good fit.

While in university and working part-time at the Hudson’s Bay Company, she was tapped for the company’s leadership training program and identified as a “people person.”

After more than 20 years working in a variety of industries in Canada and the U.S., where she enjoyed many VP roles, Allan returned to Canada. Today, she is vice president, HR at Grand & Toy.

The 136-year-old Canadian company evolved from a retail and commercial office products supplier to a commercial and online provider of business solutions and services – including technology, furniture, cleaning and break room supplies and traditional office products.

For seven years now, Allan has been managing a full-service HR department that delivers a complete range of programs and services to Grand & Toy’s 1,000 Canadian employees.

HR Professional sat down with her recently to talk about the fast pace and diversity of her HR career, and the challenge of staying ahead of today’s digital curve – particularly in an e-commerce environment.


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

Marla Allan: I wanted to be a teacher; however, the year I was academically ready to apply, there was a surplus of teachers and the college I applied to did not accept any applicants. For a couple of years, I attended college, worked in social services and continued to work part-time at the Hudson’s Bay Company. I knew I wanted to work with people in some capacity, and fortunately I was guided into the HR field early in my career. I was selected for the Bay’s leadership training program, a blended classroom and rotational program. In those days, the company decided where to place you. Someone assigned me to personnel, and I’ve remained in the field because the variety of work and opportunities are extensive.


What was your first HR job?

MA: My first job was an HR assistant, primarily responsible for recruiting, payroll and HR admin – and getting coffee for the boss.


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

MA: At Grand & Toy, I lead a great team of HR professionals who run a full-service HR function. My team is involved in setting strategy, aligning culture, talent management, organizational development, learning and development, HR services (compensation, payroll and benefits), internal communications, translation services and corporate social responsibility. The team of 18 supports a national organization focused on business-to-business, e-commerce and distribution of office products and services. Grand & Toy is a separate banner within the Office Depot family. We operate fairly independently and we also participate in and leverage many of the corporate team’s great programs.


What do you love about your job?

MA: I love being an HR exec because of the variety of the work we do and the multiple stakeholders we support. I learn something every day. The pace is fast and we have the opportunity to run an HR organization that is involved in everything from influencing culture and change to enabling people to become the best they can be and make a great contribution.


What are the challenges you experience in your job?

MA: At Grand & Toy, our company is constantly innovating so we can help Canadian companies stay competitive. We are reinventing how we go to market and how we continue to add value and provide great service to our internal customers (the employees), while enabling the organization with the right skills and culture to transform and innovate.


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

MA: It’s a blend of being curious about what is happening in the business world and having solid business acumen and passion for how your company serves its customers and makes money. What levers can HR push to increase profitability and manage expense? In today’s environment, HR teams must be out in front of that. We must provide solutions that support the business as the work environment transforms. HR needs a broad skill set to be credible and to add the most value to the organization; we must be aware of how change impacts employees. Leading HR includes bringing the team along this journey by encouraging both outside and inside views, research and fact-based decision-making, continuous improvement and learning, etc.


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

MA: I think they really have changed. The competencies of great communicators (listening, focusing on opportunities versus problems, maintaining a win-win mindset) are still important. In addition to being a subject matter expert and employee advocate, other important competencies include dealing with paradox and ambiguity, managing to the mission and purpose, and demonstrating managerial courage and fierce candour. The ability to establish clear priorities will always be a critical competency, but with the accelerated pace of change, business and aligned HR priorities seem to fall into different time horizons (now, near term and longer term) and are regularly adjusted. I’m a big fan of David Ulrich; his newest book, HR from the Outside In, references being a strategic positioner, credible activist, capability builder and other competencies.


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

MA: Be curious; really curious. Demonstrate integrity. Make collaborative decisions. Say “yes” to projects that take you out of your comfort zone and into the business. For new people entering the field, identify mentors who can help you determine what new skills and competencies you need and how to position your strengths. Seek out both specialist and generalist opportunities.


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

MA: There are a few things: One is the expectation that at a senior HR level, you must contribute to the business strategy. That excites me. It’s not only required, but expected, to come to the strategy conversation with knowledge about what is happening outside your doors. Second, much of the HR administrative work will be managed through artificial intelligence, machine learning, digital solutions or offshore in the coming years. This means HR resources can be engaged in making a bigger contribution. Third, the generation of people entering the workforce is smart, creative and fully digitally enabled. Newer workers challenge those of us who bring tenure, experience and competence; this is helping the organization evolve some of our longstanding beliefs and practices. I love spending time with our newer-to-the-workforce folks.


What’s the future of HR?

MA: In my crystal ball, the focus of HR will continue to be on enabling the success of the business through its most important asset, its employees. As a function, we must continue to present our value proposition to the company. I don’t think that requirement will ever go away because HR, while viewed as an important function, is typically an expense to the business. That said, I think the future is exciting and will require intellectual dexterity and agility as more complex issues and global influencers impact competition for both customers and talent. n

First job: I scooped ice cream at Baskin Robbins all summer. The best part about the job was that the person who drove me home got a free ice cream.

Childhood ambition: I wanted to be a veterinarian or a teacher.

Best boss and why: My best boss hired me into a position that was a significant stretch assignment. She was a strong business leader, so I learned how the business operated; that experience shaped my view of how critical it is to understand the business in which HR operates. She was generous with her time, provided candid and constructive feedback, and allowed me to operate independently.

Current source of inspiration: Global travel. My personal goal is to keep adding to the count of UNESCO World Heritage Sites I have visited. Last year, I hiked Machu Picchu.

Best piece of advice ever received: “Intellectual curiosity is a sign of a great HR professional.” It came from one of my first managers, Gerry Nichols at the Bay, when I was the HR manager at the Queen/Yonge flagship store in Toronto.

Favourite music: I love all music, all genres. My favourite music is lots and loud!

Last book read: I usually have a few books on the go and alternate between business reading and books for the book club. I just finished reading two good stories: Forgiveness by Mark Sakamoto and Warlight by Michael Ondaatje. I just ordered Talent Wins: The New Playbook for Putting People First by Ram Charan, Dominic Barton and Dennis Carey. I also read many periodicals, webcasts and newsfeeds, like Flipboard, and listen to podcasts.



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