From Energy Lawyer, through COVID to Next-Level HR Executive VP Jane Fedoretz reimagines HR in the clean energy transition

Jane Fedoretz, Executive Vice-President of People, Talent, and Transformation, TransAlta
Jane Fedoretz, Executive Vice-President of People, Talent, and Transformation, TransAlta

As the energy transition unfolds, how do we create a vibrant human-centric workplace culture where our employees can thrive? For energy lawyer turned Human Resources Executive Vice President Jane Fedoretz, this question helps her cultivate a culture conducive for employees to thrive in and to achieve their potential in the rapidly transitioning electricity industry that her company. TransAlta Corporation, finds itself in,

For over four years, Fedoretz has been at the helm of the HR team for the independent power producer’s existential transformation from being Alberta’s dominant coal-fired electricity generator, to the company’s journey through the COVID-19 pandemic and responding to the future of work, to its emergence as a clean energy leader developing and operating wind, hydro, solar, and battery storage in three jurisdictions across the globe.

Fedoretz sat down with CIOLook to share her unique insights on what companies need to be focusing on as the new post-COVID world of work takes shape. Fedoretz started her career as a professional social worker before returning to university to study law and begin her ascent through the legal profession working as an in-house lawyer in various companies within the oil and gas industry.

For a few years, she held an executive legal position at a privately held, international oil field services company and then worked at a leading Calgary law firm as counsel supporting clients in the areas of exploration as well as development and construction of major oil, gas, and mining projects. The opportunity at TransAlta followed with Fedoretz joining the company in 2018 as Executive Vice President of People, Talent and Transformation.

Tell us about your journey as a business leader, from your start in social work, then your first pivot to energy law, and then your next pivot to leading the Human Resources team at a multi-billion-dollar, multi- national power generation company?

After almost two decades practicing law at several blue-chip companies and spending a lot of time in the oil and gas industry, I took time to consider how I could take all of my legal and professional experience and offer up my enterprise leadership skills in a highly strategic leadership role. In 2018, that decision landed me at TransAlta, and I’ve been here ever since.

While I remain an active, practicing lawyer, I have relied on my curious nature and with our great HR personnel, have figured out a way to improve and make our Human Resources team top notch. As Executive Vice President of People, Talent, and Transformation, I’m responsible for delivering the strategic Human Resources role, executive compensation, and I’m also responsible for TransAlta’s Corporate Communications team. In addition to these responsibilities, I serve as TransAlta’s Chief Transformation Officer on the transformative work that the company has been doing over the last seven years of which l’ve been involved for over four. I have found this role an outstanding opportunity to be creative, innovative and it’s given me the ability to progress a human-centric strategy during an unprecedented time in world history. This has given me boundless energy and has been personally very fulfilling.

For what a journey it’s been, from experiencing significant workforce reductions throughout our transition away from burning coal to generate cleaner electricity, and from the critical challenges of keeping our 24/7, 365 days a year generation plants running and our employees safe throughout the COVID 19 pandemic, to fully embracing a clean energy leadership focus. The strategy required to navigate these stages of TransAlta’s evolution has allowed me to get acquainted with the “ins and outs” of the HR function, and become a true service-oriented, strategic partner for the CEO, other executives and our Board. Over the last four years, I have come to deeply appreciate the valuable role that HR teams play and how they can form, sustain and be bridge builders in creating an attractive environment for talent. My team is diligently focused on providing excellent service to their clients, providing endless support, and empowering the creation of a healthy and evolving corporate culture.

Tell us more about TransAlta’s journey, highlighting its mission and vision and the company’s challenges along the way.

We are extremely proud of our century-long, clean energy legacy. Our first power generation asset was Horseshoe Falls, a hydroelectric dam we built in the province of Alberta, Canada, in 1911. We added more hydro assets in the decades that followed, along with thermal power generation and in the early 2000s, we were an early mover in wind power in Alberta.

The latest phase of our clean energy journey really began in 2015, when the Government of Alberta introduced the Climate Leadership Plan to help Alberta reduce its carbon emissions. Coal was in the Alberta governments cross hairs and, as the largest generator in Alberta, TransAlta had thousands of megawatts of coal-fired generation. We were a generational employer in the communities across Alberta where we mined coal for our plants and where those plants operated.

You can imagine the magnitude of the HR challenge we faced in transitioning the workforces for these plants and the mines let alone the business challenge we faced in finding new and innovative ways to grow our business, generate returns for our shareholders and ultimately meet a whole new array of clean energy demands. The departure of the dedicated women and men who kept our coal facilities running for decades made the transition particularly difficult for everyone.

