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Jun 2018 | Leadership & Change Management

THE ROLE OF HUMAN RESOURCES IN THE EVOLVING MUNICIPAL WORKFORCE
PSD’S SLOANE SWEAZEY IN CONVERSATION WITH AMY SMITH, OXFORD COUNTY

As municipal workforces continue to evolve, the responsibility of Human Resources becomes ever more important. The most notable shifts – changing workforce demographics, mental health awareness, and external pressures such as transparency and accountability – can have significant impact on a municipality if the changes are not acknowledged and embraced. PSD sat down with Amy Smith, Oxford County’s Director of Human Resources, to discuss how exactly the workforce is changing and, most importantly, how municipalities can respond proactively.

 

“While everyone may have a leadership style that they naturally gravitate towards, as our workforce continues to change and evolve, it is more likely that a leader will find themselves having to adapt their leadership style based on a person or project that they are currently leading.” 

 

Can you begin by introducing yourself and your position at Oxford County?

I am the Director of Human Resources at Oxford County, which is an upper tier municipality with approximately 800 employees. I lead a team responsible for the full range of human resources services to our seven departments and manage five collective bargaining agreements. In the past few years, we have focused our efforts on developing HR programs under three key areas: talent management, effective leaders, and safe and healthy workplaces.

 

What changes have you seen in the municipal sector regarding human resources management in the past couple of years?

We all know that municipalities exist to deliver essential public services to our citizens, which is achieved through critical infrastructure. However, it is essential we never lose sight of the fact that at the foundation of these services is our employees. Just as we invest in our roads and water systems, we must also invest in our people, and this is becoming more widely recognized as a priority across the municipal sector.

I am fortunate to lead the HR function in an organization that recognizes our people as a critical asset and even includes “attracting, retaining, and developing the highest quality staff” as a priority in our corporate strategic plan. With the changing demographics of our workforce and additional external pressures, programs such as succession planning and leadership development, are increasingly being viewed as priorities, as they truly are essential to maintaining our ability to achieve our strategic goals and objectives now and into the future. 

 

How has leadership changed in the municipal sector?

Municipalities are diverse and complex. I can think of few organizations who deliver such a wide array of services and employ such a diverse range of employees, while managing multiple collective bargaining agreements. Incorporating the regular changes that come our way (think projected retirements, legislative changes) and the requirement for competent and well-rounded leaders across the organization is no longer viewed as an option, but as a necessity.

In the past, employees may have worked their way up the ranks based on technical expertise. Today, while technical expertise remains important, equally if not more important is the manner in which you lead, inspire, and motivate the people around you.

With a wave of retirements projected over the coming years, I have also seen a shift towards investing in leadership development not only for current leaders/managers, but also for those we call “emerging leaders.”  This is a key component of our succession planning efforts. Our philosophy remains that leadership development is a two-way street. As an organization, we invest in our people by offering them tools and resources to develop their leadership capabilities; however, there is also an onus on the individual to take the steps necessary to ready themselves for future career opportunities.

 

What steps are necessary to ensure that leaders receive the development necessary to lead, inspire, and motivate those around them? 

First and foremost, leaders need to know what is expected of them. With this in mind, one of the first steps that Oxford County took in formalizing our leadership development efforts was the implementation of a competency framework. This framework includes core competencies and leadership competencies, and are behaviours that are expected of all employees and leaders across our organization. In terms of leadership competencies, there are key qualities of effective leaders – whether those leaders work in public works, corporate services, or long-term care for example. 

Another key step in a leadership development program is building self-awareness around one’s leadership strengths and weaknesses. Leaders should know where their skills and abilities rank against expectations, and where they require development. Following the implementation of our competency framework, leaders across our organization completed a 360 developmental assessment, in which they received confidential feedback from their supervisor, peers, and subordinates. Leaders received a confidential report revealing how they benchmark against our leadership competencies, which provided the insight necessary to know where they needed to focus their development efforts.

 

What leadership and management style do you find to be most effective at ensuring that the evolving workforce is productive and efficient?

By doing a quick online search, you will turn up a wealth of information regarding various leadership styles. While it may be tempting to label oneself as a specific type of leader, it is important to recognize that certain situations or people may warrant one leadership style over another. While everyone may have a leadership style that they naturally gravitate towards, as our workforce continues to change and evolve, it is more likely that a leader will find themselves having to adapt their leadership style based on a person or project that they are currently leading. 

If I had to choose one leadership quality that I personally believe is critical in today’s changing workplaces it would be resiliency. Holding a leadership role in a municipality is synonymous with change and adversity. Being a resilient leader means working through challenging times with a positive mindset and coming out the other side with lessons

learned and new experience to rely on. It certainly does not mean never making the wrong decision or never feeling discouraged, but it does mean quickly bouncing back from these difficult times as a more competent leader. Although just one trait from a long list of critical leadership qualities, being a resilient leader will certainly assist in ensuring the evolving workforce is productive and efficient.

