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  • Bio: Esther O'Halloran started out working in the retail and hospitality industries. She found this experience invaluable when she later decided to move into HR. She now works as the HR Director for Paul UK.
  • Role: HR Director

Esther O'Halloran

I started my career as a store manager in retail and line manager in the hospitality, looking after teams of 100+. However, I decided to move into HR 11 years ago. Initially the only exposure to HR was from a ‘shop floor’ perspective and day to day management of people. It was not until I started getting directly involved in delivering management training modules whilst at Whitbread that I found a natural affinity to getting the best out of people through coaching/development. As well as how to achieve bottom line results through motivating others. From that point on I was determined to change careers from Operations to HR.

In my first HR role, I had to convince the HR Director of one of the key brands within the Whitbread group (Costa coffee) to give me a chance. At that time I had no formal HR training but I had started an MBA. I changed courses to complete an MA Personnel Development at Westminster University to get my CIPD postgraduate qualification. I then proved that by having a true understanding of front line operations I was able to deliver and convince my customers to change some of their people processes. In particular those related to recruitment, which is the area I had initially specialised in.

Understanding operations and the day to day challenges also gave me more credibility when recruiting for those roles and an understanding for what we were looking for.

Before becoming a Managing Director at Paul, I had initially held the combined position of HR Director and Interim MD for the first six months whilst still responsible for Retail Operations and HR. This enabled me to refresh my knowledge of Finance (profit and loss, budgets, margins, etc) and retail operations as well as production and artisan manufacturing processes.

As I work for a French company I have the opportunity to go to Lille and Paris regularly which is great. I am also a committee member of two HR industry networking groups (‘HR Retail Circle’ which is made up of the main high street retailers and ‘HR in Hospitality’ which is mainly hotels and restaurants) both groups have been established for quite a while and provide a great opportunity for meeting some very interesting characters not just in HR but across the business world.

Throughout my HR career I have always worked closely with other business functions such as marketing for the brand image and customer facing brand to relate to the employer brand to achieve greater synergy. As part of the Board and a senior member of staff, it also has been part of my role to ensure the HR and people strategy is fully aligned to the business, whether that is with production, operations, finance or marketing. I have been fortunate that I have been a key driver of the overall business strategy.

Within HR itself you are fully involved and continually gaining experience and expanding your own knowledge in the HR disciplines; employee relations, performance management, rewards and benefits, recruitment and retention as well as learning & development. It is always great to be able to share this knowledge with your team through mentoring and improving their knowledge and awareness.

I believe that HR has come a long way, but we still have some way to go. We need to have more confidence within ourselves to be able to stand up and be true guardians and commentators for our brands/business. I think too often HR is still regarded as the old fashioned ‘tea & sympathy’ department rather than a true business partner. We can’t be afraid to speak out and must persuade others of the benefits of a comprehensive HR strategy.

Advice for those interested in HR

If you’re looking to start a career in HR, my advice would be to get hands on operational (or shop floor) experience first, work through a management career if you can and then move across to HR either as a generalist or specialist after a couple of years. This will give you a much greater insight into the day to day management of people and the issues surrounding them.

To succeed you need to have great tenacity and determination and not take criticism personally. To have a wider understanding and appreciation of the business world in general rather than from just a departmental perspective is also very important.

Key challenges of working in HR tend to be on an emotional level i.e. dealing with difficult situations such as redundancy or capability dismissals due to poor health etc. You need to be professional and always show respect for others and be empathic with them in an open honest way. Other challenges include getting the board and senior team to buy into people investment as a long-term benefit to the business.

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