‘There is a big learning curve when you first go into a management position’

31 Mar 2020

Sharon Barrett. Image: Duff & Phelps

Sharon Barrett of Duff & Phelps discusses moving up in her career, dealing with cyber risk and criminality, and why it’s important to ‘eat that frog’.

Sharon Barrett is a director at Duff & Phelps in Ireland. She has a background in banking, and now works in advisory, restructuring, insolvency and disputes and investigations.

Barrett is also helping to roll out Duff & Phelps’ Kroll business in Ireland, which provides risk solutions, looking at areas such as business intelligence, cyber risk and compliance.

‘One of the key challenges facing every business is cyber risk and criminality’

Describe your role and what you do.

Future Human

Having initially come from a banking and finance background, I moved into restructuring and advisory about seven years ago when I joined what is now Duff & Phelps. My role is varied and no two days are the same, which makes it interesting but also brings its own challenges!

I’ve been appointed to act as receiver in various cases ranging from trading businesses to construction companies. My role also includes reviewing financial and accounting information, preparing and reviewing reports for third parties, and liaising with banks, clients, solicitors and staff to ensure that everyone has the information needed to obtain successful outcomes.

Over the past several months, my role has seen some changes. Duff & Phelps acquired a company called Kroll in mid-2018, which is one of the world’s leading providers of risk solutions, and encompasses investigations, cyber risk, compliance and business intelligence.

I returned from maternity leave in mid-2019, and was tasked with helping to roll out our Kroll service lines to the Irish market, so I’m currently in business development mode, meeting lots of potential clients, upskilling and learning on the job.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

Lists! I’m a great fan of having a to-do list, and then allocating priorities once the list is made.  I find it really focuses my mind and being able to tick items off as they’re done gives me inordinate satisfaction!

My key tip is to do the things that you are dreading first thing in the morning. A few years ago I was moaning to a colleague about having to do a particular task and he said: “Eat that frog.” I honestly thought he had lost his reason. But he explained that it’s the title of a book by Brian Tracy, based on a quote by Mark Twain, who once said: “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning, and nothing worse will happen to you for the rest of the day.”  It’s something that has stayed with me since, and I find it is a useful thought process tool for my professional and personal life.

What are the biggest challenges facing your sector and how are you tackling them?

One of the key challenges facing every business is cyber risk and criminality. The dark web is a known area where criminals associate to sell information and engage in illegal behaviour.

Kroll has developed a tool called CyberDetectER, which can proactively monitor, detect and respond to virtual threats on endpoints and throughout the surface, deep and dark web. We also have teams available to help businesses react immediately and appropriately if their data, information or intellectual property is accessed or stolen.

Another challenge is how quickly criminals can extract funds from businesses and move them across bank accounts through multiple jurisdictions. Kroll has been advocating for closer cooperation between forensic investigation firms, legal professionals, banks, national police forces and international organisations such as Interpol, so that criminal activity can be stopped more quickly and funds frozen before they move completely out of reach.

What are the key sector opportunities you’re capitalising on?

Business intelligence is an area which can provide really useful insights for all sorts of users, for example, companies who are considering expanding into another jurisdiction, those setting up a new supply chain, M&As, entities seeking information on competitors in a market, or general risk and due diligence.

Kroll has a wealth of tools at its disposal to provide really in-depth business intelligence to end users to help them make informed decisions. We only use open-source information, but we have access to lots of data that is typically not readily accessible to our clients.

What set you on the road to where you are now?

When I was younger, I wanted to be either a clown, a writer, a pilot or work in a bank – in that order. Unfortunately, the first three didn’t work out!

I was always interested in finance and I loved literature when I was in school, and so I pursued a degree in economics and English. I took a year out after my degree and worked in a retail fashion store where I managed the business – this gave me fantastic insights into the basics of business, from stock-taking to sales, to hitting targets and balancing the till at the end of the day.

I really enjoyed that job and particularly the finance element. Subsequently, I completed a higher diploma in business and finance, and applied for a graduate job in AIB. I was delighted to get the job and that started me on my road to finance.

What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?

When I was promoted in my earlier banking career, I made the mistake of trying to continue writing all the reports I had been doing previously, in addition to managing a larger team.  It meant that I didn’t have time to deal with staff or give detailed instructions on what I wanted, which led to inefficiencies and working really long hours.

There is a big learning curve when you first go into a management position, as it can be difficult to let go of projects and cases that you had previously looked after day to day. However, I eventually learned that I needed to delegate to and trust the team.  That ultimately freed me up to give clear instructions and provide the strategic overviews that I was promoted to do.

The reality is that mistakes are going to happen, and none of us are immune to them. As leaders, it’s imperative that we remain approachable and deal with employees who make mistakes in a fair and rational manner. Mistakes will make people better once they learn from it.

How do you get the best out of your team?

Clear instructions, identifying training needs and helping people to think about the wider strategic picture are all key areas. It’s important to get to know team members a little, as that will give an insight into what really motivates them.  Having a bit of fun in the office and organising a good night out where everyone can let their hair down is also essential! 

Have you noticed a diversity problem in your sector?

Both Anne O’Dwyer, our managing director and co-head of the Ireland practice, and I take insolvency appointments, and we are one of the only practices in the country who have two female appointees in what has been historically a male-dominated industry.

The wider Duff & Phelps team in Ireland has employees from the UK, US, South Africa and other countries, but it’s fair to say we are mostly an Irish workforce. Diversity is something that is on our agenda, and we recognise that having a diverse workforce is something that companies benefit from.

I think the recent changes to paternity leave will certainly help with gender inclusiveness, and I believe that the open nature and strength of Ireland’s economy means that workforces have to become more inclusive in order to fill vacancies. Flexible working hours and ability to work from home are great initiatives for businesses, as it means that people who might otherwise not be available due to location or personal circumstances can participate and make a valuable contribution.

Did you ever have a mentor or someone who was pivotal in your career?

I’ve been lucky to have had a mum and dad who were always full of encouragement for myself and my five siblings. Education was considered the most important thing in our house. We were made to help around the house and farm every day, and that instilled a strong work ethic in all of us. When you’ve spent a long, hot day on a bog in rural Sligo, you really know what hard work is!

In my career, I worked with a manager in Galway who had an unbelievable ability for developing business and converting it to sales. His mantra was to always know your audience and adjust your language accordingly. Simple, but a very effective strategy.

What books have you read that you would recommend?

I’m a complete bookworm and read as a way to unwind in the evenings. I’ve just finished Eddie Jones’ autobiography, which gives searing insights into leadership and management of elite, high-performance teams. In terms of my recommendations, I’d say the following:

  • The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
  • This Is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay
  • Who Moved My Cheese by Spencer Johnson
  • Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
  • The Oh My God, What a Complete Aisling series of books by Emer McLysaght and Sarah Breen
What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?
  • iPhone
  • Notebook for my lists (and my hopes and dreams!)
  • News and social media sites to keep up to date with what’s happening
  • Walk or exercise in the morning and evening to clear the head
  • Healthy food, black coffee and a great family

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