Ruth Geraghty, Human Resources Director, Principal Connections’ HR Leader of the Month for June 2019
Q. THE CAREER & THE PERSON Describe your career journey and tell us about Ruth Geraghty the person?
For the first 15 years of my career I worked with IDA Ireland in various roles. During this time, I was very involved in the trade union committee and spent my last 6 years as the full-time union representative of the staff of the IDA – a post that was funded by the IDA itself. During my time in this role I developed my interest in Human Resource Management and went back to college to study Management and Industrial Relations.
I soon joined RTE as an Employee Relations Executive and I spent the subsequent 5 years working in various HR management roles. I then moved into the private sector and held HR Business Partner and Manager roles in companies such as ALSTOM Ireland (Luas Project), Marks and Spencer, Superquinn and Aer Rianta International (ARI).
For the last four and a half years I have worked as the Group HR Director for the Aura Holohan Group, Ireland’s largest leisure management operator. I also manage the internal communications function for the business.
On the personal front, I’m originally from Dublin and now live in Wicklow with my husband Andy and our two dogs.
Q. THE COMPANY Describe your current company?
The Aura Holohan Group of companies comprises Aura Leisure, Anytime Fitness and Holohan Leisure Consultancy. The company has been in existence for over 30 years and operates across 14 locations around Ireland. We operate 11 leisure centres (gyms and swimming pools) around the country on behalf of our clients, which are predominantly local authorities. We also operate the Anytime Fitness franchise in the Republic of Ireland, one of the world’s largest 24-hour gym brands, and we will soon be opening our third Anytime Fitness 24-hour gym in Clondalkin, Dublin.
The company’s mission is to improve the health and well-being of our nation through exercise, sport and active lifestyles, a topic that is becoming more and more relevant to each of us in this busy, stressful world where obesity is now at a point of crisis. Each year the company teaches over 10,000 people to swim and helps thousands of people to improve their health and well-being. As a business we are very fortunate to have people who are passionate about their chosen career, whether it be as a Swim Teacher, Fitness Instructor, Lifeguard etc. In the last year we have also opened our own Teaching Academy where we train and certify people in leisure industry disciplines such as Swim Teaching, Life-guarding and in other leisure management qualifications.
The business places a huge focus on high standards and quality of customer service. We manage community-based facilities and therefore our focus is on the local communities that we serve. Aura Leisure (our main business) is a very low margin business with staff costs being the highest cost in the business. The focus we place on our people and engaging and motivating our teams to deliver their best for our customers is crucial to business success. Customer retention is a challenge generally in our industry and our aim is to ensure that our customers choose to stay with us because of the standards of service provided by our teams.
In late 2015 we embarked on a significant cultural and change management programme that has transformed our company culture. It has also resulted in us being placed in the Great Places to Work Institute listing as one of Ireland top 30 Best Large Places to Work for the last three years running.
From a HR perspective we have developed our own systems and processes for ensuring that we engage and motivate our teams to deliver their best. For example, our award-winning talent management and development programme ‘Aspire’ was developed by a small project team in-house and is unique to our industry. The focus of our Aspire Programme is on individuals taking control of and responsibility for their own development, and of managers providing their teams with a supportive and challenging environment in which to learn and develop.
Our Leadership Programme is also part of the Aspire Programme. In recognising that we are a specialised industry we focus on growing our own leaders, resulting in most promotions to senior leadership positions coming from within the business. This programme also contributes towards us being an employer of choice in our industry.
Q. THE CHALLENGES What do you see as the most important challenges facing HR Leaders today?
In our current environment of nearly full employment I believe that recruiting and retaining great talent is a significant challenge for most employers. Coupled with this, candidates now expect a lot more from their potential employers, and HR leaders need to constantly review and revise the employment offering in order to position their business as the employer of choice. I believe that this is a challenge experienced mainly by SMEs in Ireland, especially in terms of compensation and benefits and alternative/flexible working arrangements offerings. Not every company can offer a great package, but every company needs talented, hard-working, committed employees.
Also, long gone are the days when a job was just a means to an end for most people and this has led to some significant challenges for HR leaders, who need to ensure that their business is equipped to succeed in a constantly changing work environment. It’s all about engaging the hearts and minds of employees and providing them with an environment in which they can grow and develop, in order to retain top talent and maintain that valuable ‘discretionary effort’. I believe that this will continue to be a challenge as the nature of work, careers and work/life balance continues to change.
