By Rosaleen McMeel
From her first job answering phones in a recruitment agency to leading the people strategy at one of Europe’s biggest tech success stories, Louise Lahiff shares a glimpse of her career journey to date.
Originally from Ireland, but based in Edinburgh, Lahiff landed an HR role in 2014 at Version 1, an Irish IT services company. Eight years on, she now heads up the growth and development of its 2,500 staff.
“The time has flown by,” she said. “Sometimes it's difficult to articulate to people that with growth comes opportunity, but that really is the case. If you're growing, you're adding more roles, there's more management opportunities, you're getting involved with more technologies, and you're working with more and bigger customers”.
Version 1 has recently added teams in India and Spain and is expanding into the US.
What was Plan A when you were starting out in your career?
“You know what, I'm not sure I ever had a plan. When I was in college I was a little bit attracted to the medical stuff. So I thought about physiotherapy or medicine and things like that. And I was lucky enough that my dad always had me on computers from when I was five or six. As I was getting ready to leave school, at the last minute, I changed to computer science as a degree. And I haven't looked back since. It's a great base degree to get into lots of different things”.
What was your first job?
“My first job out of college was as a receptionist in a recruitment agency. I’m not sure how much recruitment I did, though. It was very competitive. I did enjoy the agency at the time. It was a very professional job. It was quite funny because that’s where I’ve ended up in a way. That was pre-email and everything. So they were ringing you, and as the receptionist, I was the first point of contact, and the recruiters would beg me to put them through. It was such a different world. Then I started with PwC as a consultant. I really haven't regretted getting into the tech industry. To me, there's a lot of opportunity”.
What skills landed you your current role?
“I was the first HR manager in the UK when I started with Version 1, but I think the same skills that got me that job have helped me with all the subsequent jobs that I've gotten since. I think it's true of a lot of jobs out there. I just had a history of being able to show that I can get things done. In this day and age, you know, you can get quite hung up on particular technical skills or soft skills, even.
I’ve always been quite lucky that I've been quite good at taking a big idea, putting some shape on it, getting people behind it, getting it done and moving on to the next thing. And I think that's what got me this job. And then like I said, that’s what got me on the subsequent jobs that I've had at Version 1. And I see it in my own team and in the broader organisation, that ability to shape up a bit of a plan, get people behind it, it's such an important skill in any industry”
Biggest challenges of your current role?
“Like a lot of leadership positions, it's about trying to balance strategic thinking longer term with the operational work that comes up, day to day.
And then, with my people hat on in particular, just staying that little bit ahead, from a people perspective, with our ideas and with our initiatives. That's what's enabled us to hire and grow quite quickly. So trying to stay ahead of what's important to people, and shape that then into interventions or benefits or actions”.
One piece of advice you'd give somebody starting out in their career?
“Sometimes I see a CV of someone starting out and they may have something on it about working in a cafe or McDonald's or whatever it might be. And it's almost like they need to apologise for it, then they say ‘I don't have any experience’, but to me, that kind of experience is excellent. You have to deal with customers, deal with cash, keep to a schedule, you’ve got to think about solving problems. People have way more experience than they think they have.
All of those things make a huge difference to being good at your job. Don’t get hung up on what you don't have. Look at what you do have, and what you’ve learned from, and then it's how you put that across because, especially if you're starting out in tech, some of that experience is very relevant. You just need to really think about what is the relevance of what you have learned and translate that in an interview”.
Best part of your job?
“I like the people I work with. We work very hard, but ultimately, and I know it’s cliché, but I enjoy spending time with them. They help me solve challenges. I help them solve challenges. I have that sort of fluid workplace relationship with them. And if I didn't have that I wouldn’t be here. If you don't like the people that you work with, go somewhere else. For me, it's a big, big deal”.
“I don’t have one myself, but our CEO, Tom O’Connor, has one which I have pinned to my computer which is ‘It always seems impossible until it's done’. I do like it as a line and it does feel a bit impossible around here at times, but then you get it done”.
“In March of this year, I got the whole People team that has grown over the last few years together. We had the whole team of 75 from across the globe. When I reflect on when I joined, we only had seven people in HR and I was the only one in the UK, and now we have 75 highly intelligent people making a big difference to the organisation. That was a good moment”.