As coal units were retired or converted throughout this time, we began thinking more strategically to position the company for success with our clean energy plans We leaned into our expertise as long-time, trusted developers and operators of renewable generation and began transforming our thinking to focus on the elements that would help us thrive in the next part of TransAlta’s journey.

Our company has always been about people, and naturally, with all of the change that our employees had experienced and over time, our minds turned to improving workplace culture. What kind of culture does our company need for the company to stay true to its values while simultaneously delivering value to our shareholders as the energy transition continues to unfold around us? We know that TransAlta thrives when our employees thrive and as we continue to move forward in the energy transition, it will require our employees to continue to think innovatively. And so, we set our minds to transforming the company to a culture focused on just that.

Again, as a continual learner and curious professional, I love to ask questions so that I can understand things more deeply. I immersed myself in that rich and critical question about what makes a great culture and collaborated with other senior leaders throughout the company to get our heads around what work life for employees should look like on our path to clean energy and we discovered that it is really focused on delivering a human-centric approach.

Our business was focusing increasingly on building renewable energy projects for customers seeking to decarbonize their operations with clean electricity and on achieving related sustainability goals. We were stepping more fully into this highly competitive space and still had gas, hydro, solar and wind assets to run with demands ratcheted up on a reduced workforce, the premium on getting the cultural question right could not have been higher, or so we thought.

Then the COVID pandemic hit us. The importance of HR’s strategic support sky-rocketed and HR spent the next two and a half years at the executive table collaborating, finding ways to cultivate employee connectedness remotely and maintaining organizational resilience in an ever-changing pandemic world.

What impact did COVID have on your employees and how did you navigate this tremendous challenge?

Like so many other companies, COVID tested us Employee health and safety dominated our waking hours as leaders and with COVID misinformation circulating widely, particularly during the early stages of the pandemic, we became a leading source of trusted, reliable information for our employees and their families. We observed World Health Organization guidelines and consulted leading epidemiologists to guide the drafting of our company protocols and procedures. And we informed our employees, often connecting them with those experts directly through online sessions, removing the disinformation noise from social media and other sources.

What COVID did was dramatically increase HR’s profile, especially among the Board as the pandemic brought the importance of taking care of employees to the foreground, Executives and other people leaders from across the organization relied on us to guide them through constantly shifting COVID circumstances. Collaboration among leaders throughout the company with our HR business partners, the Disability Management Team and the Shared Services team intensified as the pandemic wore on and as lockdowns ebbed and flowed. We stepped up our strategic support for TransAlta leaders and over time presented a robust remote work plan tailored to operational needs. From June until December 2020 when the second wave hit in the jurisdictions where we operate, we brought the balance of our employees back to the office and started exploring remote work solutions for the remainder.

Simultaneously, we started having deeper discussions around the social goals of ESG, especially equity, diversity and inclusion (ED&l), managing a health crisis and exploring other issues around people-centred issues and the future of work. Due to the nature of this work, HR’s role continued to be elevated. Our Board was completely engaged and entirely supportive of the executive leadership team as we grappled with these matters. I cannot emphasize how fantastic that opportunity was, it truly was an incredible time to be in HR.

What kind of impact do you hope you are having on the HR field generally?

Being a leader is a privilege. Entrusted with the stewardship of a function so core to any business, applying strategy, serving others, and exemplifying steadfast commitment to trying do things better is where I believe the biggest impact can be made.

I have also been fortunate to work with a very talented team of HR professionals on transformational assignments which have been fully supported by our entire executive team and Board. As noted above, we have introduced many new initiatives, supported, and expedited by our CEO John Kousinioris, to show our diverse workforce that they truly matter, both professionally and personally, as individuals and as a community and the recognition we’ve received confirms that we’re on the right track, although there is so much more to do.

The Canadian Coalition for Good Governance (CCGG) Governance acknowledged us with a Gavel Award in 2020. We’ve made it on Bloomberg’s Gender-Equality Index for the last three years (2020, 2021, and 2022). We earned a high score in the Globe and Mail’s Board Games; and our efforts increase gender diversity at our corporate leadership level was recognized in the Globe and Mail’s Women Lead Here report. We’ve also been a bronze-level member of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business since 2020, and we were the first publicly traded energy company to be certified by Diversio, a third-party ED&l platform that measures diversity and helps companies to become more inclusive. On top of this, we’ve been a recipient of United Way’s “Thanks A Million Award” since 2001.

