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How I became a HR Business Partner

13th May 2019

The Post: Deputy Principal/HR Business Partner, Northern Ireland Civil Service HR, Department of Finance (DOF)

The Post Holder: Laura McMicheal

A variety of roles within the Northern Ireland Civil Service have led Laura McMicheal to her career today.

Give a brief outline of your career to date.

I started my career at university when I spent my placement year working at the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society. This was a varied placement and gave me great insight into various roles including event management, assisting with organising Balmoral Show and exhibitions/conferences held at the Kings Hall, marketing and finance.

After graduating, I joined the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS) in 2010 and spent a number of years as a Project Manager within the Driver & Vehicle Agency.

I then moved on promotion to the then Department for Social Development, now Department for Communities, where I continued working in project management roles and strengthening my skills and knowledge in this area.

The Northern Ireland Civil Service is very multi-disciplined, with a variety of roles across all departments. In 2016, I took a career change and transferred to a HR role within the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA).

My responsibilities included managing Employee Relations issues within the department, preparation of statistical reports, and ensuring compliance with Data Protection and Freedom of Information requests.

In April 2017, all departmental HR functions were centralised, and NICSHR was established to provide HR services to all NICS departments. This led me to my current role as HR Business Partner for DAERA, where my role is to develop a clear understanding of DAERA’s business needs and the contribution required from NICSHR to assist in delivery of DAERA’s operational objectives.

What was your favourite subject at school?

History, however, I wish Science had been one of my stronger subjects.

Did you go on to further/ higher education, if so what did you study and where?

After leaving school, I went to the University of Ulster, Jordanstown, and graduated with a BSc (Hons) in Business Studies in 2009. I followed this up with a Diploma in Advanced Management Practice.

How did you get into your area of work?

In a frantic job search during my final year at university, I applied for the NICS Staff Officer Direct Entrant competition, which enabled graduates to enter into a middle management grade within the Civil Service. After three years as a Staff Officer, I was promoted, and I am currently working as a Deputy Principal within NICSHR.

Is this what you always wanted to do?

Very few children say ‘civil servant’ when asked in primary school. As you get older you tend to focus on your career a bit more.

If I am honest I don’t think I really knew what I wanted to do. I was always good with numbers and, at one stage, I almost progressed into a career within accountancy. However, I always had a keen interest in HR since studying Business Studies at university. A big bonus of working in the Civil Service is the ability to move into different work areas, and I am very fortunate that my career has led me to a job role that I love.

Were there any particular essential qualifications or experience needed?

At that time, a university degree was an essential criteria to join the civil service directly at a middle management level.

Are there alternative routes into the job?

Yes, you can enter the Northern Ireland Civil Service at any grade and work your way up.

A competition to apply for Staff Officer and Deputy Principal posts within the Northern Ireland Civil Service has now been launched. Potential candidates will now be able to apply by demonstrating relevant experience.

What are the main personal skills your job requires?

Good people skills are essential. While the Civil Service may be seen as a bureaucratic organisation, it’s about people first and foremost. You need to be able to demonstrate compassion and empathy to provide support to colleagues, staff and managers and to ensure that people are treated fairly and considerately. This also includes building strong working relationships with middle and senior business managers in order to act as a trusted advisor.

Communicating effectively with people right across the organisation, at all levels, is critical. Whether this be drafting written briefings, providing verbal explanations, delivering presentations, conducting interviews, leading mediations, listening to people’s concerns – having strong communication skills is key.

Professionalism is important to build trust. This includes handling personal data and information in a sensitive, discrete and professional manner and also being able to challenge decisions and actions to ensure transparency and that policy and regulations are adhered to.

The world of work is changing, and that will impact on how we manage our people, so being open to ideas, being curious and having a willingness to learn are important skills also.

What does a typical day entail?

It’s an often-repeated cliché, and I’m probably not the first person to use it on these pages, but no two days are the same. A HR Business Partner is a wide ranging and varied role. A typical day could involve any or all of the following: analysing management information and operational issues to identify patterns and trends as a prompt for HR intervention; providing appropriate HR briefing to senior management; developing action plans to address issues and implement HR aspects of change; contributing to strategy development and business planning to ensure that the HR/people agenda is integral; supporting implementation of HR policies and initiatives at departmental level; and providing advice and guidance to departments on interpretation of HR policy and application of procedures.

Read that back, it sounds quite dry. But HR is a collaborative effort, and in reality, it means liaising and working with people. The civil service is made up of over 23,000 individuals from a range of backgrounds, with different skills in different roles.

They all have their own contribution to make and it’s my job to ensure those in my area have the opportunity to do just that.

What are the best and most challenging aspects of the job?

Learning is a key personal driver for me and because the breadth of the job is so wide and varied, I am continually learning so much about HR and the department that I business partner. However, because the breadth of the job is so wide, managing my time effectively can then be a huge challenge. You’ll never see me without a notebook adding to my to-do list.

Why is what you do important?

The HR Business Partner is the point of contact between their assigned Department and NICSHR, and the work we do supports a strategic HR agenda that will enable delivery of the department’s business objectives.

What advice would you give anyone looking to follow a similar career path?

I would encourage anyone to apply for a job in the Northern Ireland Civil Service. There are so many different roles across a wide range of professions and disciplines – general service, scientific, veterinary, accountancy, technological, legal, IT.

From fish farms to forests, from justice to the arts, health to horticulture, there are many, many roles.

Working in the NICS provides a great opportunity to develop career pathways and to have a real wide and varied career. The opening of the new DAERA headquarters in Ballykelly has also reduced my need to travel and combined with benefits such as flexi time and alternative working patterns, I have been able to achieve a good work life balance.

If you weren’t doing this what would you like to do?

Anything that involves eating good food. Ideally a judge on MasterChef.

If you could go back, what is the one piece of advice you would give to yourself on your first day?

Have the courage to speak up, don’t be afraid to challenge and to ask questions to improve your own understanding and learning. A new perspective is often greatly valued, and the NICS is a nurturing organisation where fresh opinions are valued and encouraged.

Describe your ideal day off.

A lie in past 7am would be bliss and a lovely start to the day. I am a working mum with two young kids so spending quality time with them on my days off is always a priority.

I would pack a picnic and set off with my two kids and husband and do something they enjoy – whether this be going to the Zoo, a fun farm or enjoying the beaches along the North Coast.

I would finish the day off with some good food catching up with family and friends.

View the current opportunities with the Northern Ireland Civil Service here

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