Interview with Orlagh Hunt, HR Director 

An Introduction 

Hi my name is Orla Hunt, I have over 20 years of experience in HR across retail, FMCG and financial services organisations. I mainly work with organisations undergoing significant transformation where I love to help businesses do anything from transforming their commercial performance to accessing the capability of their people.

How did your HR career begin?

So I spent my first year post university in general management in retail and discovered that I loved working with people. This made me think about going into personnel and training. I joined the Tesco graduate management training scheme which was an amazing foundation. I have been lucky enough to love what I do and progress through increasingly senior roles in lots of different sectors helping organisations to help their people flourish.

What makes a great HR career path?

I have a deeply held belief that it is possible for individuals to flourish within organisations and I think that HR can play a really critical role in helping to create the climate and conditions that make that happen. I think that’s fundamentally about having the right leaders leading in the right way in the organisation and so that’s the kind of work I’ve sought to do through different sectors. I think its really important to work for great bosses who believe in the possibilities for the people in that organisation and I’ve been lucky enough to do that in increasingly senior roles across a number of countries. I’ve never had a formal career path. I loved doing what I did so I’ve maybe looked at my bosses job and though that looked interesting and over time that’s evolved to me being the group HR director at RSA and more recently the chief people officer at AIB.

What are your major successes so far?

So I’ve been part of two major turn arounds both at RSA and AIB. Both were making significant losses. In RSA for the business to continue it needed radical amounts of capital added and when I joined AIB it was 99.8% state owned, it doesn’t get much more state owned than that. I came in to the management team with a very clear plan to turn around that business performance, and we did so successfully in both cases. In RSA we went from stabilising the business to then looking at organic growth. We managed to grow 8% on average over the time year on year that I was there so very significant turnarounds and all done by assessing the quality of the people that worked within the organisations. It was done in a way that was sustainable and involved the organisation not merely the financial turnaround.

How would your employees describe you?

Well I’ve had the benefit of lots of 360 over the years, the gifts of feedback, and am generally described as somebody who likes building diverse and passionate teams. I am very clear about a vision and where I want to go and I see that as my role to instil passion and belief in the team who work for me and then give them freedom to work their magic. I’m not someone who likes to micro manage the details, I believe that that’s the gift those folks have come in to bring. I’m hugely driven, always optimistic, I can always see a path to get through no matter how dark the day, there’s always a way to get things done. I hopefully inspire people and I’m quite irreverent so we normally have a laugh along the way.

What three upcoming business challenges would you say HR professionals face?

So I think there are lots of business challenges. In traditional industries there’s the threat coming in from data driven new organisations who are looking to come in and eat the lunches of insurance companies and banks using data, something like Air BNB coming in from no where and suddenly being bigger than classic hotel chains. These group organisations are described as exponential which I think are big challenges to the traditional sectors and working out how you can respond to that and create that more agile culture and leadership is going to be a big opportunity for traditional businesses. I think the level of political instability and how businesses respond to that and see it is a challenge. And having a very diverse workforce. You’re going to have multiple generations that we need to appeal to with us all needing to work longer. Unfortunately my dream of retiring to the Caribbean at 50 is just a dream. We need to create employment opportunities which are interesting, whether you are a millennial entering the work force or a baby boomer looking to work part-time and continue to earn for longer.

How will HR help address these challenges?

Well I think that at the heart there’s going to be a talent and capability question that comes up so we’re all going to be competing for the folks who are able to work in this data driven way and analytics is a talent pool that is very shallow. Are you going to work for a traditional bank or for google? This makes for very significant challenges but I think on a more macro level the leadership climate that you need to be able to create where you’re trying to have a more agile organisation is a big challenge if you’ve grown up with a different leadership mind set. And that’s going to be required whether you’re looking at dealing with economic conditions that are changing very quickly, if you’re looking at dealing with multiple age groups with this organisation, or operating in an expediential world where resources are outside of the organisation as well as in where you’re looking at things like crowd sourcing solutions. So that way of accessing the capability of those that exist outside the organisation is a very different leadership mind set. I think some really kick ass HR functions that can create that climate and can inspire leaders to function in that way will be massively important to the organisations that they work in. I firmly believe that chief execs get the HR Director that they deserve.

