Pilon School of Business
Degree: Human Resources Management
Year of graduation: 1999
Building a career by being curious
As the VP of Human resources at Lindt & Sprungli Canada, Erin Gordon feels providing meaningful experiences for employees is the real sweet treat
Erin Gordon is the first to tell you she has a pretty sweet gig.
As the VP of Human Resources at Swiss chocolatier Lindt & Sprungli Canada, Gordon says that, through a people-focused lens, she contributes to the company’s overall business strategy and helps establish its priorities.
“What can we do to make sure our organization is the place that people want to work?” she says. “At the end of the day, that’s what I have to deliver.”
Gordon has access to a variety of levers to help reach that goal. Everything from recruitment, to development, to compensation plays a role in creating an environment where people will want to work. Also key to Gordon’s success is unique background, beginning with a degree in psychology before pursuing HR at Sheridan. Over her two decades of experience in HR, Gordon has worked in a variety of industries including corporate restaurants and mining.
“No matter the industry, it’s important to ask a lot of curious questions and understand the key players,” says Gordon of her success. “Your area of focus may be different industry by industry, but understanding the business and learning where to place your focus – those steps are consistent regardless of the industry.”
Here, Gordon shares how she turned an interest psychology into a successful career in HR, and what it’s like working for one of the biggest chocolate companies in the world:
One of the draws of Sheridan’s HR program was its co-op component – why was that so important to you?
For me, it made it more practical and made the outcome feel a bit more secure. I had a degree in Psychology, but so do a lot of people, and there was no one saying you could get a career in a specific field because you had that degree. The academics in Human Resources seemed much more targeted, and then the co-op component made it seem like the path was even more defined. I was fortunate enough that one of the speakers that came to speak to our class was from a company called Eagle’s Flight, which was an experiential training provider in Guelph. They happened to come to talk about training and development, and I liked what they were doing, so I cold-called the office and met with them. They didn’t have a dedicated HR professional on staff, so I was able to take the idea of a co-op to Eagle’s Flight and ask if I could do it there. That transitioned to my first full-time job in human resources.
How did you know Human Resources was the right career for you?
It certainly wasn’t the stats. What I found fascinating were the topics that connected to my Psychology degree around organizational behaviour. Although I wasn’t called by the compensation elements of HR, it gave me a real appreciation for the business aspect of HR – and that intrigued me quite a bit. The recruitment aspects of my role were really how I started to learn the businesses of the companies I worked with. It helped in nailing down an effective and robust recruitment process.
I think that sometimes graduates from HR programs default to recruitment because it’s your easiest way to get your foot in the door, but I think recruitment is the best training ground in terms of understanding what happens in a business. Sometimes people don’t leverage that to the extent they can.
What do you see as some career highlights?
The second HR job I had, which was based in a corporate restaurant company, was a real highlight. I understood the business, having worked in restaurants before. And then, layering on the HR component, it felt like I could really approach my job in an effective way. I could articulate the HR activities and our strategy in a way that showed how it would impact the business.
Another highlight was when I was working for a large, multinational mining company, and we were purchased by a company without a lot of corporate infrastructure. I was fortunate enough to be included in their integration activities and travel to a number of different locations around the world. We had to close some offices – which was not a positive thing to have to do – but I had the autonomy, responsibility and accountability to make decisions independently because we would be in different time zones and would sometimes have to make decisions on the fly. I was out of my element, but that experience was a real game changer.
A third highlight has been in the last four months. At Lindt, the company I’m at now, we had the same CEO for 25 years. The business has changed drastically over the years, and he has decided to retire, so I’m playing a heavy role in integrating the new CEO while also transforming the business into a new philosophy that we’re developing. The work has been tremendous – but the ability to influence what gets done and have ownership over the company is significant.
It sounds like you’ve made a concerted effort to showcase the impact HR can have on a company’s development.
The role of HR is a real game changer in terms of the company successes. As much as the leader will make decisions they think are best for business reasons, they don’t have the time to translate why those decisions are also good for your employees. If you don’t do that, you’ll lose your employees.
I think HR has a responsibility to translate activities the business is doing into messaging that resonates with employees. You have to tie decisions to the way the company works and to the company values – you have to tie it to something the employees already know. At the same time, you have to be able to articulate pain points and areas that you’re looking to work on. I look across the marketplace and see so much change happening at regular intervals – there’s a real opportunity there for the HR department to expand on what it delivers to the business.
Have you always tried to recognize the business opportunities in HR?
Sometimes people will say to me, “You don’t talk like a normal HR person.” I say that I’m a business person, but my commodity is people. We need to come to the table thinking of things in business terms. It just so happens my area of expertise is the people aspect.
What misconceptions do folks have about HR?
Oftentimes, employees think HR should be their voice. It’s almost to the point where they think we’re here to protect them – that we’re their advocates or lobbyists. My perspective is a bit different. I think the role of HR is to create a safe environment and equip people with the skills and knowledge they need to advocate for themselves.
If you need me or someone on my team to advocate for you, then I don’t think we’ve done a very good job of creating an environment where you have the confidence and competencies to do it yourself. There’s a really strong accountability that comes with that. If you give the responsibility to me, then I own the outcome instead of you. Plus, it’s just not always sustainable. You might have 100 or 200 employees to one HR person, and it’s just not a good ratio. We’re much better served in creating environments where people can play the role of their own advocate. I see a shift in the industry towards this approach and feel it will help elevate the role of HR and provide a more meaningful experience to the employees we support.