CEOs onPeople - In Conversation With Courtney Pratt, Former CEO at Stelco Inc. and Toronto Hydro

May 16, 2016 Lee Hecht Harrison

Courtney PrattLee Hecht Harrison Knightsbridge: You began your career in executive recruiting and HR; then went on to become CEO at Stelco Inc. and Toronto Hydro. How did your HR expertise help when you became CEO?

Courtney Pratt: I think it helped me tremendously because first of all, I got to see the human side of the enterprise from a very different perspective. I’ve always worked in organizations where there were big powerful unions. Once I moved to the CEO role, my experience in HR in working with and dealing with labor unions was tremendously helpful. I think too many CEOs get into that job without ever having dealt directly with labor unions, and they have unrealistic expectations of what can be achieved.

LHH: Some HR executives express a lack of credibility with executives in other areas of the business. Is this something you experienced?

CP: My time in HR in a sense created my credibility because, with no false modesty, I think I did a good job when I was in the HR function. For HR people, I think they have to start with the notion that you’ve got to create strong credibility as an HR professional, but then the issue is how do you go beyond that. The advice I always give is to deliberately work hard to understand what makes the business tick, what are all the key factors that will make the business successful beyond the human capital component. Once you understand this, you need to be able to demonstrate your understanding to your clients so that when you help them solve problems you’re helping them solve problems from a very broad business perspective, always with an HR perspective, but not coming across as narrowly focused entirely on HR.

LHH: Do you think there’s common mistakes HR professionals make that can limit their careers?

CP: There are a couple of career traps. One is being seen as and acting as an HR techie. These people are experts in the technical sides of HR like compensation, benefits, and pension; and they limit their expertise to these areas. This knowledge is of huge value in an organization but it’s not going to invite people to think of you as a business partner.

The other career-limiting move that a lot of HR people make is to be flag-wavers rather than problem-solvers. These people are out there constantly telling managers about the problems they’re creating rather than viewing themselves as a trusted advisor who is there to help other managers solve their business problems -- solving their people problems is solving their business problems.

LHH: Do you believe high-potential executives would benefit from spending time in HR as part of their overall development?

CP: I think it adds tremendously to that person’s experience depending on what role they’re playing in the HR function and what kind of a group actually works in HR. My personal belief is that a CEO will be much more effective if he or she understands the human dimension of the organization – not just the human dimension in that sort of a general gut sense, but also all the aspects that shape the culture of the organization from compensation, to benefits, to training, and development. It’s hard to really get a grip on that without spending time in HR. When the individual makes the stop in HR is pretty critical. It shouldn’t be done as one of the final stages in their career.

The other side of that coin, which I do have to put forward, is the notion that you can take somebody who’s a pretty good executive and then put them in charge of the HR function. I find this to be a bit of an insult to the HR profession. It’s a bit like saying we’ll take the HR person and make that person the CFO, which would never happen. Some executives believe that anybody can be successful in HR and I certainly don’t believe that.

LHH: What advice do you have for HR professionals who would like to move into other areas of business?

CP: First ask yourself why you want to move. Is it because you genuinely want to move into general management executive roles and understand the business? If the answer to that is yes, absolutely think about doing this.

Secondly, ask yourself whether the business you’re in is one that you really believe in and are passionate about because to be able to make that move you really have to develop an in-depth understanding of the business and it’s hard to do that if it’s not something that you really believe in and feel strongly about. If the answer to that question is “I’m not sure about the business I’m in, but I want to move on” then I would say maybe think about changing businesses and find something that you are passionate about. And by the way, when I use the term business I’m including things like not for profits and hospitals and government because there are wonderful CEO-type roles and general management roles in those organizations as well. It depends on what turns you on as an individual I think.

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