Interview with Damian McAlister - Director of Human Resources and Organisational Development, Belfast Health and Social Care Trust (BHSCT)

Posted in : HR Interview Series on 24 October 2017
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In this series, we interview some of Northern Ireland’s leading figures in HR to find out about their role, the challenges they face, what winds them up in business and how they wind down.

Our latest interview was with Damian McAlister, Director of HR & Organisational Development for Belfast Health and Social Care Trust (BHSCT). Damian shares his current challenges of workforce shortages and recruiting and retaining talent to meet increasing demands for services.

He explains that having a positive impact on peoples lives is what keeps him going when things get tough and how his frontline staff inspire him to continually improve.

Read the full interview below to find out how he likes to wind down, what his ideal job is and some key advice that he believes has helped him to get to where he is today!

Damian McAlister
Name: Damian McAlister

Position & Organisation: Director of HR & Organisational Development for Belfast Health and Social Care Trust (BHSCT)

Number of Employees: 22,500

Time in Post: 3 years and 3 months

Previous Job: Director of HR in Northern Health and Social Care Trust 

*Damian, alongside another one of our HR interviewees, Chris Lillie, Group HR Director, SHS Group, is chairing our Annual Review of Employment Law Conference on Tuesday 21st November, Crowne Plaza Hotel, Shaw's Bridge, Belfast.

Tell us about your business in a sentence

We provide the full range of health and social care services to the population of city of Belfast and some regional services to the entire population of Northern Ireland.

What was your first ever job?

I left school after completing my A-Levels at St Malachy’s College Belfast in 1987. I didn’t follow the University path, instead going into employment with the Northern Ireland Civil Service. My first role was being posted to be an Administrative Officer working in Newtownabbey Social Security Office progressing benefit claims for the public. What an insight into people and how the benefit trap can affect lives!

What are the key challenges you face in your role?

The biggest challenge I face at present is ensuring the organisation is able to recruit and retain staff in the numbers needed to ensure it meets the significant growth in demand for services, which is a result of having a population that is thankfully is living longer.

We also have some workforce shortages in key professions that we employ, particularly medicine and nursing, but this is not a problem just restricted to Belfast.  This is also an issue being experienced throughout the UK and Ireland. This does make the challenge to recruit and retain more difficult, however, we find that Belfast as a city, and what it can offer, is somewhat of an advantage to us when competing against other NHS Employers from other major cities.  

What keeps you going when things get tough?

I love the fact that what my team and I do can make such a positive impact on people’s lives, whether they be a Trust employee or a patient. This keeps me focused particularly when times get tough! The job our frontline staff do in transforming peoples’ lives on a daily basis just inspires me to challenge how we in the HR team can improve what we do.

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

I would love to manage Manchester United Football Club. I have been a fan all my life and I really enjoyed reading Sir Alex Ferguson’s book “Leading” recently. The key message I took away was that the approach to leadership in sport has so many similarities to leadership in any business, including that of the Health and Social Care sector.

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

Sir Richard Branson. I think his unconventional rise to the summit of business success is really inspirational and I would recommend his book “The Virgin Way: How to Listen, Learn, Laugh and Lead” as being worth a read.

How do you unwind after a tough week?

I make sure I have a good work-life balance and I enjoy my time away from the office with my family. I coach my 12-year-old son’s football team (definitely not to Sir Alex’s standard!) and I also go to the gym several times a week. I think trying to be physically active, inside and outside work, really helps deal with the mental and emotional side of the job!

What’s your top office/business bugbear?

The amount of emails we send rather than engaging each other in person! It can be as quick and it’s more productive to better relationships!

What are the key characteristics of your top performing employees?

In no particular order, I would say commitment, curiosity and energy!

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

Authenticity, compassion, flexibility and personality are critical skills for a career within HR. The HR function’s alignment to the core business is essential to the success of any organisation so an agile HR workforce is critical. Increasingly we are becoming more involved in a greater range of HR analytics and business process change support workstreams so I think we may see greater involvement of people from technology and engineering backgrounds in HR roles and teams.

What is the best piece of business advice you have ever been given? 

My dad told me to always make every day an opportunity to learn something new and to make sure you treat others with the respect which you wish to be treated. Maybe not very business focused advice but more personal. However, I believe applying these has helped me to get to where I am today!

Looking back at your career to date, what were the key elements in your jump from Administrative Officer in NICS to Director of HR & OD, BHSCT?

I returned to education as an adult learner when I was 25 and I would say this really helped act as a stimulus to wanting to progress. That said it was also about taking opportunities when they presented and being prepared to take risks with your career options!

How should employers here deal with skills shortages in certain sectors?

We need to do more in-reach to our education system to support young people to be more aware of their options and then make better-informed career choices aligned to their education.

For example a lot of people just think Health and Social Care is about doctors, nurses and social work. However we have over 200 different roles drawn from over 10 professional groups and therefore the options people have for rewarding and diverse careers in the organisation.

We also need to look at our existing workforce and make sure we stretch their capabilities to their fullest capacity so as to both fulfil their ambition and our organisation needs.

Thinking of your experience to date in the world of HR, what changes would you say have affected your role most?

Probably technology. Both in terms of how we work within HR but also how our workforce wish to be communicated and engaged with. The world of technological developments such as apps has been a game-changer in many ways and within my role I have had to engage on Social Media using Twitter and LinkedIn as means of promoting the HR profession and the Trust as an organisation.

What is your proudest career achievement to date?

Without a doubt being appointed as Director of Human Resources and Organisational Development in the Belfast Trust. But hopefully, that won’t be my last proud career achievement!

This article is correct at 24/10/2017

The information in this article is provided as part of Legal-Island's Employment Law Hub. We regret we are not able to respond to requests for specific legal or HR queries and recommend that professional advice is obtained before relying on information supplied anywhere within this article.

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