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Use it or Lose it - how to lock in talent


Paul Ryan is most aware of the importance of developing talent as a way to make people ready for leadership positions.  As senior manager of a new technology support centre in Limerick, he is building innovation and technical operations from scratch – and knows that nurturing individual skills within teams will be the key to success.

The company he works for, WP Engine, provides space for hosting websites built using the WordPress platform.  Its headquarters is in Austin, Texas, and it employs more than 400 people, of whom more than 20 are in Ireland.

The Limerick site opened eight months ago and Ryan is the sole senior manager. He says WP Engine is on track to employ 100 people at the site within the next year.

“One of my roles is to find people’s strengths and help to adjust their career paths accordingly”, he adds.  “My own career progression had a lot to do with the skills other people saw in me”.

After graduating from Limerick University with a degree in computer systems in 1994, Ryan’s first job was an application developer at the Dublin office of Isocor, a California-based software developer that was acquired by Critical Path in 1999.

That experience was the springboard for the development of his leadership style, which he claims is grounded in teamwork and developing the skills of colleagues. 

“Isocor was a start-up site, so I got exposure to all aspects of the business and my skills were rounded out”, he says.  “We were a small operation of about 35 people looking after large customers.  It helped to build my influencing skills, which are key to good leadership”.

The “rubber met the road” in terms of Ryan’s journey into leadership while working at Genworth Financial, then part of GE Capital, in Shannon, co. Clare, about 15 years ago.  There he developed his people skills, and in 2020 he was promoted to the position of European production services leader.

“I had some good mentors at GE and soon realised, when travelling to customer sites, that I couldn’t just be he geeky guy in the corner,” he says.  “GE was strong in terms of investment in its people, but really it came down to being given the opportunity.”

Ryan’s experience is not unique, but companies need to do more to foster the next generation of leaders, according to Niamh O’Driscoll, Managing Partner of Fastnet, the talent and recruitment and search firm.

She says that demand is growing ad “leadership pipeline” within a lot of companies is not strong enough.  Fastnet focuses on the pharmaceutical, med-tech and food and agricultural sectors, and last month it surveyed 490 multinational and Irish companies.  The research showed that 40% of groups had filled senior management roles in the past 12 months.

“We have seen an increasing number of top-table type appointments among our clients such as director of manufacturing and director of quality control,” said O’Driscoll.  “Global supply chain roles are quite common as well.”

Fastnet is the Irish member firm of IRC global executive search partners, a network spanning 80 cities on six continents.  The company has expanded its executive search division to be more international, and has set up a unit focused on talent and transformation.  It appointed Richard Butler, who has 30 years’ experience in the sector, as its director of Executive Search.

The Fastnet survey showed that 52% of companies felt it was important to look internationally when hiring senior executives or leadership talent, and 35% of respondents had initiated an international search when seeking to fill a post.

“More often than not, an Irish person will be hired to a senior position either internally or from a shortlist,” says O’Driscoll.

“Ultimately, though, international search is important as it allows companies to evaluate internal talent based on an international talent pool - and appoint the person deemed to be the best leader.”

Dave Barry became Fastnet’s Director of Talent & transformation last year.  He is passionate about talent development and his career experience of being brought on by senior colleagues, is as positive as Ryan’s.

Barry studied economics and French at University College of Cork with a view to becoming a teacher, but spent the early part of his career, during the 1990’s in finance-related roles. “I realised I wasn’t a finance guy and didn’t find it motivating”, he says.

In 1999 his career moved in a different direction when he joined Eli Lilly in Cork as a business analyst.  “There was a culture of continuous development and support at Eli Lilly. I went back to study human resources at night and was appointed HR Business Partner in KInsale in 2002,” he adds.

“I learnt a lot about talent management, although it wasn’t called that at the time. People thought I had won the lotto because I moved on from there under the age of 40.  It is viewed globally as ‘Li8lly for Life’ but I wanted to take everything I had learnt and apply it to a different sector.”

In 2013, Barry became head of HR at the Cork Offices of Trend Micro, a security software specialist.  He liked the company approach to talent management and found how to conduct an internal audit to enable change.

“As an Asian company, on of Trend Micro’s core values is change itself,” he says.  “MY role involved open and honest exploratory conversations with the leadership team after some significant changes had taken place within the company at global and European levels.

“It made me more focused on the talent life-cycle of attraction, management, development, engagement and retention. I learnt that you can’t look at those pieces in isolation.  If a talented person leaves a company, most of the time it is not to do with retention but something father back, such as not being well-managed or developed.”

Barry has completed an in-house assessment of Fastnet that involved one-to-one sessions with each of the 22 colleagues.  He will soon work with clients in a similar way.  “The results we have seen are unbelievable.  The information you get from one-to-one conversations is a lot better in terms of quality compared with a survey,” says O’Driscoll.

“Things are changing so quickly that, if companies don’t harness the potential in their existing talent, they will be left behind.  It is too late to get information from someone when they’re walking out the door.” 


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