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Don’t always listen to family and friends – New Year’s advice for business owner Aine Crilly

Aine Crilly

“Don’t always listen to family and friends”. That’s some pretty sound New Year’s advice!

But for 34-year-old Aine Crilly, it’s that advice which changed her career – and life – for the better.

The self-proclaimed Armagh ‘blow-in’ set up her business – The HR Elephant, a consultancy firm headquartered outside Newtownhamilton, with offices in Newry and Dundalk, – in 2017.

With a good work ethic and a burning desire to make it work, Aine – who started the business just after having her first of two children – didn’t know much about running a business. In fact, she was starting from scratch, having worked for large firms and the public sector in her career up to that point.

Speaking to Armagh I, Aine admitted: “I didn’t ever really think about it; we grew up in and around my grandparents farm, that was as much business as we really knew.

“My father is a self-employed joiner and my mother worked in the health service, so while we had a bit of exposure to a business, I wasn’t naturally inclined towards starting my own business. What we did learn from an early age on the farm, were key life skills – work ethic, communication, and critical thinking, which have stood me in good stead.”

Like many business owners, the fear of the unknown didn’t stop Aine. What may have stopped her though was the concerns expressed from those close to her.

“That’s not in a negative sense, but sometimes people, because they are concerned for you and afraid of you making the wrong choices, will put you off exploring something that could change your life,” she said.

“In business you must be brave. It was important that I listened to all the concerns or the people saying, ‘Ack, you’re away in the head’ or ‘that service won’t work’, so I could really focus on how I could and would make it work. This encouraged me, rather than making me think I shouldn’t go for it. I didn’t want to be working for someone else for the rest of my life and thinking of the ‘what ifs’.

“Starting your own business gives you so much flexibility for your work-life balance. I can do the school run; I can take the kids swimming on a Wednesday at three o’clock if I’ve had a really intense day; you have the flexibility to open your life up to so much enjoyment. At the same time, I could be working until midnight when I have a deadline to meet.”

The name The HR Elephant – well, Aine loves elephants. They are strong, powerful creatures who are respected by other animal groupings. Elephants display characteristics associated with compassion, cooperation, self-awareness, memory, communication, and learning. These are key traits that should be displayed by those entrusted to look after the welfare of others in the workplace according to Aine.

‘I’ve always been drawn to look after people.’ Aine said.

“I’m the oldest of three girls,” she explained. “Together we have come through quite a lot. I am a resilient character because I always had to be strong for the girls. We are a team. In every negative experience there’s always a good lesson. This has shaped my own approach to life and work. You take your learning from everything; and make sure you have a team. We have a team at home and a team in The HR Elephant. We call our team in The HR Elephant ‘the HERD’ and I love it.”

The idea for starting her business came from helping others during her own maternity leave, but her previous roles also helped pave the way.

A stint in Canada, and various public and private sector roles didn’t quite deliver long-term goals, but it worked for the girl from Drumaroad, County Down.

“I came out of college and didn’t get into a fixed role straight away. At the time I was really frustrated, thinking I should have landed my dream job immediately. I now know that trying several shorter-term jobs was perfect for me because not only did it make me agile, but it helped to shape what I did and didn’t like to do.

“When I returned home from Canada, I got a role with Deloitte; it was a great experience with fantastic exposure, but it was a temporary role. I was travelling to Dublin and trying to juggle a master’s degree while expecting my first child. I look back now and think ‘how I did that’, but I stuck it out and persevered. You can do anything you put your mind too!”

Aine spent some time at Hyster Yale in Craigavon whilst completing her Master’s, but it was while on maternity leave that the cogs in her entrepreneurial mind began turning.

A few small HR projects came along…and with that a seed was planted.

Said Aine: “The importance of positive relationships in the workplace is crucial. It is the same as your team at home, your team in work need to be pulling in the same direction to achieve success.

“The interaction of team members in the workplace and how they communicate with each other was something that I have always been very passionate about. I was intrigued by this since the earliest days of my career. It sparked my interest in HR and I will never forget the Maya Angelou quote that I first heard in my early days in HR: ‘People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel’. I think that sums up HR perfectly.”

“The majority of people do not really understand what HR / People Management is or what we do.

“We try to make people management simple – essentially we provide practical advice, support, and the tools to help organisations effectively lead and guide their ‘Herd’ (team) to success.

