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Five Turning Points of My Career

with Sinead Gogan

Over the last 20 years, Deloitte’s CHRO and People & Purpose leader Sinead Gogan built a global career focused on maximising employee engagement and driving social impact, becoming one of Ireland’s leading HR professionals.

In this week’s ‘Five Turning Points of My Career’, Sinead discusses how gratitude can be used to build confidence, the importance of taking a legacy perspective, and why gender balance is good for business.

Five Turning Points of My Career with Sinead Gogan

"You can build a global career from Ireland"

The current Human Resources landscape is very different to when I started out. There weren’t many HR college courses at the time, and I studied at the National College of Industrial Relations, now known as the National College of Ireland. It was brilliant because it was small, and you were on your feet - there was a lot of group work and presentations.

While I was still studying, Dunnes Stores were holding walk-in interviews, so I decided to go along, and I ended up getting a part-time role at nights and weekends working in HR, then called Personnel, for the Blanchardstown store. It was a phenomenal training ground with a commercial focus. I developed a great understanding of how business works and how companies make money.

When I graduated, I worked with a range of member companies through a consulting role in IBEC, before an opportunity arose to join Fidelity Investments. I’d never heard of the company before I interviewed there but I stayed for 15 years! It gave me the opportunity that a lot of people have in Ireland now - being based here but working with many different global markets including Asia and the US.

I changed roles there almost every two years and while it was immensely challenging at times, the core training I had from IBEC really stood out to me. One of the benefits of working in larger companies like Fidelity and Deloitte is that it’s hard to fail because you’ve got so many supports available, as long as you’re willing to put up your hand and ask for that help.

The nets are there to catch you!

"Gratitude is key to facing career challenges"

I’ve always been motivated by the opportunity to move forward and take chances when they are presented, rather than the fear of standing still.

Rather than getting intimidated by taking on challenges or new opportunities, I try and take an approach of gratitude for the things that come my way. My life is very different to that of my parents because of my education, work opportunities, and the time that I entered the workforce.

I wake up every day thankful for all the things that came together and the things my parents did to make sure that I have the life I do.

When my son Ethan was four years old, I was offered the opportunity to lead a HR team in China for a year. It turned out to be the most profound professional and personal experience of my life. Dalian is a city of six million people that almost nobody in Ireland has heard of, so it was a very different experience that challenged us as a family every day we were there!

Looking back, it was hugely transformative because you grow when you step out of your comfort zone. I think when you travel and live away from home, you learn a lot about yourself, who you are as a person and what home means to you. I couldn’t recommend it more.

‘Think with a legacy perspective’

I surprised myself when I made the move to Deloitte as I wasn’t looking for a new role. When I got the call, I agreed to a meeting only because I was curious about the work the organisation was doing in Ireland. Various interviews later, I had agreed to move!

I loved the ambition that the firm had for growth and change, it was really inspiring.  

When it comes to taking on a new role or a new team, I believe it’s important to honour and respect the history, take time to understand the organisation and get to know how decisions are made. 

In HR, a lot of our work is focused on working with leaders on their team effectiveness, so I’ve become a big believer in the power of routines – having the right structure for one-to-ones, skip-levels, check-ins, and team meetings. That discipline has been successful for me in my career.

I also try and think about things from a legacy perspective – ‘what would my successor want me to do today? What are the decisions now that can set things up for the next person who, in time, will come in and leave it better than when they found it?’. Over time, I’ve learned to have a lens around long-term thinking and building for the future.

Someone described it as thinking about eulogy skills rather than CV skills, which I thought was really interesting. What would you want people to say about you when you’re not here and what impact will you make?

Certainly, for me, it’s helpful to think about purpose in that context. I’ve been fortunate to have a career that has meaning for me. Finding those small things that make a difference personally and give you energy. In 2016, I went looking for a voluntary role as I was keen to bring my skills into the community where I live.

As a young girl, I remember both my paternal grandmother and my own mother saying every woman should have a ‘running away fund’. It wasn't obvious until I was a lot older that I really understood what that might mean.

When I met Meath Women’s Refuge & Support Services, I was immediately taken back to those childhood conversations and have been a member of their board since.

Often my small contribution involves sitting in my kitchen late at night after my boys have gone to bed and there may be a letter to edit or a document to review. My motivation is in support of those women who have no running away funds. In many ways, that is in fact my most important job.

"It takes a village to build a career"

Choosing the right partner has a big influence on your career trajectory. For women who want to have children, it’s so important to find a spouse that has a flexible, unconventional attitude to gender roles and works with each other on your combined goals for family and work.

My husband has been hugely supportive of my career. We’ve both stepped forward and stepped back at different stages, but he has made the bigger sacrifices and carries more of the burden at home, which has been instrumental to both our success. He’s a partner in the true sense of the word and regrouping with him always brings perspective.

Over the years we have adjusted our childcare depending on the stage of our boys and have seen first-hand how access to affordable, quality childcare is a barrier to female participation in the Irish workforce. Many families living in Ireland rely hugely on help from wider relatives and this support isn’t available to those who move to Ireland for work from abroad.

Until we have a modern, functioning childcare system and schools that open before 9 am, we can talk about it but we’re not going to get women through the pipeline because families have those constraints. Our school buildings are empty half the week and a lot of the year, and we have an opportunity to innovate how we use that infrastructure. Employers have to get more vocal on social policy - we have a lot of work to do.

"Creating a balanced workforce is good for business"

Personally, I’ve also benefitted from sponsorship, where business leaders
that I have worked with have been able to advocate for me and speak about
my work and impact at times that mattered when  I am not in the room. Generally, those mentors have been male leaders. In business, we need to mitigate the fact that women don’t always get that type of support.

Sponsorship is very different from mentorship. Women are often over-mentored and under-sponsored. Men tend to find that sponsorship more naturally and organically through relationships and connections. It can be a really big differentiator in someone’s career path, and I see our role in the
HR community to uncover those infrastructural things, the barriers, to having
that kind of sponsorship.

In my experience, the business case for equal representation still isn’t really well understood. For an organisation like Deloitte, gender balance is critical. For clients, it’s also something that’s a business imperative for them. When we show up to our clients with a balanced team, they get better outcomes, and they rightly expect diversity of thought. This isn’t just a ‘nice to have’, it’s a ‘make us more successful businesses’ too. 

When it comes to tackling gender representation at senior levels, the focus for a lot of companies is on "fixing the women" to have them show up in the same way that men do, and that’s not working.

There’s a shift in mindset needed and education for everyone - both men and women.