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How To Identify & Retain Top Talent with Sharon Looney Of CoreHR & Kage Spatz

HR Strategy Series, Real Human Resources

CoreHR Human Resources Hiring Strategies

I’d like to encourage all leaders to truly appreciate the lives, emotions, contributions, and potential of their employees.

As a part of my HR Strategy Series, I’m talking to top experts in the field to teach prospects what hiring managers are actually looking for, while also supporting business leaders in their hiring and retention strategies. Today I had the pleasure of talking with Sharon Looney.

Sharon Looney is CHRO for Irish technology company CoreHR, where she reports directly to the CEO and is a member of the executive board. She steers organisations and their HR teams to ignite and accelerate delivery of the human aspects of business transformations and has worked in more than 21 countries. Sharon has earned multiple accolades, including in 2019 the CHRO of the Year (Global HRD Congress) and Irish HR Champion awards. In 2018, she was presented a Top 50 HR Tech Minds Award by the World HRD Congress. Sharon is a regular presenter at business and HR conferences and welcomes approaches from business leaders and senior HR professionals seeking practical guidance and mentoring on all aspects of people-led change and transformation. More about Sharon here.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Following University, my career really started in training & development. This gave me a great practical grounding in HR and formed my standpoint, indeed my personal motto, that “People Create all Value in Business.” I worked initially as a development specialist. I then moved into more strategic and transformational HR roles across various organizations. I experienced firsthand the significant contrasts between those companies whose top management believe in this motto (that People Create All Value in Business) and those who don’t!

Against this backdrop, I’ve deliberately and intentionally (in the latter years of my career) used this as my beacon in determining whether or not I want to work with a particular organization. I’ve been fortunate in making sound judgment calls in the selection of my employers over recent years. Consequently I’ve found myself leading some highly transformational, high value add projects — all HR led and with one intended outcome: to create a people-centric environment in which people can flourish, where HR is recognized as the accelerant function of meaningful transformation and where people are the recognized creators of all value in the business.

Can you share the most interesting or funny story that happened to you since you started this career and what lesson you learned from that?

An interesting story I’ve learned a lot from goes back to the 1990s and a previous employer; an electronics company. I was interviewing candidates for a skilled production role. A lady presented for the role and during the opening of the interview I discovered she had a severe hearing impediment. She used sign language to communicate but regretfully I lacked the skill to communicate and had to scurry to find someone who had. Luckily, one of our production operators had learned sign language to communicate with a sibling and volunteered to facilitate communication during interview. It turned out that the interviewee was well suited to the job and we offered her the role. For the first time in my career, I felt I had been totally incompetent, because I’d lacked the skill required to manage the interview without facilitation. And our inadequacies as a company didn’t’ stop there. While the new hire was fully competent to perform the job, she had social needs at work which couldn’t be met because her colleagues did not have the skills to communicate with her. The situation did nothing but amplify for me that the inabilities were totally one-sided: our inability to communicate because we didn’t have the skill, our inability to socialize because we couldn’t engage in communication. The solution? Skill up and never again find ourselves in such a situation of incompetence or inadequacy.

Learning a new language is always challenging but exciting and with opportunity to learn a universal language, our teams (with the help and support of our new hire) soon ‘grasped’ it — of course with the added advantage of daily practice with their new colleague. Out of this learning, I found opportunity to discover other progressive approaches to similar situations and was fortunate to have my efforts formally recognized as recipient of the “Positive to Disability Recognition Award” presented by the then Deputy Prime Minister of Ireland and Minister for Enterprise Trade and Employment.

From this experience, I learned how the role of ‘mindset’ can send us on the wrong trail when identifying inadequacies and gaps. It prevents us from truly seeing where the problem sits and oftentimes as a consequence, we often tackle issues from the wrong angle.

Let’s now jump to the main focus of our series. Hiring can be very time consuming and difficult. Can you share 5 techniques that you use to identify the talent that would be best suited for the job you want to fill?

Priority 1: Knowing precisely what you’re looking for. Seems obvious? Have you ever supported a hiring process without a detailed job description? Was it successful? How many times have we ‘gone back to the drawing board’? How many times have we in fact only visited the drawing board after having first attempted (and failed) to recruit because we didn’t have a proper job description in the first place? Never attempt to hire without demanding a detailed job description from the hiring manager — ever! No job description, no attempt to hire!