Just last year HR earned the Queen’s University IRC Award for Best Learning & Development Strategy. All of the effort to shift our culture, empower employees, and align ourselves with the demands of our new clean energy focus rolls up under the branding work we’ve been doing since last year. With us leaving coal in our past and focusing on the renewables front, as well as advancing our strategy related ED&l all under the leadership of a new CEO, a new look for our company just made sense. It was time to reimagine and reiterate who we are as a clean energy leader within a highly dynamic and evolving energy sector.

Please describe the work culture and values that drive your organization.

We live and breathe safety and pride ourselves at maintaining a world-class safety record while at the same time demonstrating commercial and operational flexibility to ensure alignment with our customer’s operational, business and net-zero goals. It is thus no surprise that TransAlta’s core values are safety, innovation, sustainability, respect, and integrity.

In the spring of 2021, we started talking about culture in ways we didn’t really do before and, also what we want this company to be as we continue to go through our energy transformation. We started talking about creating a work environment where employees could thrive in a meaningful way.

We spent time learning about different cultural styles and determined that we wanted to pivot from our predominantly “order” based style to one of “results, learning and purpose,” which form the foundation to our cultural strategy. We also started thinking about the importance of creating psychological safety with our employees, because, in my view, this is the precursor to working on creating a healthy and collaborative culture. My HR goal for the company was to create a culture where people can raise their hands, share ideas, have candid conversations, can engage in productive conflict, all without fear of reprisal, show up as their authentic selves and thrive, with the bonus of increasing overall company innovation.

We have dedicated the last three years to evolving our culture and have taken significant steps to make change. Last year, the leadership team had completed a large amount of preliminary work on the culture journey, and we were in the position to advance our culture journey with our employees. We developed a Culture Charter with a North Star statement (and a “Southern Cross” statement for our Australian operations), a document that outlines the importance of employees having a purpose to their work and how their work impacts the greater organization. Our focus on creating a psychologically safe work environment where employees are safe to bring their true authentic selves to work, is intended to drive innovation and results. Finally, our focus on learning is to build talent our existing talent and retain our employees. All of this work is based on the full support of the Board and executive leadership team who model and reward acts of vulnerability and represent what a healthy culture looks like.

We are also fully committed to ED&1, In 2020, responding to the George Floyd murder, one of our employees approached the then CEO and I and asked us to consider ways the company could increase its focus on ED&1. It resulted in developing a grassroots ED&I council where our employees would be able to develop and lead the strategy. In 2020, our Board approved a five-year strategy aimed at raising awareness and embedding inclusion practices into the organization more broadly.

I believe that when all of these components are put together, employees can create an incredible company! That environment doesn’t come without deploying the right support and tools. We are highly attuned to thinking about ways to improve and what types of technology would best serve the demands of our culture framework. We recently launched a peer-to- peer recognition platform and a health and wellness platform as we have noticed the trend that people started focusing on ensuring a positive quality of life and are paying much closer attention to their health and wellness.

As an example of our commitment, last year, we held 42 employee sessions which included several topics related to cultivating awareness and appreciation among employees for the experiences of people from backgrounds that are different from their own. These sessions have had great employee participation, and I am so proud of the members of this council for their dedication to sharing the voices and experiences of others. In 2022, TransAlta launched indigenous awareness training for employees in Canada and had 100% employee participation, and we will be having our employees in the United States and Australia participate in similar training this year. We are also providing mental health and wellness training to all of our leaders as we see the importance of creating space for this discussion, especially post-COVID where employees are wanting employers to pay more attention to their health and wellness.

Furthermore, we have an aspirational goal of reaching 40% female employment in our company by 2030. Currently, we have about 26% female employees working at TransAlta. Our operations team has largely been a male-dominated work force and so it has been more of a challenge to find women to participate in this work. This led us to go out there and find ways to start talking more broadly about women going into operations, which I think is very, very important to do on a trade school level, but we’re also looking at going into junior high in high schools to get young people thinking that you don’t need a university degree to be successful.

To find creative ways to increase women in the field, in 2021 we created a “Women in Trades” scholarship program and I’m quite pleased with the interest in the program as well- we received a high volume of applications to our delight and the recipients have been fantastic.

What, according to you, could be the next significant change in the HR industry, and how is your company TransAlta preparing to build the part of this change?

