Introducing Tanya Sinclair, CHRE – Winner of the Prestigious HRPA Distinguished HR Professional Award for 2020

Author(s): Talia Speigel

We’re thrilled to profile Tanya Sinclair, winner of the HRPA’s Distinguished HR Professional Award. Ms. Sinclair, the Chief People Officer of Artscape, received the award for her lifelong commitment to learning and for her leadership in building healthy workplaces, which centered around increased learning opportunities and wellness initiatives for employees.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I’m celebrating 20 years in HR this year! I’m also very much an advocate for voices that are not heard, in everything that I do. We spend so much time in our workplaces that it would be a shame if we couldn’t make them more equitable and enjoyable places to be. While I’m “HR to the core,” my thirst for learning means I never stop growing.

I haven’t always lived in Canada. My father and I immigrated here from Jamaica when I was a young child. The experience of moving from one country to another has really helped me as a leader to have more empathy and understanding, to put myself in other people’s shoes knowing that things were not always as straightforward and easy for me in the past as they are today.

Coming to Canada from an English-speaking country but with an accent that was perceived as different was difficult. I dealt with some racism, especially as I lived in a province where there weren’t many people who looked like me and my family – to the extent that if you saw another Black person, you waved!

My father worked in accounting and bookkeeping for a large organization in Jamaica. In Canada, he served our country faithfully in the Canadian Armed Forces in WWII. After the war he had difficulty finding the same type of employment in Canada that he had in Jamaica. He worked as a janitor. His example taught me that it’s not the title you hold; it is how you do your work. My father wore his janitorial uniform like it was a three-piece suit. I always carry with me his example of taking pride in whatever it is you do and having the confidence not to let others define you. These were foundational lessons that I draw on in my work, my volunteer work, and in the community.

What did receiving the Distinguished HR Professional Award mean to you?

Receiving the award and being the first Black woman to receive it was very meaningful, such an honor. Just last week I had someone say to me, “Tanya, I am so pleased to meet you! I was sitting in the HRPA conference with thousands of people last year. I saw a confident Black woman in her natural hair wearing a fuchsia suit get up on stage to receive the Distinguished HR Professional Award when there were hardly any of us [Black women] in the audience!” Oh my goodness, to think that getting the award meant something to younger HR professionals means a lot to me. To have them see “that could be me.” People coming up to me and saying, “I don’t know you, but I am so proud of you.” Wow! It is so meaningful when you can see and celebrate the accomplishments of others together. I know I feel that way when others share their achievements, and now it is my turn.

Representation matters.

How did you get your start in HR?

I started out in Sales but didn’t really feel it was my calling. A colleague suggested I think about HR, as it is a career where you still connect with people but in a different way. I took night classes leveraging our amazing tuition reimbursement program, and that was the start of my HR career. My first course was Organizational Behavior and I loved it! It was so great to see the influence we can have in the workplace to do good.

As soon as I finished my HR program, I applied to an HR manager role and landed it! I recognize that this is an unusual path to HR Manager, as I didn’t have to work my way up to manager within the HR stream, but I had extensive management experience outside of HR. I’ve made some deliberate choices over the years to work in different industries. I make a point to be watchful of what worked and what didn’t work. All of that helped me continue to grow and learn.

My approach has been to “be the job before I got the job,” gladly taking on stretch assignments and doing more than was expected because of my thirst for learning. I worked double-time. As a result, I rarely had to apply for promotions: usually promotions were offered to me because I was already doing the role.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Be open minded about who can mentor and sponsor you. It is ok if they don’t look like you; they just have to believe in you.

I spent a lot of time as a Black woman searching for a Black mentor. There are so few Black women in my profession in senior leadership roles, and they’re busy! I was sponsored by two women who didn’t look like me but who invested in me and were in places that could open doors for me. I didn’t realize there were gifts in front of me until later on when I looked back and was able to identify it.

Reach out and connect with people with different skill sets as your own personal board of directors. Don’t sit and wait for it to come to you.

As an HR professional and a woman of color, how do you take care of yourself?

That is so important! To be honest, that is something I didn’t pay enough attention to until about three years ago. I felt I had to work double-time to get the same recognition. It’s an energy thing; it can leave you empty.

While I’ve figured out that self-care is key, it is still something I have to work at pushing to the forefront. Before the pandemic, I played volleyball. It was a great combination of exercise and social time where I could put work and troubles aside. Since the pandemic, I’ve gotten into art therapy: a little bit of drawing, painting, and adult coloring. It is not about being good! It is about creating.

I also think it is important to have one or two venting sisters you trust to let you get it all out, knowing that you will be heard in confidence and without judgement.

What fuels you?

I truly respect and am inspired by people who are really trying to make a difference in any way, large or small. Take Inclusion Strategist Lily Zheng, for example. She just hits you hard with her boldness and forces you to think. People like her give me a sense of purpose, they make me feel good and want to do more. That’s why last year I founded Black HR Professionals of Canada on LinkedIn to do some targeted support in HR through networking.

What I feel good about lately is feeling “I got this” when facing a particular challenge, even though it won’t be easy and may make me a bit anxious.

What books or social media are you into?

I follow Shereen Daniels “The HR Conversationalist” on LinkedIn.

The Pink Elephant by Dr. Janice Gassam Asare is a practical book talking about workplace racism, equity, and organizational behavior.

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