How can businesses make the most of HR?

So I think its about creating a platform where the business and people strategies are absolutely aligned. And here the chief exec and leadership team are active sponsors of the people agenda. Creating sustainable culture is part of creating sustainable businesses. It’s not something you want to do as two separate pieces. I’ve worked with very different characters over my career but the most enjoyable times have been when I’ve been in a partnership with a chief exec or a head of function and you’re absolutely side by side creating change and your people are with you. So I think that that’s at the root of it.

What are the challenges of recruitment and talent acquisition?

I think that there’s a challenge which is making sure that you’re accessing all the capability that exists within organisations. So, I think that’s the first role of a leader when they inherit a team is to truly look deeply at the individuals within that team and get what it is that they can bring because people may be being boxed into a smaller box under a job title. So as you arrive into a team understanding what capability truly exists and what magic you could set free within that team and then look at where there are gaps and where are the people that maybe aren’t doing as good a job as I might want then they can be coached to be better or move on. Then look at where else can I get that capability and having a mind set of kind of a talent scout whether that’s within the broader organisation or outside. Always knowing where the best people with particular skills are. As I said there are going to be people with rare skills who lots of people are competing for so having that talent scout mind set throughout the organisation both within the HR function and much more generally across the board where leaders see that as something they are trying to do to get the best talent for their organisation. Football managers are out scouting all the time to find the best people, they aren’t relying on the people whose job it is to look at that solely.

What are your thoughts on flexible working?

I think it’s a no brainer. I think if we’re all going to be working until we’re seventy then we need different working patterns for different times in our lives. Whether that’s about your interests in your twenties, being knackered and having young kids in your thirties and in your forties potentially looking after aging parents. There are lots of points in our careers when we need to be able to work in a way that measures the output. The bosses I’ve worked for have generally been great about that. I have a young family and because I get lots done they are less concerned about the time when I’m not there and I can have flexibility to be at school sports days. This matters enormously to me so then they get huge amounts back from me in return because of that flexibility and that’s how I seek to lead. I encourage people to pursue their interests because that means in the hours that they’re working for me they are going to be truly energised. So when you’ve got a career which is going to last much longer that it used to its important that we have can dip in and out of it. You’re dead in the water if that’s not how you operate.

Should FTSE 100’s have a female board quota?

I think lots of women are against quotas but in order to face change we either wait a hundred years and hope that natural selection sorts things out or we force it whether its by quotas or targets. I personally think if you’re going to force change there must be some level of support for that. It stands to reason that a more diverse group of people will be better representatives of the customers you’re serving. I’m a big fan of diversity and inclusion. It should be that everyone flourishes within an organisation and everyone brings all of themselves to work. If you create that climate then ultimately you will make better business decisions and there’s lots of data that supports that.

What are your future career goals and objectives?

In terms of my next phase, I’ve been in big corporate HR roles for the last twenty years and I’m now experimenting with going out on my own and looking at how I might help a broader range of organisations with the kind of change and transformation leadership challenges they are facing rather than just one. The hope is that this will also help with me having increasing time with my young family.

What would your advice be for new and aspiring HR Directors?

My advice for people starting out is that its important to have a good grounding in all of the disciplines, as you get more advanced in your career things will become increasingly more important which maybe weren’t at the start of your career. Build great relationships, ultimately we’re a people business so make sure you have strong relationships across the business and make sure you know what changes are actually landing well and which are just rhetoric. I think part of that is your role as coach for the leaders you support and being willing to say when things are working or when their behaviours aren’t good. Be prepared to be the smelly kid in the corner when they don’t like your feedback. And believe in possibilities. We have such a great opportunity in HR to believe in what is possible for that organisation and the people who work there so holding on to that optimism and hope regardless of some of the stuff that’s going on day to day. Ploughing that future and making sure we know what we’re aiming for, that’s how to make that work. Love what you do because it’s a lot easier to commit in work when you love what you do.