Canfor’s top HR exec: Leaders never stop learning

CEOs are fast discovering that the secret to their success is to have the right leaders at all levels of the organization. Thinking strategically about leadership development and corporate learning are critical in today’s business environment to attract, develop, and retain top talent. Yes, technology plays a role in supporting the strategy, but understanding the desired end state from a people perspective should always be the primary focus.

In 2013, Onkar Athwal, vice president of human resources at Canfor Corp., spoke at the Evanta HR Leadership Summit in Vancouver and I was impressed with his session titled “You Were Hired to be a Leader… So Lead!” I reached out to Athwal to get his perspective on the importance of leadership development and why a successful corporate learning strategy will drive competitive advantage.

With over 5,000 employees, Canfor is a leading integrated forest products company based in Vancouver with operations in B.C., Alberta, Carolina, and Alabama. As vice president of human resources, Athwal is charged with driving Canfor’s strategy to develop its people at all levels of the organization to ensure they have the right leaders today and in the future.

Brian Clendenin: Why is leadership development important to long-term organizational success?

Onkar Athwal: “From my experience working with a variety of organizations, a key reason why a company is not as successful as it could be is leadership bench strength. A very competent leader can move mountains and has an ability to inspire people to perform at peak levels. Leadership development is important to ensure you have people who excel at leading others and thereby ensure you get the desired performance, quality of work and innovation.”

Clendenin: What is the hallmark of a leader?

Athwal: The hallmark of a leader and of the best leaders I’ve seen in my career, is that they are always learning and never rest on their prior accomplishments. They’re always reading, going to conferences, networking and finding out what other people are doing … and that’s how you create innovation. Leadership development is one facet of learning. You can’t have leadership development without having learning.

Onkar Athwal was appointed Vice President, Human Resources of the General Partner on February 6, 2012.

Clendenin: Is leadership development and learning a strategic focus at Canfor?

Athwal: Absolutely. It’s based on the fundamental principle that everyone wants to come to work and make a meaningful contribution to the success of the organization. They (employees) want to go home feeling proud of what they’ve done. When you offer leadership development or other learning opportunities it actually engages their desire to do better. One of the programs we offer at Canfor is called Essentials of Leadership. This program is based on becoming aware of yourself and others, how you think and relate to others, how you communicate with people, and how you coach people. We’re doing it across the company and people love the program.

Clendenin: Who is responsible for creating a learning culture at an organization?

Athwal: Everybody. The CEO certainly sets the tone but, really, the responsibility rests with everyone in a leadership role. The goal is to create a culture within the organization where every person can excel. Any employee can take a leadership attitude and can be engaged in suggesting improvements and making decisions on their own. We want people to excel in their current roles and we also want to support their career growth.

Clendenin: Why should creating a learning culture be a strategic issue that people care about?

Athwal: Well, it’s a really simple reason … Our world is changing at light speed and what works today won’t necessarily work tomorrow. In building a learning culture, and for people to be at their best they have to keep learning and learn new ways of doing things, new technologies, new processes, and maybe new ways of thinking. If you really want an organization that is innovative, that continues to improve, and is always getting better at what it does – then people have to be learning. The richness and depth of their decision making will be directly correlated to the amount of knowledge that they have.

Learning drives competitive advantage. Josh Bersin, one of the foremost analysts on corporate learning writes, “Many business people think of training as something distracting or often a waste of time … but our research shows that one of the most important sources of competitive advantage is your entire corporate learning strategy.”

Organizations are only as successful as the people within the organization and failure occurs when people are not equipped for their roles. Companies not investing in corporate learning will lose out in the long run. Your peak performers will leave and attracting top talent will be increasingly difficult because people desire to work at a place where they can develop, grow, and soar in their career aspirations.

Canfor is in a leadership position in the forestry sector and, from my discussion with Athwal, will continue to invest in their most important asset – their people.

Brian Clendenin
Brian Clendenin
Innovating the Canadian Enterprise at Box. Prior to Box, I served at the research firm Gartner and write on the topics of leadership, IT strategy, and the future of work. Invest my time speaking with engaging thought leaders.

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