Meet Hugh O’Brien, our HR Leader of the Month for February
Principal Connections, the Irish Arm of Agilium Worldwide Executive Search Group is delighted to announce the launch of our new monthly interview series. The ‘HR Leaders Series’ will be Ireland’s only interview series dedicated to profiling the importance of the HR Function through the insights of Ireland’s Top HR Leaders.
Hugh O’Brien is Principal Connections HR Leader of the Month for February. Over the past 20+ years’, Hugh has held senior HR leadership positions with companies including – Virgin Media, Danone, Prudential Assurance and IT Alliance. Latterly, Hugh was HR Director for eir before founding HR Business Solutions provider, HBS Ireland.
Q. Tell us a little bit about Hugh O’Brien the person, and of course, the professional?
Born in Dublin, graduated from UCD, started my career with M&S in the UK, and worked with Prudential International, Virgin Media, Danone and eircom, married to a very patient and understanding wife, with two great kids who make everything worthwhile. I have worked in Human Resources for 20+ years, and seen many fads come and go, but the one thing that has remained constant, the importance of attracting, retaining and developing talent. I have a very simple philosophy in life, work hard with integrity, challenge orthodoxies, do some good, and create fun rather than chaos.
Q. Describe your company?
HBS Ireland is a boutique people consulting business that helps organisations grow, save money and innovate through their people. We work with medium size business and government organisations in Ireland.
Q. What do you see as the key challenges you face in your current role?
Challenging orthodoxies is never easy, convincing managers to radically change how they and their organisations perceive and manage their employees. Managers become very comfortable with the status quo, adapting to a new way of working is never simple, it means being brave, and having the perseverance to see change through to the end. Managers can be distracted trying to keep on top of so many market and business dynamics that they fear what will happen if they take out to consider and look forward to creating a different work environment.
Q. What in your opinion are the key characteristics of your top performing people?
The top performing managers have failed often. I honestly believe one has to fail often to be truly successful, as innovation and being different has never been an easy path. A life full of challenges, failures and wins builds a balanced character, a leader that has the combined ability and drive to succeed when others give up, but also the self-awareness to be compassionate, and to see peoples’ strengths rather than just their flaws. To succeed one has to be able to build a diverse team of people who share a common purpose and a common set of ethical behaviours. I think success at any cost is short lived.
Q. What or where do you believe the biggest advances in human resources will be over the next five years?
The biggest advances in HR will only happen when we stop doing some of the things we are persisting with right now, even though we know they are broken.
Mobile is everything, organisations will be communicating messages and transacting key people processes, such as holiday leave etc. by mobile phone apps as the norm. E-mail and internal intranet sites will be redundant, as the LinkedIn/Facebook for corporations will become the norm. Employers will have less control over what employees say, as employee power becomes greater.
Social Network Employee Groups will become the new power brokers, and trade unions and professional bodies will have to play catch up. Employers will have to gauge and respond to diverse collectives of employees, who can organise and respond faster than ever before. Dealing with organised workforces will no longer be the preserve of traditional organisations and government agencies. New tech companies will feel the impact of the new social collective workforce, the recent class actions against new big tech companies have been a precursor.
Employee Surveys will no longer count. Mammoth employee engagement surveys, which take many months to complete, at great cost, will be replaced by real-time employee experience checks. Don’t be surprised if you see the happy face buttons at your local supermarket in your place of work, to gauge the employee experience that day. Organisations will want real-time live feeds on how their employees are feeling, and what their reaction is to changes in the internal and external ecosystems.
Cultural Values will be replaced by Cultural Ethics. If you check the website of all the organisations whose brand has been destroyed through bad business behaviour, you will find they had extremely well-scripted Company Values. However they meant nothing, and created a great pretence. Legislators and Board Members will start to insist on higher standards of business or cultural ethics, based on industry and societal norms of behaviour. The flamboyant script writers and marketers will be no more. Grass roots employees will start demanding a higher standard of adherence to cultural ethics, calling out and holding managers to account.
People Analytics will prove how detrimental bad data is. Organisations will change how and what people data is being collected, softer data will be the new vogue, innate capabilities, personality traits, career preferences, lifestyle choices and emotional wellness. Understanding employee capability, thinking and preferences will be the new measures. But the real shocker for employers, employees will have real time access to all their personal data.
Performance Management is already dead, but we keep reviving it. We will see more and more organisations moving to a coaching and mentoring paradigm, rather than a scoring assessment of historical activities. People managers will spend more time guiding and facilitating their people to succeed going forward, with a focus on developing capabilities needed in the future. Do not be surprised if HR people are replaced by occupational psychologists to help coach talent.
Q. How important are health and well-being initiatives in your employment strategy?
We have to stop managing absence and start supporting our people. We have only taken the first step towards an era where the health and well-being of employees is truly understood and practiced. People are starting to see beyond the hype of click bait employee wellness. It’s not about freebies and gimmicks. Organisations will be judged by employees on how they support people with real life challenges, physical and mental health, relationship and family issues, financial wellness and difficult life choices. Organisations have to create a portfolio of coping strategies for the real life challenges that their people experience. The new employment contract will be negotiated around balancing work and lifestyle choices, flexibility, remote working, term time and part-time working, getting the job done rather than tethered to the office. Organisations that can be brave and radical in this area will engage the best talent.
Q. In your opinion what is required to have a top career as a Human Resources Director?
To be a top Human Resources Director, one needs to be commercially adept and have strong emotional intelligence. Life experiences, especially the bad ones, makes one not only stronger but more compassionate. It’s no longer good enough to have values, or talk about values. One needs to have strong ethics, in his or her personal and business life, and the strength to call it when it’s just plain wrong. One has to also challenge his or her own thinking, push beyond the comfort zone and be innovative, brave and try new things.
Q. What keeps you motivated day to day?
First and foremost, my family. They keep me grounded. Fortunately or unfortunately, I’m a very competitive person. I’m always seeking better ways to design, develop and implement people solutions that surpass the organisational requirements. It’s an addiction!
Q. What is your proudest career achievement to date?
Championing and driving the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender ( LGBT) agenda in a large traditional organisation. So many of my work colleagues didn’t feel safe being who they really were. Once we got the Board, CxO’s, Management and employee commitment, it worked. We had some very strong objections, and a healthy dose of cynicism, but doing the right thing is never easy. Thankfully the organisation is a different place now for the LGBT community.
Q. Who inspires you professionally?
First place goes to Dr. Stephen R. Covey for his book “7 Habits of Highly Effective People”. If you haven’t read it, please buy it and read it. It’s a great way to help balance your private life and a successful career, and how to understand the people around you. Second place, is a little more academic, Jay Galbraith, for his work on organisational design, as a sociologist, and a fan of systems theory approach. His approach works for me every time. And last but not least, Maya Angelou “My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style”.
Q. How do you stay current?
Social Media and the internet have changed radically how we can keep current. However, we need a bigger filter these days to weed out the click bait. Harvard Business Review is still one of the best sources for quality current thinking. However, I don’t just read HR items, it can be quite repetitive and the “new way” is often the old way with new clothes. I prefer to read what is happening in customer experience, social media, marketing, new technology, product design and innovation, and learn how I can apply these to people solutions. I am a big fan of the ‘HR Directors Dinner Forum’ in Ireland, and it’s a great way to network and listen to what is happening in the general market. Ireland has many international corporations here so it’s a great way to get a global perspective.
About Principal Connections
Principal Connections is Ireland’s leading Executive Recruitment Agency and Leadership Consulting Firm and the Irish Arm of Agilium Worldwide Executive Recruitment Group, one of the World’s largest and foremost Executive Recruitment Organisations.