Having been born, schooled and employed in the United States but then marrying a Canadian and moving across the border, brings a uniquely Canadian and American perspective for Stacey Allerton Firth’s role as Vice President, Human Resources for the Ford Motor Company of Canada, Limited and its 14,000 employees.
Firth has developed a knack for spotting subtleties and distinctions in a company that operates seamlessly across borders, continents, and oceans.
“I think that because we share a common language and common geography, that sometimes people make an assumption that the cultures are more similar than they in fact are,” says Firth. “There are some cultural differences. I notice that the Canadian organization is more focused on team work and collaborative decision making whereas the U.S., it may be a little more focused on the individual.”
Firth would know. She worked for Ford in Michigan before coming to Oakville, Ont., for the Canadian division. While working for Ford in the U.S., Firth took on a number of HR-related roles. She has previously been a Human Resources Manager; she managed a call-center, worked labor relations in the plants and worked on national negotiations with the United Autoworkers (UAW). Prior to Ford, Firth worked for a company called American Publishing and as well as General Motors. It was during her tenure at General Motors that Firth got her feet wet in the field of HR, working the night shift at a Cadillac manufacturing plant on the south side of Detroit.
“I was really the only HR person available throughout the evenings,” says Firth. “I did a lot of contract administration, discipline, grievance resolution and on-the-fly problem solving with the union and management team.”
Firth believes her trial-by-fire foray into the HR world is the best way to understand what you are getting into.
“You really have to jump in and figure it out on your feet and the first couple of times you go through that you usually accumulate a lot of scar tissue. It’s the kind of thing that a classroom in an academic setting really can’t teach you or prepare you for.”
That is a statement to take seriously coming from Firth, considering that she has her BA in business from Michigan State University and her MA in industrial relations from Wayne State University in Detroit.
But, Firth agrees that HR has become more strategically involved in the business process than it was back when she worked for GM. She also finds a greater acceptance of the merits of the study of HR and its impact on business.
“I have seen a big shift from a perspective that says HR is that group that deals with the people stuff. It is taken much more seriously by other functional areas today than it was even 10 years ago.”
It is this attitude at Ford that has spread across all divisions. From senior management to the unions, all involved have an understanding that people are what make the company work and if there is proper management of that talent, then business objectives are met much quicker and with greater success. Firth believes this is vital to the success of any HR initiative because if it is viewed as strictly an HR initiative and not a business initiative, then it is shortchanged before it gets started. And she believes that having a union to speak for their employees in these matters is helpful.
“I think that the union is helpful in many respects, despite the fact that we do not agree on all issues. They can be a voice and resource for employees that, in their absence, might not otherwise be as clearly heard. We absolutely view the union as an organization that we respect and whose views and ideas are important to us in terms of achieving our goals.”
One of those goals is ensuring that Ford has the best quality employees.
“We are very focused on the issue of talent management,” says Firth. “It’s a fairly common topic in HR circles right now and we are really taking a critical look at ensuring that we are attracting, retaining and developing the best talent to meet our future challenges.”
Although there has been a system such as this in place at Ford for a while now, the cyclical nature of the industry, where the constantly changing environment makes maintaining processes and momentum difficult, talent management is an issue that is never “complete.” Engaging their people is another way Firth is looking at extending talent management. Diversity has become a large buzzword but Ford is looking at diversity beyond the common understanding.
“When I say diversity I don’t just mean some of the obvious elements of diversity, but of diversity of thought and approach and perspective. We’ve come a long way in terms of how we work as a team in a diverse environment but it’s something that we are always improving.”
Another big issue in any company based on manufacturing is safety. At Ford they already have aggressive safety targets to be met but Firth says they can never be stringent enough.
“We also are always focused on the safety of our employees. It’s one of our key priorities and we are continuously looking at ways of improving our safety success.”
These areas of focus, not to mention that it is a collective bargaining year, and the constant stream of day-to-day HR related emergencies and functions, keeps Firth and her team busy. So what is it that caused Firth to go into HR and what does she attribute to a good HR leader and department?
“It was really an interest in psychology and business and putting those two things together. If you don’t like people and you don’t like working with people and you aren’t comfortable talking through difficult issues with people it would be very difficult to succeed. I don’t like being very deep in one narrow field and here that certainly isn’t the case. I rely on my team to really be the detail experts.”
So what would Stacey Allerton Firth consider a long-term HR success at Ford Motor Company of Canada?
“I will consider it a long-term success if Ford is considered the best place to shop and the best place to work.”