Interview with Barbara McKiernan - Managing Director at VANRATH

Posted in : HR Interview Series on 27 May 2021
Barbara McKiernan
Issues covered:

Barbara McKiernan

Name: Barbara McKiernan

Position & Organisation: Managing Director, VANRATH

Number of Employees: 40

Time in Post: 16 years


Tell us about your business in a sentence

Established in 2000, VANRATH is Northern Ireland’s market leading strategic recruitment partner responsible for pairing the best local talent with leading local businesses.

What has been your biggest working challenge so far?

Without doubt, navigating the unprecedented adverse operating environment created by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has been the biggest challenge of my career so far. Unsurprisingly, many clients and candidates have expressed a level of nervousness and uncertainty as to whether it has been the right time to engage in a recruitment process given the uncertain times. Recognising this, VANRATH has continued to place a strong focus and approach to ensuring that the right match is made between our clients and candidates. Similarly, where nervousness has existed on the part of our clients, we have encouraged them to take a longer-term, more strategic perspective on the recruitment process and see it not only as a means to weather the current storm but also as an important step in preparing for the upturn. Similarly, through the nature and scale of roles that we have advertised throughout the period, coupled with our various outreach activities during lockdown, we have sought to send a clear message to our candidates that NI’s employers continue to be ‘open for business’ with exciting opportunities available to fulfil their career aspirations.

From a more operational perspective, given the fact that recruitment is about creating connections between our clients and candidates, VANRATH as an organisation has faced its own logistical challenges to maintain business continuity during lockdown. For example, strict social distancing rules have prevented our sector-specific consultants to undertake face-to-face candidate screening or candidates to interview with our clients in person. This face-to-face interaction is a critical aspect of recruitment as it helps us, as a recruitment provider, and our clients, as a potential employer, to look beyond a CV to assess important attributes such as personality traits and culture ‘fit’. To address this issue, we have continued to provide the necessary preparatory support and advice to our clients and candidates to gauge these important aspects of the recruitment process through virtual means.

Thankfully, the green shoots of recovery are beginning to appear, and, like our clients and candidates, we look forward to returning to a greater sense of operational normality in the not-too-distant future.

What are the key challenges you face in your role?

Over the last year, I have made the transition to taking a more significant role in supporting the operational management of the business. With the pandemic, this has been a bit of a ‘baptism of fire’ but I’ve really enjoyed the challenge. The diversity of the role and the need to keep so many plates spinning can, at times, be challenging but the role has encouraged me to take a more strategic approach to how and why I’m doing things. Luckily, I have the support of a great team who keep the day-to-day operational wheels in motion, which gives me time to focus on growing the business.

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

The catch-all term that often comes to many people’s mind when they think of a role in HR is that the individual needs to be a ‘people person’. Undoubtedly this is true, but in my mind the term masks the breadth and nuances of what it means to be a successful HR practitioner.

From a technical skills perspective these skills include recruitment and hiring (including interviewing), onboarding of new recruits, compensation and benefits management, performance management, managing employee relations (including conflict management and mediation skills), to name but a few.

On the softer skills side, being an effective communicator and having strong interpersonal skills underpins a HR practitioner’s day-to-day role. These skills include active listening, verbal and non-verbal communication, social awareness, self-management, accountability - as a bridge between the business’ management and employees it is important that the individual is able to convey messages, in both directions. Other important ‘softer’ attributes include empathy and discretion.

In a fast-moving and unpredictable working environment, it’s difficult to predict accurately what HR roles will look like going forward. Whilst Artificial Intelligence will undoubtedly make a big difference to the way tasks and processes are managed within the workplace, the future of HR will remain ‘human-led’. As such, practitioners will continue to need many of the above skills and be principles-led, evidence-based and outcomes driven. Notwithstanding this, skills such as situational judgement, commercial awareness, critical thinking, and digital literacy are likely to be key skills that will stand HR practitioners in good stead for the future. 

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

Historically, many employers have adopted too much of reactive rather than preventative approach to skills shortages. In the first instance, it is critical that businesses take a proactive approach to retaining their staff to mitigate the risk of unnecessary skills shortages arising. This requires a strategic approach to staff management that goes far beyond remuneration. At the most basic level, we all want to feel appreciated, and with the day-to-day stresses of modern working life, many employers have overlooked the power that a simple ‘thank you’ or ‘good job’ has on boosting employee and team morale and ultimately to staff retention. Similarly, opportunities for continuous professional development, internal progression underpinned by a robust performance review process and greater flexible working arrangements (including working from home) are all high on employee’s wish lists.

If staff retention is not possible and/or emerging skills requirements do not presently exist within the organisation, businesses have a range of options to address their skills shortages. In the immediate term, they have the option of using temporary or contract workers to fill the skills gap and can avail of the services of a reputable recruitment agency with the necessary sector-specific knowledge and skill sets to address their needs. Longer term initiatives might involve providing internal and/or external training to upskill current employees. We have seen several local Software companies recently hiring graduates and providing the necessary on-the-job training to upskill providing a good opportunity to ‘mould’ an employee to meet the needs of the business. 

Looking more strategically at the issue, arguably the most sustainable approach in the long term is to ensure that the future workforce is provided with the necessary skills, knowledge and experience to provide to meet the needs of businesses. In doing so there is an onus on business to engage with academia and education providers (such as schools, universities, FE colleges) to identify their emerging skills requirements and providing the necessary opportunities such as work placements for these individuals to gain real world experience.

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

In my role I have been lucky enough to have met many individuals and leaders at the forefront of NI business and commerce. ‘Keeping it local’, I would say that Elaine Birchall (CEO of the SHS Group and Vice Chair of NI’s CBI) is one individual that I have particular admiration for. Managing a multinational organisation with five core divisions and over 1,000 employees make her a strong role model for women in business. I have placed a number of very talented senior finance professionals into SHS Group over the last 15 years and they are a real local success story. I have been fortunate enough to listen to her at a number of conferences and have found her focus on balancing innovation and collaboration within the Fast-Moving Consumer Goods Sector with the Group’s historic family routes as inspiring.

What’s your top office/business bugbear?

For me, it has to be resistance to change. No matter what sector you operate in, innovation is key to growth and I have been lucky enough to have been surrounded by a team that has been open to new ways of thinking and doing things. I think the key to managing change is transparency and bringing your team along with you. Similarly, if they are explained the merits of taking a fresh approach, I have found they are much more likely to be bought into the process of change.

How do you unwind after a tough week?

With an energetic (and teething) 18-month-old son, winding down time has unfortunately become a thing of the past, but I wouldn’t change it for the world. Weather permitting, there is nothing I like more than getting outdoors for a walk on the beach with the family to blow away the cobwebs and tire the little man out! Good food and wine are also always on the to-do list.

The past year-and-a-bit has understandably restricted all aspects of our social lives and I’m really looking forward to using my spare time to get together with my family and friends and hopefully get out for dinner or a BBQ in the summer sunshine however that may be wishful thinking with this weather!


This article is correct at 27/05/2021

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.

Barbara McKiernan

The main content of this article was provided by Barbara McKiernan. Contact telephone number is 028 9033 0250 or email

View all articles by Barbara McKiernan