HR Influencers
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Alison DeMille, BA, MIR

By Lisa Gord


From her early years in a very traditional family environment to her current role as head of human resources at an iconic family-owned enterprise, Alison DeMille has come a long way.

As the chief human resources officer (CHRO) at McCain Foods Limited, DeMille oversees a matrix organization of 500 HR and communications professionals who deliver the full breadth of internal and external human resources to the company’s 21,000 employees.

Founded in Florenceville, N.B., in 1957, McCain Foods has grown into a truly global business with an annual turnover of $9.5 billion and 52 production facilities around the world. 

DeMille joined the company in September 2014, taking on the role of CHRO following a period as senior vice-president of HR for Gap Inc.

To say DeMille is determined is a vast understatement. She recently sat down with HR Professional to talk about how she cultivated her self-made success and how she pays it forward to future female industry leaders.


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

Alison DeMille: When I graduated from high school, I was not allowed to go to university. My father was traditional and believed I should get married and have children. He paid for me to go to receptionist school. I started my career as a receptionist in a law firm and then I worked my way up to legal secretary to one of the partners. After a couple of years, he encouraged me to go to university and I finally did at age 23. I got my undergrad in labour studies at McMaster University and then my Master of Industrial Relations at Queen’s. I was pretty left leaning. I initially wanted to work for a union because I was very passionate about helping employees, but then I thought I could also help employees by working on the company side. 


What was your first HR job?

AD: I was an HR trainee at PPG Industries’ Coatings and Resins division in Mississauga. My first boss at PPG was my key mentor. Even though I had a labour relations degree, she started me off on the non-union side. My first client group was finance and the HQ function, but I was soon promoted to labour relations advisor and moved down to the plant. Then I was responsible for labour relations, including collective agreements, grievance handling and supervisory training. I worked night shifts, health and safety…I was hardcore labour relations. It was a really cool experience. 


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

AD: My job covers the full breadth of global HR and communications, both internal and external. It’s employee development, engagement, rewards and all the typical HR sub-functions.


What do you love about your job?

AD: I love the opportunity to drive business results. That’s always been important to me. I am able to focus on business strategy, organizational strategy and design. I’m involved at the strategy level on the core team, partnering with the business on developing the business strategy. But I still focus on employee advocacy, employee development and employee engagement. All of those things drive business results. 


What are the challenges you experience in your job?

AD: The challenge is still the true ability to measure the impact of HR, which I think continues to elude us as a function. In terms of my job in particular, a challenge I have is instilling and reinforcing a culture of performance and talent differentiation with kindness, respect and inclusivity. Sometimes for people, those things seem at odds. But it’s not an “or” equation; it’s an “and” equation. So that can be a challenge, creating a culture that balances both sides.


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

AD: The role of HR is to have a perspective that is potentially different from the rest of the business. Having that perspective, being the trusted advisor and having the ability to lean in are very important. HR can give the outside-in perspective to the rest of the organization. Also, sometimes in HR we get caught up in neutrality. But HR does not need to be neutral. HR needs to be objective. 


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

AD: A lot of my beliefs here stem from the teachings of HR guru Dave Ulrich. So in terms of competencies, they are being a credible activist, being a change champion and being tech savvy – that last is about understanding the technological innovation happening all around us and its impact on business models. That’s a new one – tech savviness didn’t exist years ago. HR practitioners also need to learn how to build and acquire capabilities, especially the new ones like artificial intelligence, predictive analytics, data science and cyber security. But the number one competency for me is being that credible activist. If you dissect the words, credible is someone who is responsive and reliable. That builds trust and trust turns into credibility. The activist piece is taking your credibility and leaning in – have courage and interpersonal skills and learn how to influence and persuade. 


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

AD: When you talk about moving up the ladder, I go back to being a credible activist. Second, understand what it means to be high potential. I associate that with having curiosity, being willing to make personal sacrifice, having insight into the big picture, embracing feedback and being self-aware. If it’s possible, be open to international assignments. Keep a sense of humour and use it. Finally, make sure you always have at least one sponsor or advocate. 


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

AD: I think this also relates to the future of HR. It’s the opportunity for HR to get ahead of the digitization trend and the whole concept of agile ways of working. It’s anticipating trends and translating them into org strategy, before the business knocks on your door and you have to be reactive. I think the world is becoming more consumer and customer focused, so predictive analytics and how it relates to consumers is important. Understand the consumer-customer landscape and understand the impact of globalization. Get ahead of that and translate those trends in the business application. 


What’s the future of HR?

AD: Going back to tech savvy, whether it’s for our own function or just more broadly, it’s going to require a higher level of technical awareness and knowledge. I also think it will require better or different organizational design skills to support different ways of working. If we keep hearing buzzwords like agile and adaptable, that will challenge the traditional silo org structures. I also think there will absolutely be a war on talent, so we need to get ahead of that. Finally, we’ve talked for years about sitting around the table. The head of HR should really be indispensable to the CEO. It’s doable, but there needs to be an anticipatory focus.




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