Talent strategies in a decentralized business and the CHRO's value at the board level: A conversation with Angella Alexander, CHRO of ATS Corporation
Human Resources Officers

Talent strategies in a decentralized business and the CHRO's value at the board level: A conversation with Angella Alexander, CHRO of ATS Corporation

Angella Alexander discusses leadership succession, talent development and retention, and what CHROs can bring to boards.
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In this next episode of The Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast, Heidrick & Struggles’ Scott Bae speaks to Angella Alexander, CHRO at ATS Corporation, a leading industrial automation solutions provider listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange, and member of the board of CCL Industries, a global specialty packaging pioneer and the largest label company in the world. Alexander begins by sharing her journey to becoming a public company CHRO and board member, and then turns to the biggest challenges facing leaders responsible for attracting, developing, and retaining leaders, focusing on the balance between hiring externally and developing leaders internally—particularly in a decentralized business—and culture’s role in talent strategy and management. Finally, she discusses the most important areas of expertise that a CHRO can bring to a board of directors and offers advice to other HR leaders who want to serve on boards.

Below is a full transcript of the episode, which has been edited for clarity.

Welcome to The Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast. Heidrick is the premier global provider of senior-level executive search and leadership consulting services. Diversity and inclusion, leading through tumultuous times, and building thriving teams and organizations are among the core issues we talk with leaders about every day, including in our podcasts.

Thank you for joining the conversation.

Scott Bae: Welcome to The Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast. Hi, I’m Scott Bae, a principal at Heidrick & Struggles and a member of the Industrial Goods and Technology Practice. Today, I’m thrilled to be joined by Angella Alexander, CHRO at ATS Corporation, a leading industrial automation solutions provider listed on the TSX.

Angella also serves on the board of CCL Industries, a global specialty packaging pioneer and the largest label company in the world. Prior to ATS, Angella held HR leadership roles at Honeywell and Ford Motor Company. Angella, thank you for joining us today. 

Angella Alexander: I’m delighted to be here, Scott. 

Scott Bae: To kick off the conversation, Angella, can you walk us through your journey of becoming a public company CHRO and board member?

Angella Alexander: Sure, and, you know, this was a great opportunity to actually take a few minutes to reflect on my journey, and it’s clear at the center are a few things. My passion for being involved in how great innovations are brought to life, I would say most of my career has been supporting development and manufacturing teams. And I never cease to be amazed by technology and solutions associated with new technologies. 

My personal focus has always been enabling growth, individual and organizations, through building strong capabilities and effective relationships. And I think if I look at how my career has evolved between multiple geographies and continents, I’ve always held a sense of adventure and excitement about how new challenges, problems, entering into uncharted territory, and really understanding that being uncomfortable is always part of the next great thing. And I would say lastly, with all the places I’ve had the opportunity to visit, adapting to different cultures, both company and country cultures, has been a huge part of my learning. From then until now. 

Scott Bae: It sounds like a case of a high-performing executive being pulled into a mandate. Maybe you weren’t necessarily running toward it, but just a great opportunity to knocking on the door of a leader focused on doing what she’s passionate about. So that’s great to see. 

So, you were appointed as the inaugural CHRO at ATS. Walk us through that journey, and tell us what had to be built and what had to change. 

Angella Alexander: Well, you know, it’s interesting because I think when I was approached about this role, certainly very excited about the opportunity to build a strategic function and help architect a talent strategy to enable growth, but it becomes very real and very different when you actually start the build journey. 

And moving from a much larger organization to a smaller company where you need to fly at multiple altitudes and really roll up your sleeves, I think initially I found it a bit more daunting than I expected. But, you know, after a while you start to learn the teams, you learn the organization, you learn the business, and start to put some of the fundamentals in place. And so I focused on what are the businesses need at their different levels of focus and maturity, help build out some of those teams from a business partner perspective, but then also understand what are the things we need to have as an enterprise in order to enable scale and start to put some of those capabilities in the corporate teams so we would have the ability to scale certain activities across the enterprise as we grow.

And it’s been a terrific ride so far, I have to say. You know, we’re still in the midst of our journey, but it’s been a tremendous experience so far. 

Scott Bae: Yeah, being the first of anything is a daunting challenge for a lot of folks. And it really speaks to your entrepreneurial orientation and the desire to build something versus managing something more or less in maintenance mode, which could be the easier way to go.

This next question is the never-ending challenge for leaders, regardless of vector or function: What are your biggest current challenges in attracting, developing, and retaining leaders? 

