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Author Archive for Lily Vu

Pay it Forward With a Bit of Mentorship

When I first graduated with my HR degree, I remember the optimism and confidence I felt at my job prospects in the corporate world. Fast forward nearly one year; after working in various temp/contract roles, to say my optimism was dim would be an understatement. I fell into the group of newly minted graduates with no professional experience looking for entry-level roles that required experience. To boot, with no work contacts to my credit, save a few networking opportunities to meet a few professionals in the field, I was nowhere near the “door” to get my foot even close to in it.

Thankfully, I was lucky enough to find a position with a manager who was open to my lack of experience but saw my ambition, and she quickly became my mentor. It was under her that I flourished and absorbed as much as possible, and to her I owe much gratitude. I am certain that without her willingness to take a chance on me, I would have second-guessed my career choice and ended up in something different than what I am today.

Fast forward another decade, when I feel fairly settled (though I am always looking for ways to expand my knowledge), and I find myself being on the receiving end of requests for mentorship or advice. It has been a rewarding part of my career to know that I am able to help others who are experiencing the same challenges I once did, and I try to be encouraging and helpful when I can. With the plethora of social media options available today, and the networking opportunities that come with it, people entering the work force are afforded numerous opportunities that we once dreamed about.

Recently, a Cleveland professional who hailed herself as a “passionate advocate for job-seekers” made media headlines for her responses to a request to connect on LinkedIn from a young professional looking to network in the community. (http://www.cnn.com/2014/02/27/tech/web/linked-in-cleveland-job-bank/) Her response was mean-spirited and unprofessional – after which more people came forward with similar responses from her and she issued public apologies for her behaviours.

Now, I’m not saying that every request to network or provide advice needs to be granted, but I feel the need to pay back the professional karma that I received. If someone has the initiative to reach out and seek assistance in a respectful manner, if I can help them, I will. We all started at the proverbial bottom and had someone help us – is it not part of our professional obligation to extend the helping hand later in our career? It doesn’t have to take much of your time or effort to respond to a request with a tip, some advice or more if you are so inclined. Yet, a small gesture from you has the potential to go a great distance in helping an individual at that critical beginning stage of their career. And if later down the road they remember your act of kindness and pay it forward, we keep the cycle moving and our professional network growing. It’s a win-win.

Balancing Act

“Work-life balance” is a buzzword you hear a lot these days, and it’s one of those ambiguous terms employers use to make themselves sound more attractive to potential employees. Though I’d heard this term before, unfortunately, in my experience, balance often meant going into the office early, leaving late and always being attached to my Blackberry.  Taking an hour for lunch was considered a luxury, and the closest thing to a break was running to the coffee machine. Any more balance than this was out of the question.

Since moving to Nunavut, one of the greatest takeaways that I have gained from this experience is the ability to step back from work and enjoy the breaks I am afforded – there’s real work-life balance to be had here. At first, being able to focus on my home life while at home seemed like a novelty to me. The entire town shuts down between 12pm and 1pm so everyone can go home for lunch, and this was an alien concept to me. Now that I am used to it, one hour in the middle of the day when I can let my brain rest, eat a well-balanced meal (rather than gulping down a greasy lunch I picked up, or a meal replacement shake just to get by), and spending the hour with my husband is a welcome break that I look forward to. Work begins at 8:30am and ends at 5:00pm the majority of days. A short drive to the house means that I am typically back at home before 5:15pm and the rest of the evening is all mine. With there being so few daylight hours in the winter months, you cherish your time outside the office and try to make the most of it. On the flip side, in the summer months with 24 hours of sunshine, you value your time outside the office so you can soak up every bit of vitamin D goodness you can before it goes away again.

In a world so competitive and focused on getting ahead, is there such a thing as work-life balance? In the South, I used to feel guilty if I left right at 5:00pm because I thought it made me seem like I wasn’t working as hard as my colleague. I knew of a person who used to stay late and walk by the executive offices, pretending to grab photocopies so they would see her working late. I think there is a misconception of people who work 8 hours a day and then go home – that they are somehow contributing less than the person who stays an extra 2 hours into the evening. Another lesson I have learned while living in Nunavut is how to work more efficiently. The hours I put in while I’m at work are completely focused and driven by work because I know that when I am home, there is no thinking of work. Don’t get me wrong, there are times when we have big projects and deadlines that require we work extra hours, but that isn’t the norm. We are expected to go home at the end of the day and continue on the next day. It has been a refreshing philosophical and cultural shift that I have welcomed with open arms.

