‘Ireland still has a road to travel for greater gender balance’

17 Apr 2019

Gillian Harford. Image: 30pc Club

Gillian Harford of the 30pc Club tells us what motivated her career in promoting diversity and making the workplace a better place to be.

With a career spanning more than 35 years, Gillian Harford is the former head of HR strategy and planning with AIB, where she was responsible for significant people change with particular focus on culture, career, diversity and agile work.

She is currently working on assignment as the country executive for the 30pc Club in Ireland, helping to build its future strategy, sponsored by AIB Group. She is also a member of the board of Beaumont Hospital in Dublin.

Harford will be a guest speaker at the it@cork Tech Summit 2019, which will be held in Cork City Hall on 9 May.

Describe your role and what you do.

I’m currently the country executive for the 30pc Club in Ireland, which is a voluntary group made up of the chairs and CEOs of Ireland’s largest organisations who are committed to achieving gender diversity balance at senior levels in their organisations. I build the strategy and design interventions, toolkits, and events to support that strategy.

I also do lots of public speaking on the topic of diversity and inclusion, and work with individual organisations in my own right, helping them to build out their diversity and inclusion strategies and plans.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

I’m a big believer in the ‘urgent/important’ matrix, so I try to use that as the basis for planning what I need to do. It’s a helpful approach as I’m usually very productive when something is down to the wire, and probably do my best writing and preparation when something moves to both ‘important’ and ‘urgent’ – though I usually have ideas percolating in my head ready to go.

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

In my new role we cover all sectors, and the one that comes through head and shoulders above all others is the demand for talent. For Ireland to continue to grow at the rate that we are currently experiencing, we can only progress by continuing to invest in talent and by doing whatever we can to retain talent, in Ireland and in the workforce.

That’s why I believe that focusing on gender balance is so important, especially where it leads to organisations taking a more holistic view of work-life integration in their work policies and practices; putting a greater focus on more agile ways of working, for men and women as equal partners in the home; using diversity of thought for innovation and problem-solving; and investing in talent pipeline initiatives beyond the workplace, such as partnering with schools and colleges to focus on investment in education and skills, in a more diverse and balanced way.

What are the key sector opportunities youre capitalising on?

We are very fortunate that diversity is currently a key business topic, which is very helpful in driving progress. It influences employee preferences for recruitment and retention. It is beginning to influence consumer preferences and linkages to customer brands. And it is emerging as a key business requirement for regulators and investors. So, we are now seeing initiatives like my favourite ‘Fearless Girl’ from State Street Global Advisors, which has public meaning yet also great depth of purpose. This means that organisations are now coming to us for help and support, which provides greater opportunity for collaboration and success.

We are also looking forward to the outputs from the Government initiative ‘Balance for Better Business’. We fully expect this to set out voluntary gender balance targets for Irish businesses, which will highlight and help our ambitions even further.

The greatest opportunity, however, as I see it now, is the openness across organisations – which might compete on a day-to-day basis – to come together and collaborate on diversity topics in the interests of improving the talent pipeline in their sector or across Ireland in general. Groups like the 30pc Club or it@cork are really good examples of this, and events such as the Tech Summit, which is coming to Cork in May, provide great opportunities to share experiences and learn from each other in a way that benefits us all.

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

I’ve always been interested in making workplaces better places to be, and the diversity agenda was just a natural progression in that journey as it covers so many aspects of workplace policy and practices, whether it be recruitment, talent management, HR policy, ways of working etc.

But it was also very closely linked to looking back over my career and realising that I was at a very senior level of a large organisation, but very few of my business peers looked like me – and what that meant as a role model for the younger men and women who I interacted with every day. So, providing a spotlight on action became very much part of what I wanted to do, initially in AIB and then more recently across as many companies as I can reach through the work of the 30pc Club.

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

I spent a lot of time in my earlier career keeping my head down and focusing on doing a really good job. It took me a while before I realised that it was just as beneficial to raise my head every now and again and take a look at what was happening around me, and to voice what I wanted from work instead of always just focusing on what work wanted from me.

How do you get the best out of your team?

I’ve always worked on the basis that great team performance comes from trust, respect and human decency. I have worked hard and I expect my teams to be fully committed, but kindness and consideration bring out the best in everyone. Kindness also means tough conversations when needed, as well as trusting and supporting everyone.

I was also raised in a home that put very strong value on personal integrity, and I’ve used that as guide in my work, my decisions and my leadership practices. I’ve found that in the long run, it has contributed to much greater team success.

Have you noticed a diversity problem in your sector? What are your thoughts on this and whats needed to be more inclusive?

There is no doubt that Ireland still has a road to travel in terms of achieving greater balance at senior levels across all sectors, and there is no single solution. I believe it needs to be a combination of Government policy, organisation commitment and a better starting point in education. But we need to take care as to how we go about it.

There is a general perception that when we talk about diversity and targets and balance that it leads to one group gaining (women, when we refer to gender diversity) and one group losing (men), and I genuinely don’t believe that to be the case. Yes, it’s about changing the numbers, but for me that’s about achieving better balance in opportunities, better balance in appointments, and encouraging talent equally.

In certain sectors in Ireland we are now at full employment and the skills requirements are growing. If we can tap into all talent, that’s the way we achieve progress. So for me it’s not about win/lose; it’s about increasing the flow and availability of talent, removing barriers, and balancing the opportunity based on capability rather than gender or any other identifier.

Did you ever have a mentor or someone who was pivotal in your career? If so, how?

I’ve been very fortunate in having more than one pivotal moment across my career that benefited from very good guidance, and two in particular stand out for me.

The first was actually with my mum. Our first child was four and we really wanted a second child but I didn’t think I could manage two children and a career. She gave me a very stern talking-to about possibilities and supports and investing in myself, and convinced me to stay working and at least give it a go, which turned out to be the best advice for me and my family – and both my children, who are fully grown, would absolutely agree.

The second was at a pivotal point moving from senior management to executive management when I decided to do a master’s programme to supplement my career experience. My mentor at the time gave me the really good advice to take on an MBA rather than a HR master’s on the basis that executive roles meant a strong voice at the business table, and this would serve me better in the long run. And he was absolutely right, as it gave me the confidence to join so many business tables and discussions, as well as developing a class network that I still value today.

What books have you read that you would recommend?

My work bookshelf is a bit traditional so I still like some of the offerings from Charles Handy, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Jeffrey Pfeffer, David Ulrich and JP Kotter. But the one I like to recommend, whether for cynics or advocates, is called Nuts! by Kevin and Jackie Freiberg, which tells the story of Southwest Airlines and its commitment to ‘employee first’. It’s a Marmite choice – you’ll either love it or hate it – but it will definitely provoke some organisational thinking.

What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

I typically have lots of projects on the go at any one time, so I love a to-do list, and even more the satisfaction of crossing things off the list when they are done. Usually I build the list on the previous Friday evening when I review what’s still outstanding from the week and look forward to the next week. That way, I can enjoy the weekend knowing I’m set for Monday morning.

I spend a lot of my time as an agile worker, so I’m now a big fan of technology on the go. I have discovered so many ways to manage my work life through my phone and also to be as paperless as possible – though in my new job I’ve also reverted to the old-fashioned notebook, which is easier to carry than a laptop. So, some steps forward, some back!

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