Angella Alexander: So I would say overall, I see attracting and retaining really is, I think, closely linked. And the success there primarily comes down to culture.

I know everybody talks about it today, but I think fundamentally culture is really the choices and behaviors of our leaders. You know, making sure that the day-to-day experience of our employees is aligned with our values is a constant focus for us. And when I think about those challenges—people, process, performance—those are the values that we seek in that order.

And we seek leaders that are both human-centric and results-driven with a continuous improvement approach, and it’s not easy. I think understanding how to identify folks with a good balance of all three—add to that our emphasis on growth and the capability to both grow and scale sustainably. We need to find and build leaders that are adept at both the what and the how.

Scott Bae: And following up on that, Angella, how do you think about the right balance between developing leaders internally and hiring externally, especially in a decentralized culture like ATS? 

Angella Alexander: Well, first, I would say that developing leaders internally is always a priority focus. Building bench strength and succession depth is a key responsibility for all of us when driving sustainable growth.

When it comes to evaluating certain circumstances, though, I think it begins with strategy. It always has to. And really understanding what it is we’re looking to accomplish and in what timescale. Being clear on what you’re building on, whether you’re accelerating existing capability versus whether you’re seeking to add new capability to the portfolio.

So a good example for that for many companies, including our own, is the digital journey. In many cases, that’s requiring new skills, new capabilities of leaders, but there’s other aspects of that that are accelerating certain things that you have capabilities of in-house. And so I think it’s first and foremost, being clear on the strategy.

Scott Bae: That’s interesting. And when you do hire externally, and you talked about maybe the digital journey, and maybe you’re hiring executives from outside your industry, what are the opportunities and challenges that you see for leaders? 

Angella Alexander: Well, we often say that leadership starts with self, and I think for leaders joining a new organization, this is especially relevant.

Understanding how you’ve been successful in the past, where you brought strength and where you relied on the strength of others is critical to navigate a new environment. And for us being so decentralized, I would say in addition, new leaders really need to be adept at forming peer relationships and networks in order to fully leverage the advantages of the enterprise.

Thanks. In addition, I like to say that you need to be able to fly at multiple altitudes. I mentioned that earlier. I think you need to be equally skillful and impactful in the boardroom as well as the breakroom. 

Scott Bae: And building off of that, how are you approaching leadership development today? And how are you linking learning to ensure successful executive succession planning?

Angella Alexander: That’s a great question. And I would say that we’re actually still relatively early in our journey here, but I feel like we’re off to a great start. We’ve built a framework that addresses leadership at all levels, starting with like a people leader foundation, which really sets the expectation of the company we want and the leader we want.

And it’s taught by our own leaders. So leaders as teachers is a core principle in our approach. At the top, we have our global executive development program, which guides leaders through an exploration of linkages between self, team, and company. And in between, we’re building a catalog of targeted skill-building courses and experiences, and the Executive Development Program participants here are expected to teach and lead some of these experiences.

In addition, we’ve been expanding our mentorship program, which has its origins here in the Professional Women’s Network of Canada, which is a real pride point for the team locally. And this has turned out to be equally beneficial for the development of both the leaders who are mentors as well as the mentees.

So I think all of those things together, whether you’re looking at the developmental experiences we’re specifically targeting toward leaders or the role that leaders are playing, building capability in our organization and building our culture. All of those things together, I think, are helping us knit a stronger succession plan and bench strength for the future.

Scott Bae: Now, I imagine culture has unique challenges and nuances in a high-growth company like ATS. But how do you view culture as a talent attraction and retention tool? 

Angella Alexander: Well, you know, culture is always the question I get from candidates. It doesn’t matter what level. And I think, for me, it comes back to what I said earlier. One of the things that matters most to employees at any level is their day-to-day experience in the company, which is the result of the interactions they have with leaders. I describe our culture typically as one that’s in evolution. We have a really interesting mix of long-standing businesses going back to our founding combined with a global portfolio of newly acquired companies.

And as you said, that kind of decentralized structure, I think it’s one of the things that makes ATS a great place to be, and that combination, from a culture perspective, is really one of the things that gives us competitive advantage. The two combinations, I would say, from an enterprise point of view, I like to describe as we have our shared how, which is our ATS business model, or ABM, which is really our common approach and common language.

