Interview with Gillian McAuley - Group HR Director, Devenish Nutrition

Posted in : HR Interview Series on 20 September 2016
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Issues covered:

Name:   Gillian McAuley

Position & Organisation:  Group HR Director, Devenish Nutrition

Number of Employees: 400

Time in Post: 1 year

Previous Job: HR Director, Viridian Group

Tell us about your business in a sentence

Devenish Nutrition is an international business that develops and supplies innovative animal nutritional solutions that impact positively on animal and human health.

Give us an idea about your early life and career 

I was born in Northern Ireland and lived here until I was 6 years old when I emigrated to Canada with my family.  I lived and grew up in Ontario until after completing my Bachelor of Arts at the University of Toronto; after which I moved to Vancouver to complete my law degree.  I practiced law for a number of years specialising in employment law.  When I moved back to Northern Ireland in May 2001, I worked for a short while with KPMG before starting with the Viridian Group in December 2001 as an HR Project Manager at NIE Powerteam.  I remained with Viridian for 14 years working in various companies including NIE and Power NI, eventually moving into the Group HR Director role in 2011.  I remained in this role until August 2015 when I started with Devenish Nutrition.

What are the key challenges you face in your role?

Devenish is a rapidly growing and dynamic company and is an exciting organisation to be part of.  Devenish has grown significantly over the last few years both organically and by acquisition so that we now have our headquarters in Belfast, 4 sites in England and 2 in the US.  As a result of the growth there are a few challenges:

  • Building an HR team to deliver our People Strategy
  • Delivering a ‘One Devenish’ culture throughout the organisation
  • Ensuring good communication throughout the organisation to all locations
  • Developing a strong Talent programme to ensure our current workforce is developed as well as possible to continue to drive innovation and with strong leadership skills to support the planned growth of the organisation over the next 5 years

What keeps you going when things get tough?

I like to think of myself as a resilient person who keeps life well balanced but as with everyone there are times when things can get tough especially in HR when you can be dealing with others very difficult circumstances.  In my career, I have built good relationships with colleagues internally and often find those friendships a great support when things are tough.  In addition externally, over the years I have built a strong network of friends who are also involved in business and we understand each other when we need a bit of moral support or a good chat.  I have also been extremely lucky to have had the support of both an Executive Coach and a business mentor in the past and have found this to have been invaluable.  I still keep in touch with both of them and call upon them when needed.  I am a firm believer that as leaders we all have times when we need a bit of support, the best leaders are those that can recognise that and reach out to get what they need.

If you could do any job in the world, what would it be?

My secret desire is to be a Travel Agent – I have always loved travelling and really enjoy researching trips and finding the best deals.  My family call me the Travel Agent and often call when they want a holiday booked.

How do you unwind after a tough week?

As the mum of two young boys there isn’t really a lot of ‘unwinding’ – it is more just a refocus onto other things like rugby and football but it is a good way to leave work behind.  I also have some really good friends (two of which are my best friends from Canada who now live here) who I usually see on the weekend for a coffee.   I am also in a ‘book club’ which is really an excuse for great laughter and a glass of wine.  We have a small hobby farm so when I get the chance I like to help out on the farm and find this completely relaxing.  Finally, when we get the chance on a weekend, my husband and I try to get our for a lovely meal.

What’s your top office/business bugbear?

My biggest business bugbear is when people just fail to communicate with each other in a respectful and honest way and tell it like it is.  I often think that this is the source of most workplace problems. 


What skills are essential for a top career in HR and will these still be the same in 5 years time

I think that the skills that are essential for a top career in HR are the following:

  • Ability to think strategically and commercially and adapt your people solutions accordingly
  • Resilience  - all top roles can be demanding so you need to be prepared for this;  the people side adds an even more challenging aspect I believe, especially when you care about people
  • Strong influencing skills
  • Ability and willingness to be a leader and ‘step into things’ - not just HR matters but all aspects of business
  • Be innovative and drive change – ask questions such as why are we doing this? What value is it adding?  What else could we do?
  • Be authentic to yourself – know yourself and be proud and confident of who you are and what your personal values are
  • Build strong business relationships – be credible and trustworthy in all that you do – deliver what you promise

I think that these skills are enduring and will still be the same in 5 years.

How did you gain an understanding of a more strategic level of HR?

When I moved into more senior roles, I found gaining ‘strategic’ knowledge the most difficult thing particularly in Northern Ireland.  I attended a course in London on designing HR and People strategies which was helpful.  I also tried to meet with as many other people in senior roles including attending as many HR networking events as possible and discussing various aspects with specialist consultants. 

I used to think that being ‘strategic’ was a mystical thing however, as my confidence grew I realised that it is largely about knowing your industry, your organisation, its strategic goals and your own employees and then building your People Strategy to fit.    You can talk to others and read etc, but you still need to make it fit for your organisation and its people.

What would be the key piece of advice you would give to people considering a career in human resources?

If someone is considering a career in human resource, my advice would be that you have to be able to listen and deal with people.   If you don’t, HR will be a hard place to be in the long term as no matter what kind of day you are having, people expect to be able to come to HR for support.  I would also say that while you need to be able to relate to people, you also have to be prepared to make difficult business decisions involving people. For instance, dismissals and redundancies can be really difficult things to be involved in from an HR perspective, but it is part of the role. This brings me to the last point which is that resilience is key. 

What is your proudest career achievement to date?

I have been really fortunate in my career with the roles that I have had but I think that the proudest career achievement to date in being offered the role with Devenish Nutrition. The recruitment process was extremely robust and it is a big role in a great company, so I feel very lucky and proud to have been successful in the selection process. 

In your view what is the best thing an organisation can do to motivate staff and drive higher performance?

I believe that the best thing that an organisation can do to drive higher performance, is to share their vision and communicate with employees as to how they are part of delivering that vision.  There needs to be regular communication on how the organisation is doing and 1:1 feedback to employees on their performance – both good and bad.   An acknowledgement and a thank you are best ways to motivate employees. 

This article is correct at 20/09/2016

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