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.
“You’re better off not asking people’s opinion at all if you’re not going to take it seriously” - Orlagh Hunt, founder of Human Leadership Consulting
1. Good training can change your life.
I did a degree in law which wasn’t for me and ended up in business starting with a job in Matalan – and being in the right place at the right time meant I became general manager of a store at the age of 22. After winging it for a year I realised I needed to get some training and found an incredible programme at Tesco which was fantastic, giving a very good grounding in core disciplines. Again, I was lucky in being in this position at a really exciting time for the company. They were integrating William Low into their business, so I was sent to work in Scotland with the young dynamic team who were driving the change. It was around this time I realised this was what I wanted to be doing. Everything was to play for and they were up for trying new things and from that I got my first proper job.
2. If you knock your head against a brick wall you get a headache.
Knowing when the game is up for you is a great piece of self-awareness to cultivate. I have worked through many challenging experiences and have developed an internal ticker that allows me to understand where I am best placed to put my energy, sometimes you need to recognise that a boss or organisation is not ready or right for your brand of fabulous!
3. You’re better off not asking people’s opinion at all if you’re not going to take it seriously.
Being serious about change means that leadership has to take full ownership of it and if an engagement programme is activated then taking action on the results is the most critical thing. There’s nothing more demotivating for a workforce than asking them to get involved in a creative process and then closing it down or failing to act on feedback.
4. Politically motivated boardrooms get toxic pretty quickly.
People really show themselves when they are given a bit of power and if not handled properly companies can develop a toxic culture of game playing where it’s more important to be seen to do or say the right thing than to make the tough decisions that are the right thing for the people or the company.
5. When it came to people’s potential, my Dad was right about everything.
My Dad was a teacher and then a headmaster and he came from a school of education where he saw his role as finding the brilliance in everyone. He helped people who would normally have been lost in the system and believed in them when other people didn’t. I take that into any organisation I work with, I want to be catalyst for unlocking peoples magic. It’s really important to me that when I get home at night, I know that I’ve made a difference.
6. Creating an exceptional team is a bit of an art form.
One of the highlights of my career was when I moved to AXA as Head of HR. At the time (around 2000) there were major changes being made to financial services. In the new role, I could pick my own team for the first time, which allowed me to choose and blend the team with a combination of new talent and folks who had been there for a period of time. We really believed in the changes we were making and had a real feeling of our mission. We put in some long hours and my role was to set the team up for success. My top tips are to hire people who think and do things differently to you, the magic is in blending each individual’s different talents to do things together that individually wouldn’t have been possible.
7. It takes about five years for company-wide cultural change to be truly embedded in a large organisation.
When I moved on to RSA it was disappointing that, while so much of what we achieved at AXA had really embedded, some of the things just didn’t stick. I’ve since realised that for things to really take hold in a culture it takes about five years before its sustainably part of the business DNA and not dependent on any single individual to drive it.
8. Having children as a working woman means you have to be more honest about what you want and need.
There was a lot of travel in the RSA job. You’d go to Asia one week, Europe the next. Toward the end of that time I went on maternity leave and had my eldest. It was a strange process and I went back to work around five months after having him. A new job came up and there was an opportunity to take on an even bigger role. At first, I laughed as it felt like a miracle I could get washed and dressed in the morning and you’re asking me if I want a bigger job? But there was a moment there when I thought “just breathe”. I asked for some professional advice and we talked it through. Her advice which was so true was that the more senior you go the more control you have. I asked myself what would I need to make this job manageable and on what terms would I take it? I put these all down and decided to go for it, making sure that when I was in the interview process, they knew what they would be getting and the things I would need to change.
9. HR has the power to change the future of whole companies.
I had been based in the UK for my career and during my 20s my parents were always sending me jobs in Dublin, but I wasn’t interested. As I reached my late 30s, I started to look in London but also Dublin and when I got offered a job with Allied Irish Bank, I took it. There was a general lack of trust in banking in Ireland because of the recession and so my parents conversely said don’t do it! There were a lot of issues to deal with in banking in Ireland because of the recession and so my parents conversely said don’t do it! There were a lot of issues to deal with but, never a woman to give up, I got stuck in with the rest of the team and the results speak for themselves. We did the first survey on Gallup and were at the fifth percentile which is a horrendous place to be but within 2.5 years we were at the 47th percentile and the bank had returned to profitability and was modernising.
10. When life changes you change with it.
This time in my life was one of change. The CEO in the company moved on and then my Dad got sick very suddenly and passed away. I realised I’d been running at full pace for a very long time and I’d been missing out on things without really knowing it. I decided to stop and took a year-long break.I wanted to be a mum that did drop off, took their kids to the park, I took up dance again. As a working mum, I’d not really had a chance to properly cement friends back in Ireland and so I spent time doing that. I realised that gaps in a career are really a good thing. You have to take breathers.