The Interview UK
Athlone, Technological University of the Shannon
Director of Human Resources

Liam Brennan

Managing a single campus is hard enough. So how about five? That’s the challenge faced by Liam Brennan, Director of Human Resources at the Technological University of the Shannon, as he oversees the integration of five campuses to create one of Ireland’s largest institutions of Higher Education (HE). 

Liam sat down with Luke James, Co-host of The Interview, to discuss issues ranging from the challenge of transitioning from the private to the public sector to building a culture of learning and growth from the ground up. 

Liam's Journey

Luke: Let’s start with an introduction to you and your current institution. 

I’m the Director of Human Resources at the Athlone Campus of the Technological University of the Shannon, Midlands Midwest. We’re in the process of amalgamating five campuses across four regions to create a single Technological University. It’s been a huge challenge, especially when dealing with four regions with unique cultures. Now we have over 15,000 students and 1500 staff across all campuses. We’re building a new STEM school on the Athlone campus, which will further increase our student numbers.

Luke: You have a background working for multinational companies. How did you arrive in your current role?

I’ve worked for two major US multinationals. It provided a good opportunity for me as a professional, to grow and develop — companies of that size don’t mess around in terms of staff development. It’s very much sink or swim. To stay ahead, you always need to be educating yourself. Corporations are always changing, whether due to market forces, takeovers, or internal evaluations. I’ve worked in the UK, the US, and Canada — there was a lot of culture shock, but it was a valuable experience. Then when my last company was taken over, I returned to Ireland and took up my current role at Athlone Institute of Technology. When I joined AIT, I set about building a teamwork culture within the HR function. Moving from the private sector to the public sector was a big transition, as there was more bureaucracy, stronger union engagement, and more government oversight. 

Luke: How has your experience in the private sector helped your career in HE?

For me, it’s the ability to lead and make decisions. In the private sector, you need the ability to identify and confront problems. Sometimes, that needs a frank exchange of views, but that’s necessary to build teamwork and trust, which in turn leads to a more efficient organisation. It took some time to adjust, but it’s had some great results: we’ve increased communications and engagement across the board. You need to put the work in — hold town hall meetings, conduct employee surveys, and keep learning. You need to be prepared for problems in order to make plans to address them. 

Luke: Many leaders have discussed the challenge of engaging all members of staff on topics such as inclusion and belonging. What’s your approach to getting everyone involved?

With the formation of the new Technological University, we’re working hard to prepare our organisation for the future. When you’re integrating different campuses, there’s always going to be uncertainty — to counteract that, we’ve held question-and-answer sessions with our staff to understand their concerns. At the start, people were hesitant, but now we’re hearing more and more questions. When the pandemic struck, it drove us all online, but we still managed a huge amount of engagement. Now we’re trying to get people back around the table, and we’re holding face-to-face meetings on different campuses on a rotating basis. Communication demands continuous improvement, and you can’t let your focus slip.

Luke: Staff are busier than ever, and they have a lot of responsibilities. How do you find the time to engage them on EDI topics?

Our staff has a great interest in EDI. The world is changing quickly: there are so many EDI issues that were overlooked for so long, but now people want to speak up and get involved. For our own EDI program, we were actually oversubscribed: it’s become a subject that’s at the forefront of people’s minds. We’ve made excellent progress, but there’s still some way to go. Our institution was only established in 2021, so it will take some time to foster that culture. 

Luke: How do you articulate the link between EDI and the higher-level strategic goals of your institution?

There’s a lot of work to do in that area. Our first step is launching our strategic plan; the next is integrating that into every aspect of our University. To make those links, we are putting staff committees into place and conducting quarterly reviews to make sure we stay on track. Accountability is key: without that, you achieve nothing. It will take another two or three years to fit all the pieces together, but we’re fortunate that we have some brilliant staff who are passionate about ensuring that EDI becomes best practice within our organisation. 

Luke: How can we promote a culture of learning and growth across an organisation?

Fear is the greatest obstacle to change. If you don’t take out the fear, then nothing will change. So we are prioritising support, training, and development; we stress the importance of continuous education, and if staff wish to pursue further study, we encourage and support and find them to do so. We also have a sizeable lifelong learning faculty that serves several thousand adult learners to develop their academic qualifications. 

Luke: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received in your career?

“If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.” Every day has to be different — if you keep doing the same things over and over again, you’ll end up with the same results. 

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Luke James
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