In a world that moves so quickly and bombards us with information, balance needs to be encouraged. Organizations expect employees to work tirelessly, which contributes to increased stress and burn-out. Allowing a culture of work-life balance to flourish leads to happier, more loyal employees, with increased productivity and efficiency. Companies are striving to recruit and retain the best workforce possible, and individuals are becoming much more selective in where they choose to work. One of the best parts about working in Nunavut is the discovery of what work-life balance truly means – and something I’m not willing to give up in my next venture.

You Can’t Spell “North” without “HR”

Nunavut Coat of ArmsHow far would you go for your work? For me, 1,600 miles seemed like a reasonable distance, so after many discussions with our families, my husband and I packed up and moved from everything we knew in Southwestern Ontario to the territory of Nunavut. I’m not sure what possessed me to apply to a job so far away from friends and family, but this bold move has led to a life-changing experience that we’ve been living for the past half year.

I was prepared for the drop in temperature, the (extreme) increase in cost of groceries, and the other changes one would expect from moving to a new town. What I wasn’t prepared for was the changes I’d be faced with in my work, and in what I know about human resources. Having worked in HR for the past number of years, in locations across North America, practicing HR in the north was the least of my worries—I was more focused on how much of our everyday lives we would need to stockpile. Questions that would have previously landed me on an episode of Hoarders suddenly became appropriate: Is it socially acceptable to clear off an entire shelf of pasta sauce at the grocery store? How much shampoo is enough shampoo? While I tried to take it as a compliment whenever someone compared my living room to a warehouse, more than once I found myself hesitating over my purchases, because I kept asking myself, “How different can it be? It’s still Canada.” Little did I know that those 1,600 miles between Home and Nunavut would be paved with a world of change.

Aside from the adjustment to everyday life in the Canadian Arctic, I’ve had to adapt to a culture of which I previously knew little. There are a lot of social nuances in a hamlet of 1,800—nuances that you have to learn pretty quickly. One thing I realised in the first couple of days is that the entire community shuts down for lunch every weekday, with schools, daycares, and most businesses emptying themselves like clockwork, from 12pm to 1pm. As someone who always got caught up at work and who never realised it was long past 5pm in Ontario, I’ve had to adjust to going home right at the end of the day. My office also follows the break schedule fairly religiously – 10am and 3pm are 15 minute breaks that people take every day. Not being used to this practice, one of my first few days on the job I looked around at 10:05 and wondered whether I had missed hearing a fire alarm!

But I’m not writing all of this so you can get an idea of how mellow the north can be, in comparison with Ontario. What I’m saying is this: I’ve had to learn how to re-order my life, disassembling it and learning how to piece it back together in a northern-patterned-puzzle. I’ve had to take my straight-edged schedules and curve them to the demands of my new surroundings—in much the same ways as I imagine companies must have, in their earlier years.

Being so far away and isolated from major cities and resources, organizations need to be resourceful in their operations. Best practices may not always work in the north because of technological or resource gaps—for example, the cost to have an internet connection with high bandwidth is an astronomical expense, and it isn’t even close to the same speeds. Equipment, machines, supplies, and other such necessities need to be flown or shipped in, in the summer, because while all roads may lead to Rome, none lead to Nunavut. The territory’s 26 communities are accessible only by plane or by barges when the ice thaws. As well, employee turnover is higher because there aren’t enough skilled workers to complete the work, and many roles need to be filled by southerners (those who hail from below the 60th parallel) who don’t tend to stay for long tenures. All to say, there are numerous obstacles that present themselves up here that aren’t considerations to organizations in the south.

With so many unique challenges facing organizations in the north, the practice of human resources has both pros and cons. On the one hand, the inability to apply certain programs and practices due to cultural, technological and resource constraints makes it feel as though we have fallen behind our southern counterparts and are working feverishly to catch up. There is mounting frustration each time we are held back in our endeavours because we just don’t have the capacity. On the other hand, this lack of resources is also freeing, as not only does it allow for creativity, it demands it. As such, it’s a privilege to be able to establish a new HR “frontier”, and to be able to see and be a part of the revitalization of traditional practices.

I feel the same excitement I felt when I first started in HR and was convinced I was going to make a difference in the business world. I am more inspired and innovative than ever – having to rely on what I really know about human resources, versus resting on the comfort of routine fixes.  Moving to the north was the restart that my career needed to keep me current and reconnected. A 1,600 mile move may not be the best decision for everyone, but I highly encourage a shake-up in terms of problem solving. Dust off the creative cobwebs and think outside the box. It may be the boldest move you make.