We’re united under a shared purpose, values, and behaviors, and they really complement the unique cultural elements that make each of our businesses and locations excel in their markets. And I think this balance is really harnessing the best of both. And it’s really about understanding how do we protect the things that add and create value.

Scott Bae: It’s such a difficult task to keep your eye on the ball with the mission of the company and the longer-term growth strategy while integrating acquisitions and intentionally prioritizing culture among a broad array of businesses—it’s really great perspective. 

And Angella, what are the leadership capabilities you see as most important for current and future leaders to have at a decentralized business like ATS? And how do you ensure a common vision and goal is still in place in this type of environment? 

Angella Alexander: You know, I referenced our business model, the ABM, and I think that framework has been really powerful, as I mentioned, giving the teams a common language and a common approach. So, depending anywhere you are, whether you’re in the US, in Italy, in Germany, or you’re here in Canada, we operate our businesses the same way, and we speak with the same language related to KPIs and metrics and continuous improvement. And so I think building on that, the concept of balance across our values, which are at the center of our business model, people, process, and performance, it’s really about excelling in all three. It’s not just being strong in one or two. It’s understanding that it takes skill in people, process, in order to achieve performance. And all of those things matter. And so, for us as a decentralized organization, it’s staying clear on that simple focus of our shared how.

Scott Bae: I don’t know if this is the right word but there’s almost this dichotomy in the operating model of balancing a well-functioning cogwheel of a public company with the empowerment that your leaders have to run their businesses, but it seems to work brilliantly and it’s fascinating.

Now, if you can put your corporate director hat on for a minute. What are the most important areas of expertise that you as a CHRO bring to a board? And also, what advice do you have for other HR leaders who want to serve on boards? 

Angella Alexander: Well, first I’ll say it’s been such an honor to have this opportunity at this stage in my career. And while it’s still very early in my tenure, I’m learning a tremendous amount. I would say, like, why CHROs on boards? Talent is such a critical topic for companies today and it seems a natural evolution that boards should be seeking this expertise explicitly as they navigate this rapidly evolving environment.

In many aspects, thinking about advice to other HR folks, the things that make you a strong CHRO are the same things that give you the capability to play a corporate director. It’s really pairing that strong business acumen, that deep understanding of the business and the strategy with your subject matter expertise and your understanding of what levers to pull and how to influence the talent agenda.

For me personally, I think one of the learnings has been really being open to alternative models. You know, the two companies, ATS and CCL that I’m involved in, like they don’t operate the same and they don’t have the same, the same structures, but they’re both successful in their own ways. And so being open to different ways of doing things and different ways of accomplishing things and also being able to make that pivot for managing to advising. You know, in my ATS role, I’m very comfortable rolling up my sleeves and jumping in with solutions. And the role is different in a board capacity. And so I think understanding that this is an evolution also in your leadership and approach to step on the other side of the table, if you will.

Scott Bae: What you’re saying resonates with the recent article that we published at Heidrick on how directors with HR expertise can help increase board effectiveness, talent, and agility, as you mentioned. And it comes down to HR leaders being strong business people, right? And they bring That solid analytical skill set to make sense of the data. And they also have the courage to bring candor, even if it’s an unpopular stance. And they know how to pivot from management to advising, as you mentioned. 

So one final question, as we bring this conversation to a close, Angella, what leadership skillset and capabilities do you think will be most critical to help ATS meet its strategic goals in the coming year?

Angella Alexander: You know, I’ve reflected on this quite a bit, particularly coming out of the pandemic, and I would say agility and resilience. You know, as I mentioned in my intro, I think understanding that being uncomfortable is a crucial part of growth, and with the ever-changing constellation of external dynamics, whether it’s the geopolitical situation, supply chain disruptions, macroeconomic shifts combined with the ever-increasing expectations of leaders around authenticity, empathy, our leaders need to be constantly scanning, adapting, and inspiring others to join them on the journey. And I think it’s more demanding than ever, but in a lot of respects, more exciting than ever. 

Scott Bae: That’s a great way to end the conversation. Angella, thank you for making the time to speak with us today. 

Angella Alexander: Really enjoyed it, Scott. Thank you for the invitation.

Thanks for listening to The Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast. To make sure you don’t miss more future-shaping ideas and conversations, please subscribe to our channel on the podcast app. And if you’re listening via LinkedIn, Twitter, or YouTube, why not share this with your connections? Until next time.

About the interviewer

Scott Bae (sbae@heidrick.com) is a principal in Heidrick & Struggles’ Calgary office and a member of the Industrial Practice.

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