Interview with Cathy Donnelly - HR Director, Liberty IT

Posted in : HR Interview Series on 4 July 2017 Issues covered:

From working as an assistant in an independent video rental shop to HR director in a global IT company - Find out how Cathy has progressed in her career, the key challenges she faces working in the technology sector, some of her proudest achievements and what her ideal job in the whole world would be.

Cathy Donnelly Liberty IT

Name:  Cathy Donnelly

Position & Organisation:  HR Director, Liberty IT

Number of Employees: 550

Time in Post: 5 Years          


Tell us about your business in a sentence

Liberty IT is a wholly owned subsidiary of Liberty Mutual, employing over 500 people in Belfast and Dublin who develop a wide range of both specialist and enterprise scale applications and websites exclusively for our parent company, through creativity, problem-solving and a commitment to excellence. 

Give us an idea about your early life and career 

My first ever job was working in an independent video rental shop! I had access to all the latest releases and was basically paid to watch videos.  For some reason, I was incredibly popular during those teenage years.

I spent a Summer in London, working in HM Treasury in the staff restaurant and bar and Regent’s College which ignited my passion for the hospitality industry. When I completed my degree in French and Business Administration, I decided to continue studying and signed up for a PGD in Hotel & Tourism Management.

I subsequently ran a restaurant in Belfast for a year or so before being introduced to Jas Mooney who owned Botanic Inns. At that stage, I had just started a PGD in Personnel Management and Jas had just got funding for a Personnel Manager – it was a match made in heaven (even though I had never worked in HR at that stage). I joined Botanic Inns as Head of HR, established a HR department and spent 9 very happy years supporting the growth and development of the company. Again, very popular years in my life as I could get you to the top of the queue for all the trendy places in Belfast on a Saturday night.

I moved on to IKEA to support the opening of the stores in Belfast and Dublin from a HR perspective. Once the stores were trading, I spent the next four years commuting to London to perform the role of HR Operations Manager and subsequently HR Manager for IKEA across the UK and Ireland (7.500 employees, 19 stores and 2 contact centres).

The travel was tough, particularly in light of the fact of my husband and young twins being back in Northern Ireland. I was so excited to secure the HR Director role with Liberty IT in 2012 as opportunities at that level can be hard to find. I get the best of both worlds – a role that feeds my passion AND I get to sleep in my own bed every night. I haven’t looked back since!

What are the key challenges you face in your role?

The key challenges in my role are:

The war for talent on the island of Ireland - attracting, engaging and retaining top technical talent is an ongoing struggle for IT companies and we continue to see new entrants to the local markets north and south on a regular basis.

We are a subsidiary of Liberty Mutual and with that in mind, we continuously work to find the right balance between when to be global and when to be local with our talent approaches

The IT industry is moving so quickly that it can be a challenge trying to keep up with the pace of change.  As we are moving towards Agile, I am spending more and more time with the business, understanding the changes and interpreting what this means for me and my team, ensuring that our approach remains fit for purpose.

Not so much a challenge but before I joined Liberty IT, I was nervous about joining a technology company as my previous HR experience had been in hospitality and retail which are very different. I’ve since learned that no matter where you work people are people and while the details of the challenges may be different, they are still quite similar – we are all trying to understand how we create environments where our employees choose to engage.

What keeps you going when things get tough?

Colleagues; At Liberty IT we are incredibly fortunate that we have a culture of togetherness and as a result, we employ people who genuinely want to make a difference to the organisation.  They are committed to helping but we also enjoy each other’s company and we have fun together.  This really helps me to get through the tough days as you know someone will always be looking out for you.

And of course, having moved back home, family time always puts things into perspective and after the working day, my kids expect and deserve their mummy’s full attention. Those big smiles when I walk in the door after a tough day at work just makes me melt! Long may it last as we are only a year away from hitting teenage years.

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

No one believes me when I say this but I would love to be a full time mum! Even just for the next few years to take the time pressure off as I often feel like I am constantly trying to juggle work and family.  I’d love to spend more quality time with the kids, do the school runs and simply make lots more memories.  Then when they are at school, I would see myself doing something that impacts others such as volunteering, creating my own meaningful legacy.

So when I tell anyone this, they tell me I am not cut out to stay at home and that I couldn’t live without my work!

Who do you most admire in business locally and/or internationally? Why?

There’s been no one person - different people have influenced me throughout my career. I’ve been lucky to work and spend time with strong and inspirational leaders and I’ve picked up positive behaviours and learned from each of them.

Some of these learnings include the value of breaking down hierarchies and making people feel equal regardless of title, the importance of employee engagement and involvement inviting employees on the journey instead of imposing change upon them; getting to know people personally and professionally and of course the importance of fun and laughter in a work environment!

How do you unwind after a tough week?

A good book, a walk, a cycle, quality time with family and of course a glass of wine

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

It’s definitely got to be understanding the business you are in and being flexible and adaptable to meet the needs of the business.

It’s no longer acceptable for HR to simply follow a rule book and rigidly stick to it! HR today is all about creating partnerships and building long term relationships.

What is the best piece of business advice you have ever been given? OR What piece of advice would you give to a person trying to reach your position?

I remember many years ago my husband telling me to ‘believe in myself’. How right he was! I didn’t really listen at the time but the same words were repeated to me by the UK & Ireland Retail Manager for IKEA some years later – this time I listened, I responded and I was promoted.

It was interesting as until then I always looked up to people, considering that everyone older than me was more experienced and more knowledgeable. The Retail Manager in IKEA was 34 or 35 and running ‘the IKEA country’ – suddenly, I realised that it’s up to each of us to create our own destiny and self-belief is critical in that.

What is your proudest career achievement to date?

There have been many throughout the years; making the Great Place to Work list in the three organisations where I have spent my 20 years in HR deserves a mention. This year, I was thrilled that we, at Liberty IT, celebrated making the UK list for the 4th consecutive year and were placed on both the Ireland and UK lists for the second year in a row!  Other proud moments include winning Young Business Woman of the year many years ago, achieving my MA in HR, being sponsored by the UK government to work with Marriott International for six months in a resort in Arizona and their Head Office in Washington D.C.and being appointed the UK & Ireland HR Manager for IKEA.

The one really stand out moment for me though has to be when my dad, who was my biggest fan, handed me over the scrapbook that he had been compiling for 15+ years with every article and photo ever published stuck in with commentary written beside each – he was one in a million! 

This article is correct at 04/07/2017

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