Leading with many hats

November 22, 2011
in People

For Lee Rhodes, having to explain his role as senior-vice president of People Services is a common occurrence even after 24 years leading change initiatives, recruiting talent and furthering team development in world class organizations. In short, he is a man who wears many hats.

“It’s a profession that everyone thinks they can do,” says Lee. But the key word is profession, for which specialized knowledge is an intrinsic demand. “People in business want the human resources person to come in and quote more than rules and models; they want you to solve business problems and you do that by bringing your expertise to bear.”

Since joining First West in 2010, Lee has been a pivotal figure in the formation of First West. While his roles can range from developing organizational policies for two distinct regions to applying on-the-ground advice with individual employees’ concerns, Lee summarizes it best as “changing the wheels on the bus while it’s still moving.”

His background in business makes him particularly well-placed to facilitate transformation in the financial industry. While many people service professionals select their profession in college and stick to it, without diverse career experience, Rhodes’ career path gives him rare insight.

“My claim to fame is that I was a business person who went into human resources, and I have always practiced HR from the perspective of someone who started in business. It always made me a little different,” explains Lee, whose standby reading material consists of The Economist, Bloomberg’s Business Week and Harvard Business Review.

While Lee initially intended to follow in Perry Mason’s footsteps and become a lawyer, he soon shifted his path away from his youthful dream after a brief experience working with a local firm.

“I realized I didn’t want to be Perry Mason after all. But I was definitely turned on by business. It was new and exciting, and I was sucking it up like a sponge.”

Lee found himself in supervisory roles at Canada Trust early in his career. Struck by the positive effects that human resources had on business outcomes by having the right people in the right roles, coaching staff properly and handling sensitive on-the-job issues he decided to go back to school and learn more.

With his education in hand and frequent dealings with Canada Trust’s HR department he soon had a job offer, and, at 27, Rhodes settled into the career that became his lifelong passion.

In addition to Canada Trust, Lee has worked with many preeminent names in technology and finance including Manulife Financial, Hewlett Packard, Research in Motion and PMC-Sierra, before joining First West.

Without a doubt his greatest achievement as an innovative and effective people services professional occurred during his time at Research in Motion (RIM), a global leader in wireless innovation that revolutionized the mobile industry with the BlackBerry® in 1999. As the director of global recruitment in 2007, Rhodes hired 3,500 people in one year, increasing RIM staff by 50 per cent. Also motivating a dysfunctional, under-performing department to produce, both in terms of volume and quality, during a very strenuous product launch period.

“We delivered the new application under budget and in record time. It had never been done before. The achievement was a perfect storm in a positive way,” beams Lee.

Lee also cites his time at Hewlett Packard as a game-changing experience because working for an international company opened his eyes to managing staff worldwide.

“Prior to Hewlett-Packard, I was working nationally, never globally. With Hewlett, I got to travel the world and learn to work in a virtual environment, acclimatizing new employees to our company, while improving their productivity. By doing that time and time again, we perfected our techniques resulting in great business.”

At First West, Lee says his greatest achievement has yet to be completed. As a merger veteran, Lee explains the rationale of the merger timeline.

“A merger is a question of what the audience will bear in terms of change, specifically the pace of change. We’re integrating two companies and we’re integrating them on a model that says differences are allowed, so we have to shape new approaches,” says Lee. “It’s a fabulous challenge to put this model into motion and make it effective.”

Fueled by adrenaline, enthusiasm and frozen oatmeal raisin cookies Lee is always aiming higher, confidently asserting that there are insufficient hours in the day or days in the year even to accomplish everything he has in store for First West’s team. But he will assent that the organization has achieved a great deal already.

“We’ve done a good job painting a new vision and direction. In fact, it’s one of the best I’ve seen, and I’ve been in many companies, you know.”

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