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An Interview with Irial O’Farrell of Evolution Consulting

Jerome Knyszewski

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This is a photo of Irial O'Farrell of Evolution Consulting

Irial O’Farrell knows that business can always improve. As Ireland’s first Accredited Master in Change Management, Irial has proven her skill in helping businesses maximize their operations by improving their workplaces. Her skill in helping businesses understand their people within their specific systems has made her invaluable to the industry.

For her work, Irial O’Farrell brings a love of learning, “a very high aptitude for abstract reasoning,” and a fascination with “what makes people tick.” These skills make Irial and Evolution Consulting indispensable to managers, leaders, and business owners. Helping you identify whether the problem comes from your system or your employees will take you one step closer to solving it.

According to Evolution Consulting’s website, Irial O’ Farrell helps business through coaching sessions and other courses. She helps businesses define their business values, which they used to recruit new employees. In other cases, Irial helps design and deliver a company’s leadership program, which led to operational changes that shifted the company dynamic and organizational energy.

Evolution Consulting and Irial O’Farrell have worked with several business, including start-ups, small and medium enterprises, and indigenous large companies as well as multinationals.

If you work with Irial O’Farrell, you will know what your company’s problems are, and how to resolve them. She will also prepare you to take the necessary steps to move your company forward so that you can maximize your return of investment. Irial O’Farrell’s techniques are innovative and unique, which will open new possibilities to enhance your company’s performance.

You can read more interviews with thought leaders here.

 

Jerome Knyszewski: Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Irial O’Farrell: Given I now work in what is often considered a “touchy feely” area, my undergraduate degree was in Applied Physics and Math. While I wouldn’t say the topics were in my sweet spot, the math did manage to open a door into financial services. My first proper job was in Sydney, Australia, where I was fascinated with the impact two different managers had on the staff. I then moved to Boston, where I worked in Mutual Fund Administration. I had a brilliant boss, who really encouraged me so I moved fairly quickly into management. In 1999, I moved back to Dublin, Ireland, where the funds industry was booming. My first role in Dublin was as Operations Manager but it became apparent very quickly that there was a lot more business available than experienced people to do the work. Having had a little exposure to designing and delivering short training sessions, I figured I’d move into training for a bit and then move back into operations. As it turned out, I found something I loved even more than the hustle and bustle of funds.

I spent six years in that role but, as I became curious about different aspects of enabling performance, the role evolved substantially. For example, I designed a behavioural competency framework from scratch and incorporated it into the recruitment and performance management processes. Looking back, I clearly had an instinct as to how to effect change because I built up a serious track record of actually embedding new processes and techniques into the company’s ways of working.

While training is brilliant for knowledge and skills, as humans, we “know” what we’re supposed to do but very often, we still don’t do it. This observation piqued my curiosity as to what was preventing people from doing what they know they should be doing. This led me to executive coaching and working with people, on a one-to-one basis, to move them from “knowing” to “doing”. That curiosity also led to me examining not just the individual’s performance but the system in which they are performing. The system can have unintended consequences that people — managers, business owners, employees — are often unaware of. For example, training a team on new software, when the process hasn’t been changed accordingly, is very likely to result in the software becoming obsolete or, at best, under-utilized. In short, changing the software while not touching the system won’t necessarily deliver the desired outcomes. Hence my interest in organization design.

Jerome Knyszewski: Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

Irial O’Farrell: Having been in the Learning & Development role for six years, the itch to strike out on my own needed to be scratched so, as part of my Executive Coaching Diploma, I decided to set up Evolution Consulting in 2006. The first couple of years were fantastic and in May 2008, my son was born. Expecting to get back to the business in the November, we took a family holiday to France in the September. I remember watching the television, looking at the financial meltdown happening in front of me, thinking “this is going to be a very expensive holiday!” By the time we got home, the world had shrunk and so had my business.