“From a young age, I have always supported friends and family in the background with writing CVs, mock interviews, policies, processes etc, I loved helping others. I still get a real buzz from this type of work.”

“And when I was on maternity leave with my first child, I got asked to take on a few short-term projects by word of mouth, and I had that fire in my belly. I thought, ‘you know, there really is business opportunity here’ in this area.”

Aine continued: “People said to me, there’s no way you’ll ever make a business out of SME business consultancy, not here in Newry or Armagh. Maybe if you go to Belfast, or you go to Dublin, but I just knew I could make it work.

“In fact, we have found that it is businesses with less than 30 employees who need more support because the large corporates already have in-house HR teams.

“I am a strong character. I rarely let anyone put me off my gut instinct and this has stood by me.

“In terms of giving advice, I would say if you had a passion for something; something that you could make a living out of – go ahead and give it a go. Get a business plan together and channel the passion that you have into monetising what you love to do. Even if you may never be rich, happiness is the key to success and I always say, ‘what’s the worst that can happen?’

“I’m probably a calculated risk taker, but for me it made sense just to go for it. You only have one chance to live the life you want. If it does not work out, you can try something else. And you know, 10 years down the line, you may regret not trying it or not giving it a go.”

That gut instinct has allowed Aine to grow The HR Elephant into a multi-site organisation with six full-time team members.

Of course, it hasn’t been plain sailing – and even for a HR expert – people management remains a difficult nut to crack for the best of business owners, but she insists it’s all about getting your team right and surrounding yourself with the right people.

“For us, it’s not just five days a week on our client work, there’s definitely at least one day per week that goes into our team, and whether that’s weekly meetings, planning and reviewing progress or checking in with them individually – everything in HR comes from communication.

“We have a mission to ‘Embrace, Educate and Enable’ our clients, depending on the level of support they need. This is a great way for us to easily explain to clients how we can help – Embrace is where we wrap our services around their business and deliver their HR services for them; Educate is where we provide the tools for a business to do it themselves; and Enable is where we sit in the background and an organisation can come to us if they need a bit of help with an issue.”

For Aine and her clients, people management is rapidly changing on a daily basis and can be extremely challenging.

“We have been operating in crisis mode for the last 18 months – Brexit and Covid has further exacerbated the value of educating and enabling leaders to be broader thinkers and nimble enough to deal with an agile and restless workforce.

“The pandemic has really expedited the role of HR and People Management. Business owners have had to quickly learn why HR is fundamental in their business and why they need to ensure they get the basics right.” explained Aine.

“Covid has really been a defibrillator moment for businesses in the sense it has shown them how important it is to have clear policies, procedures and processes in place. We always say that ‘Polices are designed to empower, rather than limit, Procedures are to liberate, not limit, Rules clarify rather than confine’.

“HR is by far the most difficult and time-consuming aspect of setting up and running a business – from recruiting the right team members for the first time to the day-to-day people management, it can be overwhelming. There is a lot more to HR than simply hiring and firing.”

The rewards, for Aine, have outweighed the risks. While starting a business from scratch was daunting, she says if you surround yourself with the right people who can support you in your journey and value your relationships with a network of people.

“There’s so much guidance and support for businesses to avail from: locally we have the Chambers – Newry and Dundalk. Organisations such as the Newry & Mourne Enterprise Agency and the NMD Business. The Granite Exchange [in Newry] runs The Public Eye, and that’s a good platform of local businesses in the Newry and Mourne area. You could be listening to podcasts all day, every day because there’s so much out there.”

Aine added: “You have to continually keep learning, upskilling, and diversifying – thinking differently. It’s not just enough to do one way of working, or one role because, yes, I’m an HR consultant, but there’s so many avenues and so many pillars of a house that we could have if you’re keen to keep an open mind and continue to learn.”

Aine’s parting words of wisdom – befitting of ending a year – are simply: “If something keeps coming to your mind, if it’s a passion or business idea, or whatever it is; if you can’t shake it or scratch the itch so to speak and you really have fire in the belly, go for it. Seek support from those people around you, there’s so much free advice and support, whether it’s your local enterprise agency, Invest NI or Enterprise Ireland, seek it out and give it a go… oh and make sure to get good HR support.” She laughs.

To find out more about Aine and The HR Elephant, check out their various channels here.

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