Interview with Barry Shannon - Human Resources Director, Cayan

Posted in : HR Interview Series on 15 May 2018 Issues covered:

Barry Shannon, HR Director, Cayan, provides an overview of his experience in HR and highlights some of the challenges he faces including the practical implications of increasing legislation and working in harmony with colleagues in the US. 

Barry explains how his 'decent sense of humour' helps him to get through tough times and how his family and solid circle of friends let him blow off steam when necessary.  

He offers advice on being adaptable and real in HR and not just following the herd with the latest 'trend du jour', how he detests negativity as a default position and how he dreams of writing books in the Tuscan hills or playing football for Real Madrid.

Barry Shannon, Human Resources Director, Cayan


Name: Barry Shannon
Position & Organisation: Human Resources Director, Cayan
Number of Employees:  200 in Belfast, 442 overall
Time in Post: Almost 2 years
Previous Job: Head of HR Business Development, Capita 


Tell us about your business in a sentence

Cayan is a financial technology company focused on transformative innovations in payments.

Give us an idea about your early life and career

I attended University at Queens, Belfast where I studied Psychology and developed an interest in HR through the Premiere Graduate Management Development Program. Part-time/summer jobs in bars, retail and entertainment gave me a solid grounding in how to work with a wide and wonderful variety of people and after some seasoning in a few smaller HR roles I ended up in my first Management Job with McColgans Quality Foods in Strabane. Following that I spent time gathering experience across the manufacturing, charitable and health fields, stopping off to do some consultancy, after which I ended up with Capita, where I spent almost 10 years. In August 2016, I joined Cayan and am still here!

What are the key challenges you face in your role?

We have lots of very different departments in our Belfast office; from contact centre through risk to software development/engineering. All of the departments here are important in their own right and represent vital parts of our work ecosystem. Each has their own priorities, challenges and interests, yet all interact, so making sure they all get individually tailored attention while maintaining a unified culture in Belfast and staying in harmony with our colleagues in the US. We have also been recently acquired by TSYS, a US company with a global footprint, so my key priorities at the moment centre on successful communication and integration with our new parent.

What keeps you going when things get tough?

I’ve got a great wife and son and a solid circle of friends who keep me very grounded and who let me blow off steam when necessary. I’d like to think I’ve got a pretty decent sense of humour (I can amuse myself anyway) and a good sense of proportion, so I know what’s important and what’s not in the grand scheme of things. Both of these attributes tend to get me through most rough patches. I also have a strong work ethic, inherited from my mother and father, so rolling up my sleeves and working through any hard times comes pretty naturally. When all else fails I enjoy getting out on a football pitch and coaching, which transports me a million miles away from work.

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

That really depends on what day you ask me!

I’m very happy working in HR, however, there are times when I allow myself to daydream about living in Italy, amid the Tuscan hills and writing a book or two (I currently try to scratch the writing itch by penning a monthly HR column in the Irish News).

Having said all that, while my professional soccer career was cruelly hampered by a lack of talent, I wouldn’t say no to a 1-year contract at Real Madrid, on CR7’s wages.

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

There’s a lot of people I admire locally, however to single out one would be unfair to the others…..and it’s a small place!

Internationally I always admired Al Davis, the late owner of the Oakland Raiders. He was a pioneer in his field, always did things his way, mostly successfully, and wasn’t afraid to speak his mind. He very much believed in surrounding himself with good people and hired based on talent and what you could do for the Organisation, not what gender or race you were. He also remained true to himself throughout his career, in good or bad times, and had complete disregard for his critics.

How do you unwind after a tough week?

Family and friends are important to me, so spending time with them, coaching football at my local club (now the boots are hung up) and enjoying a decent whiskey keeps me going. I’m also a book, sport, music and film obsessive so when I have some ‘me’ time I’m never stuck for something to help me unwind and relax.

What’s your top office/business bugbear?

Negativity as a default position. I’m a realist in respect of most things (sports aside) so I understand that there are always cons to be weighed up against the positives. What annoys me intensely, however, is when people start from a position of ‘no’; listing all the negatives as a default position or telling me why something simply, absolutely and definitively can’t be done; before actually giving it a go or exploring any other options.

I firmly believe that every problem has more than one solution: it’s just a matter of finding the right one.

What are the key characteristics of your top performing employees?

I’ve always found that the top performing employees are those who have a strong work ethic, are prepared to continually challenge themselves and who have a sense of personal accountability. Those three things will take you far in my opinion.

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

I read voraciously, and I’ve always had an interest in the academic side of HR strategy, so putting those two things together has given me a solid insight into the theoretical aspects. I gained the practical understanding of how HR is applied in real life through working in a wide range of different industries, across a variety of HR roles, so I was able to take on board what works, what doesn’t and why in terms of both strategy and tactics. I’ve also been lucky to have had some great mentors along the way.

What will be the key skills for leading HR practitioners in 5 years’ time?

The first key skill (or maybe it’s more a personality trait) in HR is to have a sense of humour. Things will go wrong every day, so it’s always useful to have the ability to smile rather than frown.

Beyond that, I would say adaptability and realism are essential qualities. HR practitioners need to understand how the business functions as a whole and how they can add genuine value to it. That means they must be able to adapt textbook HR theories to work in real life. Implementing a blanket HR strategy just for the sake of it won’t work when there is a bottom line to consider.

We also need to be real about the purpose of HR. Very few businesses are started with a number one objective of providing world class HR (unless it'an HR consultancy, obviously). Businesses are set up to make money, to provide an outlet for a personal passion or to make a material difference in the world. HR helps them achieve this.

I would also say that HR practitioners should be careful of simply implementing whatever is the trend du jour; there is always a shiny new theory or practice in the world of HR, so it’s prudent to think about what you are trying to achieve first before simply following the herd.

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

The best piece of advice I was ever given was by a Safety Consultant. He advised me never to bullsh*t about something important. If it’s wrong, just say so and fix it. Don’t try and slink your way out of things as it always comes back to bite you.

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

I think the increase in legislation from things like the Working Time Directive through to GDPR and all the Acts and Orders in between has placed an increasing burden onto the HR function. While I absolutely understand why certain legislation is required and the protection it gives to employees, the practical impact is often way down the list of things considered when its being introduced.   

In a more positive way, the increase in diversity has been great; more value added, more ingredients into the organisation’s cultural mix, more (and different) experiences and new ways of thinking.

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

Don’t get into HR just because you ‘like people ’or thinking it’s a handy number. Spend some time learning about what it actually entails, what the various disciplines within it are and what the main challenges will be. It’s not an easy job in any shape or form but it can be very rewarding.

This article is correct at 15/05/2018

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