Tristan Aitken, Human Resources Director, Principal Connections’ HR Leader of the Month for August 2019

Q. THE CAREER & THE PERSON Describe your career journey and tell us about Tristan Aitken the person?

I would describe myself as largely a career HR person up until relatively recently. I studied Occupational Psychology first in Glasgow and was advised that the best way of developing a career in that direction was to secure a further qualification in HR. So off I went to complete a full time Masters in HRM, that required an organisational placement. I landed the placement and a job offer at the same time. Soon I was a Personnel Officer in a bustling HR department with HarperCollins Publishers, the publishing wing of News Corporation and so my career in HR started.

Over 20 years on and I have had some amazing experiences around the world. By in large, those that I have enjoyed most have always centred back to Organisational Transformation, be it with downsizing a department or function, company mergers and acquisitions, through to driving ever larger and more complex cultural change programmes. I have worked in manufacturing, distribution, financial services, consulting, FMCG and higher education. I have had the privilege of working with and leading teams in the North and Latin Americas, all around Europe, Russia and Asia Pacific. The scope, scale and variety has been so broadening and rewarding and I have loved almost every day and I feel like I am just getting into my stride. To be able to swing your legs out of bed and feel buoyed up by the challenges of the day ahead is tremendous. It may well be a cliché but find something you love doing and it won’t feel like work. In the last year my career has expanded from being purely HR and I now have more breadth in leading other departments such as legal affairs, safety, insurance, risk and compliance, this has really helped my personal and professional development.

A bit about me… hmm, well, I would like to say I am a positive person, with an energetic approach to work. I really like to make a difference and I am driven by being able to achieve growth, be it in work, or outside. I am focussed on making improvements and not just for the sake of it. I try to get the best blend for whatever organisation I am working with, for both employer and employee and for my teams. I will make decisions using head and then heart. I seek to be clear on what is the right decision for the organisation overlaid with a sense check of does this ‘feel fair’. I like to look at lots of options, consult, collaborate and then once a decision is made move forward at pace…..I have had some feedback on this, sometimes it can feel like I shift from 10mph to 100mph!!!

Q. THE COMPANY Describe your current company?

I have been working with UCD for over 3 years now. UCD is Ireland’s largest and most progressive university and we are really going places. I joined with the mandate of transforming the HR function and the organisation. To develop a change programme that would support the release of the potential of every employee in support of UCD’s ambitions. And I feel looking back now that my team and I have certainly delivered on this. UCD operates out of 5 locations around the world and caters for over 35,000 students and nearly 10,000 employees. We are the fourth largest urban area in Ireland, larger than Drogheda. The variety and complexity of issues that we represent is tremendous and we are heavily constrained by government departments which can certainly bring a few challenges in terms of desired pace. Nevertheless, we have found ways of working collaboratively with all of the complex governance mechanisms that are in place, mostly this is achieved through developing effective working relationships and sometimes just sheer persistence.

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

I would say that at the heart of it, it’s a complex combination of constant change and the need to innovate. Whilst in many organisations, ‘people are people’. And by that, I mean they fundamentally respond to being treated in certain ways that are relatively predictable. The nature of the working relationship is always changing and so the HR Leader needs to be comfortable wearing many different hats at the same time, to be commercial, to demonstrate courage, to practice kindness, to stay connected with current thinking and practices, to be the agitator, the lawyer and conscience at the same time.

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

Digitisation is in my opinion the next ‘Industrial Revolution’. It will touch almost every aspect of the nature of the working relationship. It will significantly influence not only what work is done, but also how it is undertaken. It will affect the skill sets of employees and team members and the leaders of teams and organisations. And it is coming fast. I don’t think HR Leaders and their departments are anywhere sufficiently tooled up to cope yet.

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

Can we make it two pieces, firstly.

‘Accept that change is a constant. If you can build a strength in managing change, you will never be short of interesting work’.

The second piece was ‘ people don’t leave organisations, people leave people’. Both of these pieces of advice have served me very well. My career has been exciting and goes from strength to strength in supporting and leading out on change. Recognising and responding to the critical importance of effective leadership and people management helps frame almost everything I do as a HR Leader.

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

I think I have referred to this already. Variety and challenge in the pursuit of making a difference and stimulating growth be it at an individual, team, department or organisational level.

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

The last 3 years at UCD has been thrilling, and at the same time as completing my EMBA, earlier this year UCD became the first organisation in Ireland to win two awards in the same year at the national CIPD awards. The University received awards under the categories of Inclusion & Diversity, and HR and L&D Team of the Year.

The Inclusion & Diversity award recognised UCD’s leadership position in creating an inclusive culture for the University community irrespective of gender identity. This award is a credit to the many members of UCD’s community who contribute to this important agenda. The HR and L&D Team of the Year award acknowledged UCD HR’s transformational strategy ‘2016-2020 – Growing through people’, the ongoing delivery of this strategy to support the University’s overall objectives, and the restructuring the unit underwent to ensure it was fit for purpose to deliver a large-scale change programme. The team, all personally impacted by the change, are now over 2 years in and have achieved 35 of 38 major strategic projects and recognise that the work will take another 2 years to properly embed. They also demonstrated significant stakeholder engagement, created a new HR service delivery model, leading an outstanding transformation in a challenging sector.

Q. THE INSPIRATION Who inspires you professionally?

My first HR Director, (John) when I started out in HarperCollins Publishers was a huge influence on me professionally. He took me under his wing whilst pushing me professionally every day. He demonstrated the importance of staying commercial, staying connected to the CEO and the Board at the same time as remaining true to the core values of integrity and kindness.

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

I read a lot, I network within my profession and I listen to my team and my intuition.

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

I love the outdoors, staying fit, walking and gardening, spending time with family and friends and travelling whenever its possible.


Thank you Tristan Aitken for your participation in our HR Leaders Series.


University College Dublin is one of Europe’s leading research-intensive universities. At UCD undergraduate education, master’s and PhD training, research, innovation and community engagement form a dynamic spectrum of activity.

Today UCD is Ireland’s largest and most diverse university with over 30,000 students, drawn from approximately 124 countries. It actively promotes university life as a journey of intellectual and personal discovery through its highly innovative and flexible UCD Horizons undergraduate curriculum and is the most popular destination for Irish school-leavers.

UCD is Ireland’s leader in graduate education with approximately 7,000 graduate students, and almost 2,000 PhD students. Over 50% of UCD undergraduates progress to graduate studies.

UCD is home to over 6,000 international students and delivers degrees to over 5,000 students on overseas campuses. In addition, the University places great emphasis on the internationalisation of the Irish student experience – preparing all UCD students for future employment and life that crosses borders, boundaries and cultures.


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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.

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Principal Connections is Ireland’s leading Executive Search Firm and the Irish Office of Agilium Worldwide LLC.

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