Interview with Norah Mason - Group HR Director, Ireland East Hospital Group

Posted in : HR Interview Series on 20 June 2017 Issues covered:

Norah gained experience in London working in the education and healthcare sectors before relocating back to Dublin, where she has established herself in a key role as Group HR Director, Ireland East Hospital Group.

In this interview Norah explains her love for life in the fast lane, demonstrates her passion for HR and shares some interesting stories and challenges she has faced throughout her journey.


Name: Norah Mason

Position & Organisation: Group HR Director, Ireland East Hospital Group

Number of Employees: 11,000

Time in Post: 4 months

Previous Job: Assistant National Director of HR, Employee Relations, HSE (10 years)

Tell us about your business in a sentence

Ireland East Hospital Group (IEHG) is the largest and most diverse public hospital group in terms of population, budget, staffing, number of hospitals, geographical spread and number of Community Healthcare Organisations.  We aim to deliver consistently high quality safe care, while transforming and integrating clinical services across the 11 hospitals in the Group to meet the needs of the people we serve.

Give us an idea about your early life and career?

My parents emigrated from Dublin in their thirties, so I was brought up in an Irish working class family in Islington,  the only Londoner in a family of four girls.  After finishing secondary education I worked as a PA initially in education and for local authority employers, then joined the NHS in 1994 as Executive Assistant to the Director of HR at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery.  My first HR practitioner role was for the London Ambulance Service, covering 70 sites across the capital, which I really enjoyed, then I worked for a brief period as Head of Personnel and Payroll at an FE college.  I returned to the NHS as Assistant Director of HR at Whipps Cross University Hospital NHS Trust and, before relocating to Dublin in 2005, was Deputy Director of HR at Chelsea and Westminster University Hospital NHS Trust.  I gained a Postgraduate Diploma in HRM and a Master of Laws in Employment Law along the way, and became a Fellow of the CIPD in 2000.  Two of my sisters returned to Dublin after finishing their education, and my parents returned on their retirement so it was somewhat inevitable that I would follow suit.

What are the key challenges you face in your role?

We aim to be the national leader in healthcare delivery, with a strong international reputation, improving the quality of healthcare and better patient outcomes through education, training, research and innovation for the 1.1 million people we serve.  To achieve this we have developed a ten-point programme, which will see IEHG established as an independent hospital group, with an Academic Health Sciences Centre as its core.  To support that I’m working on establishing corporate and clinical governance structures, developing HR and Engagement Strategies, managing Group level ER issues and, probably the most challenging of all in the current climate, developing a Workforce Plan that will see us into the next decade.

What keeps you going when things get tough?

Focusing on the objective, which is to deliver the best service we can for the citizens of the State.  I am committed to public service, to the stewardship of and accountability for public resources, and to personal and professional integrity.  I’m pretty resilient and that has seen me through some tough times, and I’ve been very fortunate to develop good working relationships with some very supportive people.  I’m still in touch with people that I worked with in my early career, and have close friendships with a couple of them.   I remind myself frequently that work-life balance is very important.

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

A Moto GP racer.  The closest I got to achieving this ambition was Vespa Club of Britain Ladies’ Champion 1989.  However, I do enjoy working in HR, particularly policy making, taking a piece of Government policy or legislation and designing a fit for purpose organisational strategy to give it practical effect.

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

Alex Ferguson.  He is highly successful in his chosen field, firm but fair, driven and expert in workforce management – publicly he was always supportive of his players regardless of what was said in the dressing room.  He managed some very difficult personalities, getting the best out of them, and didn’t avoid making decisions about under performers.  Superb tactician, upright, the master of mind games and socially conscious. 

I admire people who lead with professional and personal integrity, who are honest, respectful and demonstrate acceptance of diversity.

How do you unwind after a tough week?

Shouting from the terraces at Old Trafford or Croke Park.  Friends and family and the odd glass of Barolo help, with a generous helping of dancing to northern soul.

Looking back at your career to date, what were the key elements in your jump from Secretary at the University of London to Group HR Director, IEHG?

A significant juncture in my career was the six years I spent at Whipps Cross Hospital, where I really learnt my HR trade.  When I joined it was an integrated Trust, providing acute, primary care and mental health services across North East London, with a staff of 5,000.  There were huge resource pressures for the hospital, which operated in a mostly under-privileged area.  The hospital was well known among junior doctors as the place to do their A&E rotation because you were bound to get GSW experience!  I started on a year’s contract covering acute then mental health services and, when health services were reorganised, stayed with the acute hospital on a permanent contract.  The job covered the whole range of HR services, recruitment, retention, training, employee relations, policy and workforce planning.  I was there during a period of huge change and was fortunate to be exposed to many, many interesting and challenging issues and problems.  One particular memory that sticks in my mind is presenting an unfair dismissal defence at an Employment Tribunal, where the former employee complained that he had a bad back and would not be able to continue with the hearing.  The ET Chair, who had previous experience of the somewhat unreliable employee, suggested that he make himself comfortable lying on the floor, from where he presented his case!

Chelsea & Westminster was an innovative employer, at the forefront of establishing local terms and conditions of employment in the NHS, almost unique in public healthcare at the time.   I was there during the implementation of Agenda for Change, national terms and conditions, and it was interesting to work through the complexities of that unusual position with managers, staff and trade unions at the time.

What has been your biggest working challenge so far?

On my first day at Chelsea & Westminster I was told that the Director of HR would be leaving in a few weeks and that I had to achieve Improving Working Lives Plus by the following April or the Trust would not be able to apply for Foundation Trust status.  When I opened the carefully labelled file boxes that my predecessor had left behind I discovered that they were empty!  So I immediately set about establishing a Steering Group and a number of working groups to gather evidence and demonstrate that we were committed to improving work-life balance for staff and becoming an employer of choice.  I delivered the project, which should have taken two years, in six months.

Equally challenging was relocating to Dublin halfway through my working life.  I dropped a couple of grades to make the move, but was able to gain promotion within 15 months.  I was fortunate to undertake roles with a national remit, so I was able to travel extensively and get to know the country and its people better.  This helped with adapting to a different cultural working environment and adjusting to making decisions that could have a significant effect on a person’s employment where there are only two (as opposed to six) degrees of separation.

This article is correct at 20/06/2017

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