Q&A with Brita O’Connor, HR Director at Starcircle

HRHQ_Q&A Brita O Connor

Brita O Connor is Director of Human Resources at Starcircle. By combining technology and talent insights, Starcircle’s powerful solutions help their global clients to identify the hard to find and much needed talent to allow them to overcome seemingly impossible talent challenges.

We asked Brita to share her thoughts on HR, her career and the challenges facing her and Starcircle.

HRHQ: Tell us about your career journey and what originally attracted you to a career in HR?

Brita O’Connor: I always knew I wanted to work in a people-related role. The challenge of figuring out how to motivate people in the workplace has always fascinated me. We’re all so similar in so many ways but so totally unique too.

I started out studying Social Science at UCD and quickly realised I wasn’t going to pursue the social work route. Instead, I chose the business/HRM side of the course and have yet to look back. I went on to complete my Diploma in Personnel Management whilst working at Kerry Group in a finance/payroll role.

I then moved to an HR generalist role with Zurich, formerly named Eagle Star. Followed by almost 20 years with PGi, a US multinational with European headquarters in West Cork. I progressed from HR Generalist to Senior Director of HR with PGi. It was a hugely diverse and challenging global role. I led several acquisitions and multiple restructures during my time there.

Eighteen months ago, I joined Starcircle leading the HR function. The company is at that really exciting growth stage. There’s so much energy and passion in the team that I couldn’t resist the opportunity to come on board and help get the structures and people in place that will set the business up for continuing success.

HRHQ: What has been the most significant change in the HR world since you began your career?

BOC: There have been so many developments over the years it’s hard to settle on just one. Globalisation and remote working have been the most significant in my experience. The large multinationals I’ve worked with would have initially organised their teams based on geography. Each region, for example, North America, EMEA and APAC, would operate as an individual unit.

Now there are functional teams with members dispersed around the world working together daily. It places significant emphasis on good people management skills, diversity, and cultural awareness. HR teams are partnering with people managers to ensure, at a very minimum, they have an awareness, but ideally, a good working knowledge of employment regulations across regions.

Of course, the pandemic has accelerated the move to remote and flexible working. HR teams across the globe are still working with business leaders to determine their future business model. I see a lot of opportunities, but there’s no one-size-fits-all solution.

HRHQ: What is the most important HR challenge facing you currently?

BOC: It has to be retention. We all know that the pandemic has had a lasting impact. When you add a war in Europe and a considerable rise in the cost of living, it’s having an immense effect on people, how they want to work and what they expect from employers.

At the same time, businesses are under pressure to control costs and deal with a potential economic downturn. HR teams are struggling to balance employee expectations of purpose, flexibility, and career opportunities with performance expectations from business leaders.

HRHQ: From an employee’s perspective, what does a great HR service mean?

BOC: Employees are looking for an HR service that supports them holistically. This means considering employees’ diverse perspectives and needs when designing policies and programmes. For instance, ensuring policies around compensation and benefits are fair and equitable for all employees, regardless of background or identity. HR teams must support employee well-being, mental health, and work-life balance, including access to resources, training and development opportunities, and flexible work arrangements.

A great HR service should also prioritise clear and timely communication. Employees want to know what is expected of them, what resources are available to them, and what they can do to advance their careers. Therefore, HR teams should be transparent in their communication, ensuring staff has easy access to information and can provide feedback or ask questions.

Overall, a great HR service supports employees’ well-being, fosters a culture of transparency and trust, and helps employees grow and succeed in their careers.

HRHQ: How should HR professionals design their career and how much can you realistically career plan?

BOC: HR professionals need to manage employees in a way that recognises their value and potential to contribute to an organisation’s success. Having a diverse set of skills and experiences that can be applied in various contexts is hugely beneficial.

I encourage HR professionals to seek out cross-functional projects or take on leadership roles in different areas of the organisation. The more you know about various aspects of the business, like org design, comp & bens, performance management and all the other factors contributing to a high-performance team, the better equipped you’ll be to advise.

HRHQ: What advice would you give a person at the start of their HR career?

BOC: Building a professional network that can provide mentorship, support, and access to new opportunities is essential. Ensure you attend events and develop and nurture that network right from the start of your career.

HRHQ: What soft skills do you believe are key to progressing your career?

BOC: Rather than soft skills, I would say human skills are fundamental in all leadership roles. The ability to communicate effectively is paramount for anyone in HR. You’ll be faced with many scenarios where you have to think critically and adapt to change. If that’s something you relish, then you’ll really enjoy a career in HR.

HRHQ: What experiences should HR professionals try to get as they build up their CV?

BOC: As mentioned, having a diverse background is beneficial. By working in various industries, different-sized organisations and a range of sectors, you’ll find what suits your style and values best.

HRHQ: What are you most proud of in your career?

BOC: Over the years, I’ve been involved in several restructuring programmes, which resulted in roles being eliminated and people exiting the businesses. These processes are always exceptionally difficult for those impacted. I have always been as honest and transparent as possible. And most importantly, ensured people were treated with respect and compassion.

We don’t talk about this side of HR too much, but the recent layoffs in the tech sector have spotlighted the importance of the company’s approach. How people are treated has a profound and ongoing impact on them. Compassion and empathy have always been forefront when I’ve managed these processes, and that’s something I’m proud of.

HRHQ: What is the best part of your job?

BOC: I enjoy the variety that the job affords me. HR is now equal to all other business functions, and the value we bring is recognised. We’re part of strategic discussions, and we get to shape how the business manages its most valuable asset – the people.

HRHQ: What do you think the Future of Work is?

BOC: No one truly knows the answer to that question. But there are a few aspects we must focus our attention on—first, hybrid working and flexibility. Figuring out what works for each business and team is an ongoing process. Second, talent intelligence and how we leverage it in people analytics, sourcing intelligence, and workforce planning to inform strategic decisions and third, expanding the talent pipeline.

Our clients at Starcircle are already ahead of the curve when it comes to looking beyond the traditional methods to find talent. More of us need to become comfortable assessing candidates solely on the skills required to perform in the role rather than their credentials and prior experience. As time goes on, we’ll see more companies broaden the talent pool by removing formal education and experience requirements.

HRHQ: Many thanks Brita for taking part and we wish you and Starcircle the very best for the future.