Q. THE ADVANCES What do you believe the biggest advances in human resources will be over the next five years?
I believe that technology will continue to play a vital role in the HR profession in the next 5 years, especially in relation to data analytics and reporting, and in the field of learning and development.
Also, as a profession we HR practitioners have made great strides in shifting the general view of the HR function towards being a key strategic partnering function in business, and not the previous perception of HR just being the reactionary ‘people police’. In my earlier career as a HR Manager I remember my role being described by my Finance counterpart as a ‘non-productive overhead’ which was technically correct from his financial perspective, but a source of consternation for me at the time.
While things have very much moved on since then and the perception and value of the HR function has changed significantly there are still many companies in Ireland that do not have HR representation at Board level. Therefore, I hope that the next 5 years will see a continuing positive shift towards valuing the HR function as a key strategic contributor and influencer in any business.
Q. THE ADVICE What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve ever received?
When I was working in RTE a very wise colleague told me never to change who I am while I’m at work. He was encouraging me to bring my own personality to my work and be true to my own personal values at work. I took this advice and have found that my working life is so much more enjoyable as a result. We spend so much of our lives at work so it’s important that the work we do is fulfilling and enjoyable and the environment we work in is one that allows us to be ourselves and to thrive.
Q. THE MOTIVATION What keeps you motivated day to day?
I thoroughly enjoy the variety in my job and love the sense of achievement when a strategic project comes to fruition or a problem or issue is resolved. HR is a profession that calls on a huge variety of different skills to be brought to bear, whether they are creative and innovative or situations that just require a practical, logical, common sense approach. I love the challenge of utilising such a wide variety of skills every day.
Q. THE ACHIEVEMENT What has been your proudest career achievement to date?
I am extremely proud to lead a Great Places to Work programme that has resulted in Aura Houlihan being placed in the Top 30 Best Large Places to Work listing three years in a row and improving our placing on the listing each year to our current position of number 17. This is mainly based on a staff survey and therefore it is the ultimate endorsement of our company’s culture. This has been achieved in a company with very tight margins and limited resources to invest in the programme. We achieved this by listening, collaborating and acting on each year’s survey results to build trust and by the genuine application of the adage of ‘putting our people first’. In achieving this culture change we are better positioned to deliver the best possible service to our customers.
Q. THE INSPIRATION Who inspires you professionally?
I’ve been very lucky in my career so far to have worked with many people who have inspired me. In general, I tend to be inspired by people who demonstrate a passion for what they do, no matter what their career is.
Q. THE STAYING CURRENT How do you stay up to date?
I subscribe to forums such as LinkedIn and I read a lot of articles, including decisions and determinations of the WRC. I also try to attend as many seminars and conferences as possible.
Q. THE DOWNTIME Tell us about your interests and how you relax?
I enjoy walking the dogs and have also recently discovered yin yoga. For me it’s the perfect way to relax during a busy week. I also love gardening and reading and I really enjoy a good film. I enjoy being out in the fresh air spending time in our wonderful countryside and along the coastline, and I also like to travel abroad.
Thank you Ruth Geraghty for your participation in our HR Leaders Series.
ABOUT AURA HOLOHAN GROUP
The Aura Holohan Group is made up of:
- Holohan Leisure – Sports & Leisure Consultancy
- Holohan Architects – Sports & Leisure Architecture
- Holohan Events – Major Event Management
- Aura Sport and Leisure Management – Facility Management
Services range from strategic leisure planning to feasibility studies; development of business plans to project management; facility design to event design; construction of a new building to conservation and refurbishment of an existing building; event management to operational facility management.
ABOUT PRINCIPAL CONNECTIONS
Principal Connections is Ireland’s leading retained executive search agency and the only Irish Member Firm of Agilium Worldwide Executive Search Group, one the world’s largest, oldest and premier global executive search and headhunting firms. Together with our colleagues across 55 Offices in 30 Countries, each year we complete in excess of 1300 Assignments within most Major Industries and Functional Areas.
For many years, Principal Connections has advised on the most influential senior, executive and board appointments that have emerged within Irish business. Organisations of all shapes and sizes from all over Ireland (Dublin, Cork, Galway, Limerick, Belfast etc.) refer to us when it matters most, to solve their most important executive search and leadership consulting and assessment challenges.