Interview with Jan Smullen - HR Director, EY Ireland

Posted in : HR Interview Series on 21 February 2018

Jan Smullen


Name:  Jan Smullen
Position & Organisation:  HR Director, EY Ireland
Number of Employees: over 2500
Time in Post: 4 years
Previous Job: Senior HR Business Partner, AIB Bank


Tell us about your business in a sentence

EY is a global leader in assurance, tax, transaction and advisory services. The insights and quality services we deliver help build trust and confidence in the capital markets and in economies the world over. We develop outstanding leaders who team to deliver on our promises to all of our stakeholders. In so doing, we play a critical role in building a better working world for our people, for our clients and for our communities.

EY employs over 2500 people across the island of Ireland, across seven offices in Dublin, Belfast, Cork, Galway, Limerick and Waterford.

Give us an idea about your early life and career

I’m a proud Dub, growing up in Inchicore and then Crumlin.  I am from a small family with one brother who’s lived in Australia for over 20 years, I had a very happy childhood split between Dublin and summer holidays with my relations who mostly had farms, so pretty idyllic.  I joined AIB in the early 80s when Ireland was in the throes of recession, never intending to stay but spent over 30 years there between frontline business and 20 years in HR.

What are the key challenges you face in your role?

Like most growing businesses attracting and retaining Talent is a key challenge, the economic recovery means there’s so much more choice for people, which is great, but it means your organisation has to really work hard to stand apart.  That’s actually a good thing as you can’t get complacent. 

Making sure your people have a great experience is also high on the list; how you develop them, how you challenge them, how they experience their work environment every day, the impact their manager has on them, how we can accommodate flexibility and actually build it into how we work so it becomes the norm rather than the exception.  That’s something EY is working hard at as it’s a real differentiator, everyone has exceptionally busy lives and we need to be able to manage all of our needs, both personal and professional.

What keeps you going when things get tough?

I’m a pretty resilient person, I pride myself on being strong as I think it’s important you can demonstrate that in your leadership style, while balancing it with being vulnerable and acknowledging your own concerns as well.  I think you have to keep issues or problems in perspective, when you understand the problem then break it down into manageable chunks, making a plan and then addressing each part of the problem individually.  That stops you from getting overwhelmed.

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

If it was for a day then it would be the President of the US making some really impactful decisions.  If not, then I would like to work longer term with young adolescents, I think they’ve a very tough world to navigate, and with two young adults at home this is something of real interest to me.

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

I really admire fresh thinking and innovation, taking risks and finding new ways to connect with your client base, the world of business is changing so quickly all the time you need to be really agile.  Investing is those things; innovation, agility, resilience is really critical.

How do you unwind after a tough week?

I relish Friday nights, it’s my favourite time of the week, when the week is over but the weekend has yet to begin.  I rarely make plans as I just love to close the door, kick back and relax. Otherwise I take my German Shepherd dog for a walk, there’s something magic about the unconditional love a pet gives you, I adore him and he keeps me sane!

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

Just like business, I think the HR world is changing very quickly. Essential skills continue to be relationship building, market knowledge, translating strategy into action, helping organisations understand their culture and mapping that culture to enabling talent attraction.

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

I was very lucky at pivotal points in my career I was fortunate enough to work with people who took a chance on me and exposed me to senior roles which brought fabulous experience.  These all had strategic challenges and the leaders I worked with generously helped develop my strategic muscle, sharing their experience and supporting me in growing mine.  Even when I got things wrong the message was all about learning from those experiences and moving forward, never about blame.  It’s something I incorporates into my own leadership style as it’s really powerful.

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

When I was first appointed Manager a senior colleague told me the most important thing I had to remember was I had become a role model overnight.  That becomes even more important the more senior roles you hold.  Being brave, assertive, staying true to your own values, taking risks, staying human, helping others grow, giving others the credit are all things you have to do as a leader.

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

Technology definitely, how data is becoming a much more important enabler and moving from a reality where organisations chose employees to employees choosing organisations.  That’s driven a big mind-set shift for leaders.

What has been your biggest working challenge so far?

It’s always helping managers and leaders be their best and understanding that managing their people is their responsibility.  HR can provide policies, processes and frameworks but line managers need to manage.  No matter what challenges I’ve faced in my various roles over the years it has always come back to that.

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

It’s a great choice but be prepared for the tough challenges, you’re often between a rock and a hard place because leaders may have a different priority or perspective to their people and it’s navigating that path. However the sense of achievement and personal satisfaction can be great which makes it all worthwhile.

What is your proudest career achievement to date?

I’ve had many along the way so won’t pick out a single one, for me it’s about still finding a sense of enjoyment in what I do and still feeling proud when I see others succeed, maybe people I’ve guided along the way or people who’ve worked as part of my team.  For me it’s all about leaving a positive legacy.

What benefits do staff value most in your organisation?

Development and flexibility, both of which we invest heavily in.

In your view what is the best thing an organisation can do to motivate staff and drive higher performance?

Demonstrate a real interest in your people, connect personally, understand what they want to achieve and help them develop and grow to succeed, it may be within another organisation but that’s ok too, provide real stretch opportunities, invest in their development and reward great performance.  Having ongoing conversations is really important and making time for them is critical, your people won’t consistently deliver if you don’t.

This article is correct at 21/02/2018

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.