The Interview with Gillian Harford, Country Executive, 30% Club Ireland…Part 5

The Interview with Gillian Harford, Country Executive, 30% Club Ireland...Part 5

Gillian Harford is the Country Executive at the 30% Club Ireland. Prior to this she worked with AIB for 40 years, holding key roles including Head of HR Strategy & Planning. Gillian tells us how she initially joined AIB for just 10 months as a stop gap to something else but walked out of the door just a couple of weeks shy of 40 years after that.

In the first four parts of this blog series Gillian told us a little bit about herself, the start of her career in financial services, the importance of mentors in her career, shared some risks and challenges she faced as well as what motivates her.

Here in the 5th and final part of the series, Gillian talks about her final months in AIB, what the 30% Club offers to its members and what is her proudest moment in her career.

FOS: So, after 40 years in AIB you left the organisation. That must have been a massive shift in your life, what was it like walking out the door?

GH: It was terrifying! It was the bravest thing I have ever done. I had been with AIB for every milestone in my life, I had amazing friends, colleagues and structures I knew inside out, but I had decided 40 years was a good time to change. I had done all the roles I wanted to do and so I decided it’s time to do something different and meet new people. In saying that I did go somewhere that I did know and had a level of familiarity which helped me to settle.

I had supported and seen so many exit the bank in the recent years that I knew it had worked for them and that I would be ok. At the time I made the decision to leave, in addition to my day job, I was working on two big projects focusing on agile ways of working In new buildings and our diversity and inclusion strategy. I was asked to stay on a few months longer and finish out the projects and it was during those few months that the opportunity came about to work with the 30% club, so timing and fate came together!

FOS: The 30% Club, tell me more about it

GH: The 30% Club is a global campaign supported by Chairs & CEOS who are committed to gender balance at the most senior levels in organisations. Not because it’s a good thing to do but because it gives better business outcomes. The 30% Club started in Ireland in 2015 and what I liked about it is that your company joins the Club through the company Chair or CEO, and this means that 80% of our supporters are male.

The Chairs/CEOs then nominate volunteers from their company to get involved on their behalf. I first got involved with the 30% Club as a volunteer on behalf of Bernard Byrne, who was CEO in AIB at the time.

In the 30% Club we focus on three key areas of action:

  • Activating Chairs and CEOs – helping companies to think about how they would deliver on their plans – through industry group collaboration, open-source toolkits donated by members, and information sharing events.
  • Influencing at a national level – putting our voice towards national issues. For example, we were the driving voice behind the Balance for Better Business Initiative which is a government backed initiative driving change on Irish Boards and cSuite.
  • Talent pipeline – operating at employee level to encourage pipeline progress. Our offerings include a cross company mentoring programme which has seen more than 1,800 participants; executive education scholarships via all of Ireland’s Universities; a board ready programme and a Board Connections Directory which connects talent with Irish Boards searching for gender balanced applicants.

FOS: You mentioned men being advocates, is there more that men can be aware of so that we can effect change?

GH: There is a sense that for women to progress men lose out. That’s not the case at all.  Focusing on making the systems more open to merit on an equal basis raises the tide for everyone.  Our research through the 30% Club has shown that men and women equally would like to work in a more agile way, equally would like to progress careers, and equally would like to be part of a more modern workplace for talent.

But things won’t change if it is only women speaking out – we need to encourage men to speak out in a more active way – not just to create a better workplace for their daughters into the future but driving change for themselves and their colleagues today. Be advocates, be the first to be more inclusive at meetings, get involved in the conversation for more progressive work practices, actively avail of modern work practices, be a role model for other male colleagues.  It’s quite a courageous thing to do because it does mean making yourself more vulnerable to the idea of competing in a different world, but hopefully a better world.

FOS: How can people get involved in your programmes?

GH: The best place to start is by visiting our website. Details of all our programmes can be found there

Mentoring Programme & Scholarship Programme…The mentoring programme is cross company. It is run in partnership with the IMI and is open to any organisation, whether or not they are members of the 30% Club. The scholarship programme offers approx. 25 scholarships each year and covers a range of business options

Board Ready Programme…The Board Ready Programme runs on an invitation basis. And is designed to give senior female business executives the chance to network with experienced board members and consider board roles as a future option for themselves.

FOS: For our final question Gillian, what is your proudest achievement to date?

GH: I’m extremely lucky that I’ve had many. But in 2015 when myself and a small number of executive colleagues formed a D&I Board, one of my colleagues commented that we wouldn’t see any benefit out of this work in our lifetime, but it was fantastic that we were building a legacy for future generations. As I’m sure you’ve guessed during this interview, I don’t have much patience for legacy!

As part of that D&I Board we built out a very comprehensive plan which included establishing a Pride group – which was a very big step for us at that time as our culture was changing but still very conservative.  A friend in another organisation suggested a good start would be inviting an openly gay member of the Senior Executive to be our sponsor but there wasn’t one – so I became the Sponsor of AIB Pride. I knew nothing. I was terrified of offending people or saying the wrong thing – and I was so conscious of the responsibility to get this right!

The most incredible group of volunteers came together to form our Pride Group, and they helped me build out a plan for change which would ultimately involve all our employees and our customers, and they trusted me to help break down the walls for them. A year later we held our first event where we invited leaders of pride groups from other organisations into our head office and that night, we ‘came out’ as an organisation. Members of our Pride Group brought their life partners with them to the event and if you had told me 12 months previously that we would have been able to do that I would have said no, and I have to say it was the proudest moment of my work life to see them there, with their partners, in our building, celebrating a new way forward. On that night I stood on stage and said diversity and inclusion does not have to be a legacy item it can happen very quickly where there is a will to drive change.

To read the previous editions of this blog series click on the links below:

The Interview with Gillian Harford, Country Executive, 30% Club Ireland…Part 1

The Interview with Gillian Harford, Country Executive, 30% Club Ireland…Part 2

The Interview with Gillian Harford, Country Executive, 30% Club Ireland…Part 3

The Interview with Gillian Harford, Country Executive, 30% Club Ireland…Part 4


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