I did officially return to work in the November but it was very short-lived. Two weeks later, I was in the hospital with my 6-month old baby, who had pneumonia. As I look back on 2009, it was a year of learning and caring. I had to go back to the drawing board with the business. I had to learn how to develop and sell business, in a way I had never had to before. I also had a baby that was sick every second or third week. By September, we were back in the hospital. There were many times when I had meetings set up and was going to have to postpone, due to another bout of sickness. What I observed was that, every time this happened, something would crop up that meant that the meeting would need to be moved for reasons other than me. What I learnt is that sometimes, we get what we need, not necessarily what we want. I also took it as a sign to keep going, even though it was very tough.

Jerome Knyszewski: Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

Irial O’Farrell: Working in the funds industry in Boston, some of the funds were undergoing their annual audit, so the auditors were in the office. I was the team supervisor, so my boss appointed me as the liaison with them, with the instructions to push back on them, if they asked questions that they really should know the answers to. Having been through the process a few times, his take was that we weren’t there to train the auditors.

Duly noting the instructions, as arranged, I went to meet the auditor. We had a bit of a chat and I worked through the answers. Needless to say, the auditor finally worked around to a question that fell into the “we’re not here to train you” category. So, boss’s instructions ringing in my ear, I turned around and said “really, that’s a question you need to bring to your supervisor”, to which she replied “I am the supervisor”. I nearly died and my boss had a field day, laughing at me! My learning? Always take people’s advice with a pinch of salt and never switch off your own judgement!

Jerome Knyszewski: What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Irial O’Farrell: What I think makes my company stand out is the ability to apply a combination of curiosity and high abstract reasoning to making sense of the patterns and cultural dynamics impacting a client’s business. This is then followed up with designing multi-faceted solutions that will really make a difference, while gaining the leadership team’s trust to allow the solutions be implemented. All of this is continuously held within the context of a laser-sharp focus on the desired outcomes.

One of my favorite examples was working with an executive team that were tired of always feeling that they were the ones who had to “sort everything out”. They blamed the managers and pointed out how they weren’t stepping up to their titles of “manager”.

As we worked through the dynamics of what was happening, I was starting to dig a bit deeper into what was really going on between the two teams. Probing into what was happening, we uncovered that, in reality, the executive team was creating the situation whereby issues would arise, managers would bring it to their attention and the executives would swoop in and sort it all out. Asked if they explained their thinking, the solutions, or even what needed to be done next time, there was a resounding “no”. There was a dawning realization that, unintentionally, they were creating their own prisons by not developing their managers or enabling them to sort things out themselves.

It would have been very easy to accept the leadership team’s evaluation at face value and assume that the issues all lay with the managers. In turn, all the focus would have been on developing their capabilities. While the managers did need help in stepping into their management roles, on its own, it wouldn’t have changed the fundamental issue. Instead, the real dynamics had been surfaced in a way that the executive team could understand and accept. That’s no mean feat, as its always a lot easier to blame someone else than accept one’s own role in the situation. We were then able to move on and design a multi-faceted solution that resulted in a shift aware from the unhelpful patterns. This allowed each level of leadership focus on their key responsibilities.

Along with being able to make sense of what was going on for them, they also trusted that I could guide them towards creating a more productive, less-tiring culture, which we did. At times, as regularly happens in such a project, as they lost sight of their end-goal, they would be prompted as to what their end-goal looked like, which was a great motivator to keep them going.

Jerome Knyszewski: Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Irial O’Farrell: Consulting, organization development and executive coaching can be a constant cycle of securing work, delivering it, securing work, delivering it and it can be difficult to keep going. One tip is to create a network and leverage that to pitch for bigger pieces of work. Another tip is to find ways to automate or codify some of the work, so that it doesn’t need to be redone every time. This frees time up for business development. On a personal note, if you find you’re not taking breaks or can’t stop thinking about work, start setting time limits, either for how long you’re going to spend on a task or when you’re scheduling your break. During those breaks, get out for some fresh air. It always helps to clear away the cobwebs.