Priority 2: Test the hiring manager’s understanding of what we’re looking for! Ask the hiring manager to profile the ‘ideal’ candidate and then ask him/her to remove 50% of it and boil down to the absolute necessities. Take this as the ‘realistic’ profile around which you navigate the search.

Priority 3: Avoid the ‘wide net’ approach — know the fish, know where they swim and spare your net.

Priority 4: Know what you can / cannot compromise on.

Priority 5: Be willing to compromise but ready to invest in closing gaps (for example through training a new employee in specific areas of need).

Great tips! With so much noise and competition out there, what are your top ways to attract and engage the best talent in an industry when they haven’t already reached out to you?

At CoreHR, we focus first and foremost on an inside / out approach across our entire people strategy. (We call it our PEP Strategy — Perform, Enjoy, Progress). We rely heavily on organically developing our employer branding, through the experiences of people. Our people’s external expression of these experiences is our Number One way of attracting and engaging the best talent in our industry. Number Two is spending time scouting or ‘courting’ talent long before the vacancy exists and Number Three is hiring for careers and not for jobs!

What are the 3 most effective strategies used to retain employees?

Number One: Competent leadership.

Number Two: Competent co-workers.

Number Three: Clarity of purpose and recognitions of performance.

In your experience, is it important for HR to keep up with the latest trends and an example of what this might look like?

First priority is that HR has an acute handle on the prevailing organizational context and how it’s strategically impacting overall organizational intent. External trends / best practices are critical but secondary to effectively responding to and delivering value in the existing organizational context. Best practice is only best practice if it’s delivering value in the existing organizational context!

Can you give an example of a creative way to increase the value provided to employees without breaking the bank?

Introduce more ‘Fun’ at work — We’ve lost our focus on this very important aspect of our working lives. Take a deeper look at how we’re promoting more ‘enjoyment’ from our work — Try some fun competitions and projects and watch how your employees will respond. The value won’t come from the prizes you offer but from the fun and enjoyment experienced. Invaluable — the value of fun at work.

I’ve got a great example from here at CoreHR. In a project I conceived under our ‘One Team, One Vision’ initiative, our employees have this year produced a cookbook. It’s called “CoreHR — Our Recipe Collection.” Our people are from geographically and culturally diverse backgrounds and I wanted to bring us all together in a fun but rewarding way. I encouraged staff to write tasty recipes from home for the book. CoreHR agreed to pay for design and printing.

It’s been a great success! We even won support from famous Irish celebrity chef, Rachel Allen who provided two of her own recipes and the forward to the book. The project and the book itself have attracted great media coverage locally and we’ve started to sell the book externally. We’re aiming to raise ten thousand Euros (about US $11,000) from the sales, which we’ll donate to a local Irish charity for the homeless called The Simon Community.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

Great interview question! I guess that coming back to my mantra of ‘People Create all Value in a Business,’ I’d like to encourage all leaders to truly appreciate the lives, emotions, contributions, and potential of their employees. We spend a huge amount of our lives at work and long term, the most successful business will always be those who present a great place to work, where people thrive. Employers that simply demand high output and achievement of short term profit goals can only fail long term. People aren’t machines. We need work that is fulfilling; we need good leaders who earn our emotional engagement.

So true! Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote” and share how it has been relevant to you in your life?

The best thing in the whole world is looking at things falling into place because of what you’ve done, when beforehand things were in chaos! Some of the best senses of achievement for me have been experienced when the road was long, the blind spots many, the crash scenes were gruesome but finally, FEARs along the way turned out to be nothing more than False Evidence Appearing Real (FEAR)! The lesson being — If it’s worth doing, stick with it, do it with passion or go home!

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have a private lunch with, and why?

Lunch with Richard Branson! Because I see him as a billionaire not of banknotes but by the billions of lives he positively impacts every day. On the business side — because I love industry disruptors and well who else stacks up against Sir Richard! A legend for all the right reasons.

Thank you so much for sharing your valuable insights with us!

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