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Cath Everett

Sift Media

Freelance journalist and former editor of HRZone

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Talent Spot: Community blogger, Derek Irvine


Derek Irvine, one of HRzone’s most prolific and respected bloggers, started his career as a marketing and brand man in his home town of Dublin.

Currently vice president of strategy and consulting services at rewards and recognition software and services provider, Globoforce, he is still based in Ireland, but spends a good chunk of his time at the firm’s US headquarters in Boston and travelling to see clients as far afield as Madrid and London.
“You tend to find me on an aeroplane, somewhere between rows eight and 14,” he says.
While Irvine’s stated interest in the notions of ‘employer brand’ and ‘company culture’ are an obvious by-product of his marketing background, his whole interest in the world of business actually started much earlier in life.
His father was an entrepreneur who ran a series of catering businesses, including a small chain of delis. “So you’re always learning something new and different. Being self-employed is lumpy and you get good years and bad years, but I got a good insight into all of that and I enjoy helping to bring about change,” Irvine says.
The experience meant that he was “always very passionate about business” and, while other teenagers may have spent their time amusing themselves with light fiction, he was busy improving his mind by reading business magazines.
Lots of hats
After undertaking a Bachelor’s degree in Commerce and a Masters in Business Studies at University College Dublin, Irvine was recruited onto a graduate training programme by management consultancy, PA Consulting.
Two years later in 1990, he left to become a brand manager at Johnson & Johnson, but after 24 months returned to PA as a principal consultant in strategy and marketing. Next came a stint as international marketing manager for Groupe Pernod Ricard’s Old Bushmills Distillery, followed by its Jameson Irish Whiskey brand.
The year of the Millennium marked quite a career change for Irvine, however. During the dot com boom in the late 1990s, he met Eric Mosley – founder and chief executive of Globoforce – who had the idea of taking the sales incentives traditionally used in external marketing and promotions and employing them for internal staff motivation purposes.
Mosley won him over to his view of the world, which led Irvine to became employee number four at the firm and a member of its launch team. Over the last 12 years, however, he learned to wear a number of hats ranging from head of marketing and account management to leading the rewards team.
But in some ways, Irvine feels that his current post as vice president of strategy and consulting services suits him best. “Since the start, I’ve always championed strategy. People have traditionally thought of rewards as a nice-to-have and they’ve not recognised it as a powerful enabler, but the key is to think about it strategically,” he attests.
On the one hand, Irvine believes that rewards encourage engagement in that they can help employees to feel valued from an “appreciation and recognition viewpoint”. On the other, he sees them acting as an “enforcer to ensure that staff are aligned”.
“If you get staff to the spot where they feel valued and strategically aligned, rewards act as positive reinforcement on a continuous basis. Towers Watson says, for example, that, if you get a 15% engagement improvement score, it can equal a 2% improvement in the bottom line,” Irvine explains.
A question of culture
Nonetheless, strategy on its own is not enough. “If an organisation is not culturally pointing in the right direction and not being proactively managed, it can be in trouble. So that opportunity to manage culture is something that HR should be grasping as hugely strategically important,” he advises.
According to a report by management consultants McKinsey, the number of factors that provide organisations with competitive advantage are dwindling in the wake of generic shifts such as the technological revolution and cutting manufacturing costs by moving operations to the East.
As a result, a positive workplace ‘culture’ is one of the few remaining options left for companies to gain competitive advantage, it believes.
“It’s an opportunity for HR, but often HR and business leaders struggle with the idea of how to create and manage culture,” Irvine says. “We’ve seen a distinct opportunity to intervene through recognition, by deciding this is the culture you want and putting in a programme that constantly reinforces those values.”
As to why he jumped headfirst into the world of blogging as much as five years ago now, however, this too is a product of his brand background. After looking at who was writing about recognition and what they were writing about, he found that the discussion was “all about prizes and BBQs and watches – it was all about rewards”.
“I felt the conversation could be raised several notches and that, if I wrote about it, hopefully people would listen. I had a brand background and so I understood the media and I was used to writing and understanding how it was used. And the rest is history,” Irvine concludes.
And finally…
Who do you most admire and why?
The people who work for me – my team. They inspire me as to how often they go above and beyond the call of duty and develop ideas that they want to run with on their own initiative. It becomes a virtuous circle as it inspires me not to want to let them down.
Apart from that, I most admire Dan Pink, who used to be a speech writer for US president, Bill Clinton. He wrote a book on drive and the truth of what motivates us and I’m naturally drawn to this thinking. I met him last summer at an HR conference in the US and I’ve a lot of time for him as I feel like he’s part of a team helping to educate HR and motivate people in ways that we’re only scratching the surface of today.
What is your most hated buzzword?
‘Human capital management’. Hate is a strong word and it may be a misnomer, but it implies thinking that humans behave like capital, that is, they’re not emotional and they always behave rationally. ‘Human culture management’ is more appropriate in my opinion as it takes a large account of emotional reality and implies that we proactively need to manage that culture.
What is the best advice that you’ve ever received?
From an old professor, who said ‘believe in your talents because if you don’t, no one else will’. I thoroughly believe that everyone comes to the workplace with their own talents, but some people lack the confidence to do anything with them. But if you believe in them, they start to believe and they’ll start to see those talents too.
How do you relax?
Dublin is my official base and I look forward to nothing more than a lovely long walk beside the sea. When I’m there, a good night out with friends is also a bonus though.
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Cath Everett

Freelance journalist and former editor of HRZone

Read more from Cath Everett

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