I think that we are going to see an increased focus on the development of human-centric skills for the next couple of years, particularly soft skills. We will also see more employees retire. Both trends beg the question how to develop employees to both focus on their area of expertise and on their soft skills as a leader to better respond to the changing market dynamics and the future of work between employee and employer, which is now more broadly known as the “lifestyle contract.”

Employers who embrace the lifestyle contract focus on securing employees’ financial, physical, and emotional health and well-being. This approach combines an empathetic and holistic look after its own workforce in turn creating loyalty, commitment, and retention in a time where changing needs and wants drive people’s (employer) choices.

The latter implies that HR will have to look differently at employees: not just as a sum of their experience and goals reached but more holistically and with greater regard for their potential to contribute to other roles within the company, beyond the ones they were initially hired for. Employee retention is an important competitive advantage and this way of looking at how we hire bodes well in terms of retention. It creates deep relationships, builds trust, and reinforces mutual loyalty.

We will all be challenged to apply a broad lens, to pivot and evaluate our own capabilities and application of those capabilities. That will become the new normal. Staying in the same job for long periods of time will no longer be the norm. Thinking in terms of acquiring many transferable skills is the way of the future. We need to think about ways that we can use our employees cross-functionally. It is no longer just about professional credentials, but how the combination of their unique composition of skills, soft skills, background, and experience can help move companies forward. That type of out-of-the-box thinking will be crucial to position employees to deliver their full potential which benefits them, as well as the company.

All this requires buy-in from the executive team and also from your board. Challenging them to support this type of out-of-the-box thinking by citing the intuitive merits of employee retention is key. In large measure this has been my story. It’s long been known that recruitment and on boarding costs for bringing on new employees can be high. But it’s time we take acknowledge the value generated by long-term employees, especially as they move between teams and departments within the company and find ways for them to grow. The benefits of long-serving employees are myriad: the corporate history that employees bring to their roles; the cross pollination in sharing best practices across professional disciplines; the strengthening of connections between teams and individuals; High retention leverages the value of community for the benefit of employees and the company. It’s really quite a compelling approach when you think about it.

Can you offer any parting thoughts for our readers? What would you like to leave them with?

Three things. First, I cannot say enough about how critical the concept of self-awareness is when you are a leader. In parallel, so is applying self-management. If you are curious, open to understanding your biases, your limitations, and you are focused on personal and professional growth, you can really thrive as an employee and leader. Understanding your professional and personal limitations is one thing, but learning how to successfully manage through those limitations, remove fear to grow and thrive is another. The world is in desperate need of strong, effective leaders.

Understanding the parallel paths self-awareness and self-management and how it can have an enormous impact on your development as a leader is critical. But self-aware and self-managing leaders can only take you so far on your culture journey. Teams must also lean into self-awareness and self-management. The sum of all of our behaviours and how we interact day in and day out, build our culture.

Dr. Timothy Clark, the CEO of LeaderFactor, calls everyone “cultural architects” for this reason since their behaviours influence the culture through each of their interactions. We recognize this and view all employees as cultural architects who help to create a more accessible, open workplace by modeling and reinforcing vulnerability, equity, respect, and high performance.

To develop ourselves as cultural architects, we not only need to have the ability to possess that high level of self-awareness and self-management, but we must also demonstrate a willingness to do things differently, in better ways and more inclusively. This is also where psychological safety comes into play. Cultural architects practice cultural accountability by modelling and rewarding vulnerability and that, in turn, means co- developing a work environment that creates the right climate, mindsets and behaviors of individuals and teams.

Feeling free to challenge views regardless of rank and push each other’s thinking for the best solution is critical in a highly competitive industry. Psychological safety enhances the resilience and flexibility of teams letting them focus their energies on teamwork and results, not fear.

Today, leaders must completely understand and incorporate these principles into what good leadership looks like. Second, once we start understanding and leaning into the concept that all people are equal and we start truly looking at our personal and professional lives through that lens, we will change the nature of the workplace culture and our daily interactions. To really embrace cultural change, inclusion, and innovation and allowing employees to thrive, companies need to seriously think about how they are going to consider and embed these elements this within the context of talent and retention. Employees expect it and companies need to be able to respond. That, to me, is really what the future of work looks like.

Third, we often don’t realize the impact that we have on people by how we behave and what we say. Our words and actions have power. This is especially true when you are in a leadership position, so we are wise to think about how we show up on a daily basis as we become more self-aware, manage our behaviour and course correct where required. Our success in building a culture where employees thrive depends on the strength of our commitment to it and this is demonstrated by holding ourselves accountable.