Rose M. Patten

Special advisor to the CEO
BMO Financial Group

Rose Patten recently added the HRD Lifetime Achievement award to a long list of accolades. Still, the Special Advisor to the CEO of BMO Financial Group and Board Chair of The Hospital for Sick Children has never rested on her laurels. It’s the kind of lead HR professionals across Canada are increasingly urged to follow as they grapple with a changing corporate landscape – one demanding the kind of strategic guidance Patten has mastered.

Patten now imparts those lessons to corporate timber in her role as executive in residence at the Rotman School of Management. But her own, very active career spans four financial sectors – banking, trust, insurance and investment banking, with responsibilities not only for Canada and the US but also Asia. Her work, which includes roles in strategy as well as chair of two major institutions, very often outside the strict confines of people management

HRD: It seems increasingly apparent that merely performing the role of administrative functionary won’t cut it in an organization looking for HR-led strategy. From your vantage of strategy and leadership, what must HR directors do to adapt?

Rose Patten: If I had to single out two things that HR people have to get better at, one would be understanding their organization’s culture and its differences and how it needs to be nurtured or shifted. I don’t think that HR people have themselves shifted enough into that zone. You have to look at the needs of the business. We must never forget that there are sub-cultures within each business that make the overall business work. You have to be fluent in each of those and be wise enough to understand how to preserve the good things and change the bad.

The other [area to improve] is on the strategy side; namely, that HR people have to be connected to the strategic corporate plan and engaged in it, as well as their own strategies. We have to become more proactively involved instead of being reactive. We have to build more partnerships in HR. I like the word “partner,” yet some people don’t embrace it as much as they should.

HRD: You’ve gone from career strength to career strength both as strategy leader and HR leader. In today’s market, there seems to be increased willingness to hire from outside HR to fill HR director positions. What does that mean for dyed-in-the-wool HR professionals assessing their own upward mobility?

RP: HR has to shift and balance. It’s important to make that point. It’s been an administrative process and very transactional. It’s going to have to move to a strategic role. As regards moving up the corporate ladder, what matters now is what impact you’re having on the strategic side. HR will be doing less and less (merely administrative work) and more consulting-orientated work. Leaders will be doing more than they ever did but it won’t be administrative.

I was one of the first in Canada to outsource all of the technology-based transactional work for an HR department. I was a hero in one camp and not so liked in the other. Now a lot of organizations are doing this. This created some upsets, but what we’re doing is using technology to assist us, not divide us.

HRD: How do you gain the confidence to use the opportunities available to you?

RP: Confidence. Not everyone has it. Some people are born with it, and others have to develop it. It starts with the tiniest bit of courage. All you need after that is a few tiny wins – it’s wonderful. That’s how confidence gets built.