Cathal Esler, HR Leader for December

Executive Search Specialists Principal Connections announce Cathal Esler as HR Leader of the Month for December 2020

Q. THE CAREER Describe your career journey?

Originally from Mayo but living in Galway for almost 20 years, I’ve been a people person and an organiser for as long as I can remember, even back to my secondary school days. Since I entered the world of work I've spent a big part of my career in the Defence Forces serving as an officer in team leadership, training and HR roles both at home, and abroad on overseas service in Africa, the Middle East and the Balkans.

In 2015, and after two decades in uniform, I swapped my uniform for a suit and have since held senior HR roles at Shannon Group plc and now as Director of HR at Ability West in Galway. With a bit of good luck and good health I’m half-way through my working life and I hope that the second act will be as eventful, varied, challenging and invigorating as the first!

Q. THE COMPANY Describe your current organisation?

Ability West is a charity providing services and supports to almost 600 children and adults with intellectual disabilities throughout Galway City and county, as funded by the HSE under Section 39 of the Health Act.

Our services include day, residential, respite, rehabilitative training, supported employment, active ageing, community support and multidisciplinary support services. It’s a very testing sector to work in as invariably we are not funded to the extent we would like to be and there are so many challenges that come with that reality.

Q. THE CHALLENGES What do you see as the most important challenges facing HR Leaders today?

The sourcing and retention of the best talent is something that has always preoccupied people like us. This isn’t going to get easier anytime soon, especially with increasingly expectant employees who look for a more personalised, flexible employment package. I think that the 2020 experience will play a big role in framing this mindset and it has served as an unintended waypoint for people to assess where they’ve come from, where they’re at, and where they want to go.

Q. THE ADVANCES What do you believe the biggest advances in human resources will be over the next five years?

2020 has dragged all of us to an interesting crossroads, regardless of sector. To survive, and hopefully thrive, organisations need to be more focused than ever on business agility. It’s a concept that has been and will be truly tested for the foreseeable future. As HR professionals we will be tasked with supporting the bedrock for agility by developing agile teams, building resilience and positioning the workforce as change-ready. This will inevitably place demands on the people profession and in order to facilitate this quest for agility, HR will possibly have to be the most agile child in the family and the focus of attention, like it or not.

There will be lots of other concurrent challenges in there too such as striving to engage employees, creating conditions where people flourish, and fostering organisational culture in a traditional organisation that now embraces remote working. How will we deliver compelling wellbeing interventions to this future workforce, a key ingredient for organisational success? For most, or all of these new conundrums arising, it’s to the HR department the question is posed.

Q. THE ADVICE What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve ever received?

It’s a simple piece of advice, but one that has served me very well. In my early career an experienced colleague told me to always pause and assess the task or objective presented and to estimate what resources were needed to be successful, rather that focus on the resources given and ‘dive straight in’. I’ve often used that approach, even when it may have been unpopular, as it’s clearly preferable to be equipped to succeed rather than to muddle through a task with optimistic expectancy that you can somehow deliver the required outcome with fewer tools than is required.

That said, there’s a fine line between ‘just enough’ and ‘almost enough’ so one has to develop an instinct for when it’s right to move. Like many HR professionals I don’t think I’ve ever been in the utopian situation where before I set off, I’ve had everything I needed to deliver on expectation. Perfection is a bus that doesn’t collect at every stop!

Q. THE MOTIVATION What keeps you motivated day to day?

I'm always most fulfilled by the experience of seeing others prosper. I guess I garner this from my natural lean towards the L&D side of the HR discipline. It’s most definitely where I get my motivation from. That presents itself in many forms from witnessing someone advance through acquiring a new skill, or even achieve a promotion, or perhaps see them achieve positive feedback on a new way of working from a person they serve. Most people are well disposed to improve themselves and their environment and all they need is the opportunity in the right context. My motivation is to seek out that context and open doors and those opportunities are always present if you look in the right places.

Q. THE ACHIEVEMENT What has been your proudest career achievement to date?

Receiving a presidential commission as an officer in the Defence Forces back in 1995 naturally is right up there in terms of career achievements. In more recent times I was immensely proud to be selected by my peers as Chairperson for CIPD Ireland Western Region and to lead the region’s activities from 2017-19.

Q. THE INSPIRATION Who inspires you professionally?

I’m inspired by strong leaders who walk their talk and occupy the limelight rather than the spotlight. I think that this is a fabulous enabler for leadership success and it brings people with you.

Nelson Mandela was one of the most identifiable of such leaders and one I greatly admire. Others like Warren Buffet continually show great example in humility. Closer to home and in a sporting context, Jim Gavin is a fine example of a leader who saw it as his primary job to set personal example and in so doing create an environment and culture where excellence prospered.

Q. THE PANDEMIC Describe how you have navigated the COVID-19 pandemic personally and professionally?

The difficulties posed by the pandemic have been particularly acute in the sector I work in, providing social care supports to people with intellectual disabilities, some of the most vulnerable people in Irish society. I recall during that weekend in March when the country took a pivotal turn towards lockdown, our first thoughts and efforts at Ability West immediately turned towards how we could we keep our essential services in operation.

The initial days and weeks were characterised by contingency planning with a worst case scenario vision foremost in our outlook. It simply had to be that way as our operations are 24/7/365 and closing our doors is just not an option. Thankfully the approach we took heralded success for the initial Covid-19 wave and we feel well practiced and sufficiently flexible to react to whatever is thrown our way over the coming Winter and Spring.

In my experience the difficulties have very much brought out the best in our people and no ask has ever seemed too much. From a HR perspective the pandemic has effectively seen a resetting of our practice back to the origins of the HR discipline where worker wellbeing is crucial to productivity.

Q. THE STAYING CURRENT How do you stay up to date?

I try to award myself an hour or two every week where I switch into learning mode and jump straight in. This might be via a webinar, which we’ve seen so much more of recently; reading up on some employment law reflections; or even attending an industry event in the pre-pandemic days.

HR professionals must be really disciplined and self-focused in separating out some learning and development time when the conflict is that there is an incessant demand on our availability and time. Every day brings new HR challenges and our world is constantly changing, so staying up to date on latest thinking and best practice is fundamental for success.

Q. THE DOWNTIME Tell us about your interests and how you relax?

Usually that’s not in abundance as my young family invariably have many other plans for my downtime! Getting outdoors, keeping fit and playing golf (badly!) is how I unwind in any spare time I have. Living in Galway city makes things easy as there’s so much to see and do; you’ll never be bored.


Congratulations to Cathal Esler on being named Principal Connections' HR Leader of the Month for December 2020.


Established in 1962, Ability West is a voluntary organisation that provides a wide range of high-quality services to over 580 children and adults with an intellectual disability and autism across Galway City and County. Ability West's services include day, residential, short breaks, community supports, rehabilitative training and multi-disciplinary supports.


Principal Connections are Ireland’s leading retained Executive Search Specialists. With offices in Dublin and Galway in Ireland, we offer five interrelated Talent Acquisition & Advisory Services to Private, Public and Not-For-Profit Organisations across Ireland: Senior Executive Search, Professional Search, Advertised Selection, Senior Interim Management, Board & Non-Executive Director/Chair Recruitment and a comprehensive suite of Leadership Consulting & Assessment Solutions.

Principal Connections is also the Irish Office of Agilium Worldwide Executive Search Specialists. Established in 1984, Agilium Worldwide is one the world’s largest Global Executive Search Specialists. 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 at Senior Management, Executive and Board level.

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