Jerome Knyszewski: None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

Irial O’Farrell: I always think that a person is shaped by their early jobs and it has a huge influence on how they view the world of work. While my boss in Sydney was fantastic, I’m going to give this accolade to my first boss in the funds industry in Boston. As a team, we really complemented each other. I was forever driving everyone nuts with “why”, “why”, “why” but my boss saw it as someone who was a quick learner and curious. I remember him coming up to my desk one day, about five months into my job, to tell me that I had been given a mini grade-promotion. It didn’t’ mean a whole lot, other than a bit more money, but I was delighted, as it was totally out of the blue.

A couple of weeks later, he was pushing me to go for a full promotion, to Senior Fund Accountant (a first-line management-type position). Being guided by him, I put my name forward. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t get the promotion. However, I did impress the interviewers so much with my technical understanding (the “whys” were paying off) that when another promotional opportunity arose a month later (the funds industry is very fast paced), I was successful. From there, as far as I was concerned, we made an amazing partnership. I was eager to take over the day-to-day running of the team, freeing him up to put himself forward for value-add projects and raising his profile. We both benefited and pretty soon, we were both promoted.

A year later, I was tapped on the shoulder, as one of two internal managers who were selected to work with an external consulting team. We were tasked with designing the future operating model for the business unit, arising from a merger. Looking back, I had no idea how influential that experience would be on me. Understanding how the system, within which we work, impacts performance was amazing and I was so lucky to get that understanding so early in my career.

Jerome Knyszewski: Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. Delegating effectively is a challenge for many leaders. Let’s put first things first. Can you help articulate to our readers a few reasons why delegating is such an important skill for a leader or a business owner to develop?

Irial O’Farrell: Following on from my understanding of the system, organizations are designed with different functions, roles, levels, etc to collectively deliver the business’s products and/or services. These products and/or services are priced on the basis of certain work being done at certain levels for a given cost. In organizations or teams where delegation skills are an issue, the work starts floating up, which is very bad news for several reasons:

  1. Work that floats up is, typically, more expensive. Let’s look at a simplified example. If a junior person is paid $15/hour to do a 5-hour task, that task is priced at $75, which has been captured in the overall price of the product/service. If that task then floats up to the manager, due to poor delegation skills, the cost increases. Let’s assume they’re paid $25/hour, the cost of the task just increased by $50.
  2. Now we’re into the opportunity costs of what the manager should have been doing. If the manager or business owner should have been engaged in business development or process improvement or client retention, that’s 5-hours that they weren’t focused on those tasks. Or, another way of looking at it, 5 hours less focused on the future viability of the business.
  3. The more common pattern is a combination of points 1 and 2. Often, the employee starts the task and then the manager or business owner swoops in, when they get stuck. However, even if the manager only does the last 2 hours of the task, that’s still an increase of $20 in the cost of production plus the lost opportunity costs. Keep in mind — this is just an example of one task for one employee. The multiplier effect across a team is enormous.
  4. Another reason it’s so important to be able to delegate is that not delegating is very demotivating for employees. Seriously, who wants to go to work for 40 hours, to have some of your work taken away, feel helpless and not see any opportunities for advancement, because you’re not being given the opportunity or the training to do things through to the end? Evaluating the cost of constant staff turnover is another hidden, and often unrecognized, cost of poor delegation skills.
  5. My final reason is that a tendency to not delegate makes it very difficult (and often costly) for the business to grow. This may not be such a big deal for large organizations. However, for a business owner with ambitions to grow the business, this becomes a limiting factor to growth.

Jerome Knyszewski: Can you help articulate a few of the reasons why delegating is such a challenge for so many people?

