The HR World speaks to industry leaders about their careers and life – what advice would they pass on and what wisdom brought them to where they are now.
“Data is everything. It helps you shape a factual story in order to influence business leaders on people initiatives, which can improve retention of securing new talent. That’s what makes HR so valuable and exciting right now.”
1. Working and studying at the same time can be gamechanging.
I got my first taste of HR at PWC when I was 21 after I’d completed a Diploma in IT. I realised I had a real passion for the people subjects on my course, so decided I’d do a degree in HRM. Sharon Vize, now HR Director at Cpl Resources, who was the HR Director at PWC said to me: “You’re 21, why don’t you work for us and study at the same time?” It was a no brainer as it meant I had real life experiences to tie into my studies. During those three years I became more focused and disciplined in my approach to my studies, work, life and made the transition into adulthood.
2. Try to remain calm and ‘think duck’.
This is advice I would give my younger self – as well as trying to enjoy life and relax more. There will always be deadlines and people crises that HR has to resolve. Putting out fires where you really want to scream or get people to do what you want is a real skill in HR. But you will get through those challenges and they will help you be a better HR practitioner. A colleague, who I respect greatly, Conor McCarthy, Head of Emerging Markets at Indeed, once said: “You always seem calm in stressful situation.” However, like a duck, under the surface I’m paddling like mad (my secret is out now!).
3. Data is everything.
The moment I found out how technology worked it felt a bit like the ending of The Matrix! When I looked into a HR system, I could see how to pull apart the data. Possibly a bit earlier than my peers, I realised that the stories that were in there were real and insightful. Data helps you shape a factual story in order to influence business leaders on people initiatives, which can improve retention of securing new talent. All of this can have a huge impact on a company’s ability to achieve its strategic aims – that’s what makes HR so valuable and exciting right now.
4. Being yourself is enough.
When I started out conducting disciplinaries or trade union negotiations I was more nervous than the individuals sitting in front of me. I was always trying to mimic approach I’d read from management books. Once again, I was lucky in my career to have a boss who became a mentor. Ray Comerford, now HR Director at Eurofound, encouraged me to understand myself as a professional. He assigned me strength projects, gave me space to fail. On one occasion he asked me to lead negotiations with a trade union about implementing a new system. He accompanied me to the meeting and things didn’t go to plan. Afterward, he asked what I would do differently. I said I should have been more forceful and direct. However, Ray provided me with the clearest piece of feedback. He said: “I didn’t recognise the man leading the negotiations. You weren’t yourself.” Ray set up a follow up meeting and encouraged me to be myself – use data and storytelling to help you bring everyone onboard. The 2nd meeting was a success for everyone.
5. Gaining self-awareness is a great side effect of working in HR.
One of the best, yet often acknowledged, things about a career in HR is how understanding of yourself you gain and how that helps you grow. Once you’ve been through the firewall a few times you learn a lot about who you are and that creates a much better understanding of other humans, how they feel during the tough times and the good.
6. Treat people like adults and they will act like them.
People will make mistakes in their career, however, if you treat individuals with respect those difficult conversations can be made easier for everyone. As Michelle Obama said: “When they go low, we go high.”
7. Talk about your frustrations and your mistakes.
I make mistakes every day, it’s part of being human. This is a point I make to people who report to me. I encourage them to be open and honest about their mistakes and look at it as a learning. The same with frustrations. A main frustration of mine is winning over colleagues to make decisions around data. At times, there can be assumptions about what we think the employees want or need, however, when we dig into what an engagement survey, social media responses, or attrition data a very different story can emerge. With this information HR can design a strategy which will positively impact the business. I’m consistent in raising these issues.
8. Language is important.
I’ve had the privilege to work with people from across the globe. It’s exciting and broadens your knowledge of people and the world too. It has taught me to be more aware of my communication style when speaking to individuals or a wider audience. My Irish sense of humour or colloquial terms may not translate into an international audience. If you are not understood how you communicate effectively with people? This becomes incredibly important and leaders need to be aware of how language can affect people, not just an individual’s experience of the working environment but the how the whole culture can suffer because of a breakdown in understanding.
9. HR needs to reflect human-ness.
Technology in HR and in the workplace doesn’t mean less human contact or group interaction. People should always be our main focus, but this can be easy to lose sight of this in the busy-ness of business. When rolling out a HR initiative I like to gather a number of employees together to road test the initiative to make sure it is human in its approach – is it what the employees want or need? Those session are always so much fun as the approach is collaborative and the positive energy ensure the end result delivers on what our human needs are in the workplace, which is the important factor.
10. Take a break when you need to.
I’m acutely aware of what stress or anxiety can do to your mental health, so I’ve tried hard to help people in the business understand what that stress means to them as an individual and how to handle it. Research by GSK shows the scale of the problem for adults in Ireland. HR leaders have key role to play in this and alongside the business focus on how to provide a safe working environment for people to have honest conversations about their mental health problems. I’ve personally taken time off and it’s made me a much better colleague and person to be around. I had a supportive manager and colleagues which greatly helped me speaking about my challenges, which in hope in turn has helped others.
- Barry Hughes, senior HR Leader and senior HRBP for Ireland and the UK at Indeed.