Q&A with Áine Griallais, HR & HSE Director at Circle K Ireland.

HRHQ_Q&A_Áine Griallais, Circle K

Áine Griallais is HR & HSE Director at Circle K Ireland. Circle K is Ireland’s leading forecourt and convenience retailer and has over 2,300 employees and its retail network is made up of over 420 stations across the island of Ireland.

Circle K Ireland is part of the Canadian group Alimentation Couche Tard. The group employs over 130,000 employees globally and has 16,000 stores in over 20 countries worldwide.

We asked Áine to share her thoughts on HR, her career and the challenges facing her and Circle K Ireland.

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

Áine Griallais: I studied arts in college, and much preferred my part-time roles in retail and restaurants than the course. I went into retail with Statoil as a Trainee Manager, and worked for 12 years in retail positions, 8 of which were as a Regional Manager. I studied a BSC in HRM part time in 2008/09. I was fortunate to move into the HR Department in 2012 and worked as an HR Generalist and then an Employee Relations Manager. At that stage, Statoil had been acquired by Topaz. I progressed then to Retail HR Manager in 2016, and around the same time Circle K acquired Topaz. I have been HR & HSE Director since January 2020. During my time in Retail Operations, I was always interested in the people side – how best to motivate them, how to flex behaviour to work best with different personalities, and how to lead with people at the forefront.

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

ÁG: The most significant change was brought about by the pandemic in March 2020. This was a time of absolute uncertainty where there was no experience to draw upon, and the only path to surviving and succeeding was to look after your people and communicate kindly and effectively. So, this really quickly dialled up the People agenda and quickly got leaders’ attention onto their most important asset.

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

ÁG: The area of retention is the most important challenge at the moment. It is an employee’s market, and it has very quickly become the norm for colleagues to move from company to company much more frequently. This is a practice which has been on the increase in the past five years, but really accelerated in the past two. While this can make the area of recruitment and retention more challenging, it also is a positive in that companies must cultivate loyalty in their employees through a more meaningful and genuine people-driven agenda, for example, the recent introduction of fertility and miscarriage leave at Circle K. Having this increased focus on People is a benefit not just to employees, but to the companies as a whole.

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

ÁG: A great HR service is delivered from an employee’s perspective when they feel cared for, respected, and appreciated, and their concerns are addressed in a responsive and empathetic manner.

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

ÁG: You can career plan, but you need to always keep an open mind – changes in technology, work practices and employee expectations mean you need to be able to bend and pivot quickly at times – allow yourself the scope to do this so that you don’t become so focused on the path you have set out that you don’t notice the changes around you. Have a loose plan but be ready to take a different turn when needed.

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

ÁG: I have 2 pieces of advice – the first is that enjoying working with people is not a solid reason by itself to work in HR. You need the ability to be fair, firm, empathetic and consistent as well. Working in HR can give you an amazingly rewarding career, just bear in mind it can also at times be a demanding and isolated role. The second piece of advice is to start off as an HR Generalist – it is very hard to pick a more specialised area without experiencing it in the workplace, so give yourself time to do that and then make your decisions. Part-time study to specialise in an area of interest while in the workforce can be very impactful.

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

ÁG: Coaching Leadership skills, strong influencing skills, empathetic communication, and the ability to flex your style for maximum impact with all personality types. A colleague recently commented that soft skills should be described instead as essential skills – that’s a good call I think!

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

ÁG: As an HR professional, it is always important to understand the role of the people you support and champion them. Time spent in their shoes is very well spent, as well as taking the time to talk to people in all positions in the company. In a busy environment, this can fall down the list of priorities quickly, but it really is the only way to fully understand the needs and views of the people you support.

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

ÁG: My ability to lead the team with a solid retail and business focus while delivering a strong People agenda for the business. I am particularly proud of achieving this during the early weeks and months of the Covid Pandemic – I was very new to my role at the time but with a strong team we managed to navigate despite the uncertainty and stress that period brought to everyone.

HRHQ: What is the best part of your job?

ÁG: Working with a great diverse team whose dynamic thinking and varied personalities always keeps me on my toes. I would also say the variety and unexpected turns that a career in HR inevitably brings!

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

ÁG: I would say that the increased focus on People is here to stay – employees rightly have high expectations, and companies need to step up and meet them. Hybrid of some sort is here to stay, which is also a positive. The one certainty from the events of the past 2-3 years, however, is that the future of work is changeable, and very influenced by significant events around the world – so one of the most important abilities of any HR function is to expect the unexpected and be ready to flex and adapt as needed.

HRHQ: Many thanks Áine for taking part and we wish you and Circle K Ireland the very best for the future.