Irial O’Farrell: Great question. Some of the biggest reasons people can find delegating such a challenge include:

  1. “It will take me longer to explain it to them than doing it myself.” While this is not based on any scientific studies, from my experience, this is the number one reason people don’t delegate. However, it is a false fallacy. It might take you a bit longer today and likely tomorrow (if a daily task) or next week (if a weekly task) but by next week or next month, you will have actually bought yourself back time.
  2. “It’s a task I like doing.” Since many managers have been promoted up from the technical “doing” of the role, they know how to do many of the tasks the team undertake. For a business owner whose business is growing, chances are they used to do all those tasks until they could afford (or needed) to hire someone else to do them. Here’s the thing — “managing” is a lot less tangible than “doing”. When you have a check-in chat or you develop a person’s capability, it doesn’t feel like “doing” anything. There’s very little tangible outputs that can be touched. When you prepare a report or make a product, there is a tangible output that meets our human need to feel like we have achieved something. So, some managers and business owners take select tasks they enjoyed doing into their management role, often as the expense of some of their own tasks.
  3. For some managers and business owners, they don’t feel comfortable in asking people to do something. They haven’t fully accepted the responsibilities of their role, possibly due to their own internal beliefs, values, assumptions, etc. For example, someone who is a “people pleaser” finds it difficult to ask someone else to do a task and hold them to account for the required quality standard, so they just do it themselves.
  4. The final reason why some managers and business owners struggle with delegation can arise from their personal values. Two personal values in particular can impact on a manager’s reluctance to delegate. Firstly, the need to retain control often arises from the value of “Perfection”. For someone who needs to be in control due, to their need for things to be done perfectly, it is very difficult for them to let go sufficiently for the other person to succeed in doing the delegated task. One common dynamic is that they give the task to the individual to complete and they follow up by re-doing it. Very quickly, the individual decides there’s not a lot of point in putting much effort into doing the task, as experience tells them it’s just going to be re-done anyway. The person delegating sees the poor standard and concludes there’s no point in delegating, so stops bothering. Neither person is particularly happy with the outcome.

The other value that can undermine the delegation dynamic is the value of “Trust”. In my experience, people fall into two camps: those that extend trust until proven otherwise and those that require trust to be earned. As one manager shared with me, “I tend to extend trust with an expectation that they know how to do the task, so I don’t give them any direction. When they inevitably fail to do the task right, I then withdraw my trust. I can see now why that’s probably not the best approach!” For those that extend trust, it needs to be supported with some direction or expectations. For those that need trust to be earned, people need to be given the opportunity to earn that trust and, again, within the context of some direction and guidance.

Jerome Knyszewski: In your opinion, what pivots need to be made, either in perspective or in work habits, to help alleviate some of the challenges you mentioned?

Irial O’Farrell: The first pivot all managers need to make is to shift their mindset from “getting the work done” to “getting the work done through the team”. For people moving into their first managerial role, be it team lead, supervisor or business owner, this is the biggest mindset shift and the hardest. I’ve seen many managers move into very senior roles in their organizations and never make this shift. The unintended consequences can be enormous.

The next pivot I would recommend is for managers to have a very clear idea of what the purpose of their role is and how it fits with the other roles within the team. If the manager isn’t sure what their role is and what the practical tasks and skills of it are, then they need to research, talk to other managers or attend a course to find out. Then they need to practice the skills and tasks until they become second nature.

For managers who nodded their heads knowingly at not feeling comfortable asking someone else to do something, I would strongly recommend that they take the time to reflect on the impact of their internal tensions and seek out an executive coach, to help them surface and unpack those triggers.

For managers who suspect that their personal values might be holding them back from delegating, I’d recommend booking a session with an executive coach, one who does a lot of work in the values space, and start exploring those values. The focus won’t necessarily be to change the values but to fully explore them, the costs of them and perhaps to reframe, redefine or re-rank them.

Jerome Knyszewski: How can our readers further follow you online?

Irial O’Farrell: Readers can follow me on the following:

Blog:

Twitter

LinkedIn

Amazon

YouTube

Homepage

Jerome Knyszewski: This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!

 

 

Jerome Knyszewski is the Reputation Management Expert with the most recommendations and endorsements on the professional network, LinkedIn. His specialties are Online Reputation Management & Marketing, Strategic Alliances, Business Growth Strategies, He is a best selling author and Professional Speaker.

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