 

What emerging human resources programs do you find to be most effective at ensuring that the evolving workforce is well supported and well managed?

One program that we have implemented under our safe and healthy workplaces umbrella is a flexible work arrangement program. Flexible work arrangements, such as working from home, flexible hours, and compressed schedules are not new concepts in the human resources field; however, they have been slower to emerge in the municipal sector. With our changing workforce demographics and the abundance of technology that enables our day to day work, flexible work arrangements are in fact allowing us to be more productive and efficient. Providing employees with the flexibility required to meet their work and personal demands, will result in a more productive employee who is regularly willing to go above and beyond for the organization.

Another area we are looking at developing over the next year is a psychological health and safety in the workplace framework. For years, the primary focus in our workplaces has been on physical safety, and while that remains critically important, the creation of a psychologically safe workplace is also emerging as a priority. Mental health claims make up a significant percentage of workplace leaves; therefore, identifying and reducing the workplace risks of psychological injury or illness and supporting mental wellness can greatly benefit employees and the organization overall.

 

What is the best approach to ensure that both younger and older public sector practitioners work in partnership to ensure the greatest productivity and efficiency?

There is a lot of information that can be found regarding the current multi-generational workforce and the potential issues that can result between the generations. While leading a multi-generational workforce can certainly cause angst, it is important to adopt a more positive view – when you really think about it, there are significant advantages to a knowledgeable, well-seasoned employee collaborating with a fresh set of eyes and new perspectives. Organizations should ensure that all employees are provided with the tools and resources to work together effectively (regardless of the year they were born). Along those same lines, leaders need to be equipped with the skills to lead multi-generational teams, which can be achieved through education and training.

 

As a municipal HR professional, what is your most difficult challenge as the workforce and workplace continue to evolve?

As already mentioned, municipalities are diverse, complex, and ever changing.  These factors alone lead to challenges from a human resources management perspective; namely, that a one size fits all approach doesn’t always work. Take the recent Bill 148 as an example. Most municipalities have a number of distinct services and multiple collective agreements. This means that a legislative change, such as Bill 148, requires HR professionals to analyze the impact on each service and each collective agreement. Taking a blanket approach across the organization is not feasible due to the uniqueness of the various services, and this creates challenges for HR professionals.

 

“While leading a multi-generational workforce can certainly cause angst, it is important to adopt a more positive view – when you really think about it, there are significant advantages to a knowledgeable, well-seasoned employee collaborating with a fresh set of eyes and new perspectives. Organizations should ensure that all employees are provided with the tools and resources to work together effectively (regardless of the year they were born). Along those same lines, leaders need to be equipped with the skills to lead multi-generational teams, which can be achieved through education and training.”

 

What do you expect the municipal workplace and workforce to look like in ten years?

Municipalities continue to be seen as desirable employers. Over the next ten years, it is expected that the competition for talent will continue to increase. Being the municipality of choice for current and potential employees means building and maintaining a work environment that people want to join and remain committed to.

Municipalities need to recognize human capital as a strategic asset, and thus invest in those assets. This is key to obtaining the goals and objectives of an organization and needs to be made a priority. It is also expected that municipalities will continue to get pressure to do more with less. This means increased workloads and higher expectations placed on staff. If municipalities want to attract and retain the best employees to carry out the critical services their citizens rely on, they need to ensure human resources programs, such as talent management, developing effective leaders, and safe and healthy workplaces, are dynamic and continue to evolve with the changing workplace and workforce demographics. 

 

SLOANE SWEAZEY, MA is a Junior Editor for the Public Sector Digest. She completed her master’s degree in Political Science, specializing in Public Policy and Administration, as well as a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science and International Development, both from the University of Guelph. Sloane’s research interests surround municipal governance and public policy, where she has researched community-engagement initiatives and child care policy at length. In her role, Sloane researches and writes articles for publication, while also sourcing content from external contributors. She can be reached at ssweazey [at] publicsectordigest [dot] com.

AMY SMITH is a human resources professional with almost 15 years of experience in the not-for-profit and municipal sectors.  She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology from Western University, and is a Certified Human Resources Leader (CHRL). For the past 5 years she has been the Director of Human Resources at Oxford County, leading a team delivering the full spectrum of HR services, with a primary goal of strategically positioning Oxford County as an organization who attracts, retains and develops the best employees.

 

Sign up for our Editorial Round Table webinar on July 5th, 2018 1 - 2 PM ET to discuss all of the Leadership and Change insights of the issue. It is your opportunity to connect with the contributors, ask questions of your own, and engage with municipal leaders across Canada.