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Women in the boardroom: Grainne Kelliher, VP food services at Aramark Ireland

Women in the boardroom: Grainne Kelliher, VP food services at Aramark Ireland

Women in the boardroom: Grainne Kelliher, VP food services at Aramark Ireland

Grainne Kelliher, VP food services at Aramark Ireland, discusses her own career, leadership style and influences and gives her opinion on gender quotas.

Could you tell us a bit about your career path and what your role involves now?
I started my career as a management trainee with Disneyland Paris in 1991 and gained first-hand experience of the establishment of this iconic amusement resort and was promoted to a number of positions culminating in my appointment as area manager of its food and beverage division.

I then moved to work with Quinlan Private where I managed the restructuring of the company’s car park operations and was subsequently appointed CEO of Park Rite, Ireland’s leading car park management company. Over my six year tenure as CEO I was responsible for the major diversification and expansion of Park Rite’s business.

I first joined Aramark in 2010 as managing director of Aramark Property, managing commercial, retail and residential properties on behalf of clients before becoming vice president of its food services business in 2011.

In my current position I oversee all of Aramark Ireland’s food services operations across Ireland and Northern Ireland working across 400 contracts, serving over 250,000 meals each day with a team of 3,500.

Do you think being a woman made it more of a challenge to get to where you are now, if so, how?
No I don’t, I can honestly say I have never experienced the ‘glass ceiling’. The business world is more of an equal playing field now; personally I’ve never experienced any barriers because of my gender even with the experience of working in a male dominated industry of car park management and property management.
 
At a general level the influence of multinationals has been very positive in terms of female participation in the workforce. Irish women are as well educated, talented and confident as their male counterparts and I believe are being given the same opportunities. 

How has the environment changed for women in business over the last five or 10 years?
There are now more women in the workplace and more women at an executive or board room level. For example, almost 50pc of Aramark’s executive team are females.  In a multinational environment there are more opportunities for women to travel and take advantage of career development opportunities internationally. 

However, there are definitely challenges particularly around the issue of childcare.  The cost and availability of childcare is a prohibitive factor for some women, particularly if they are deciding to re-enter the workforce after an absence.

Do you believe it’s important to have a more diverse range of skills, opinions and backgrounds in business and leadership positions and, if so, why?
Yes, I would advise anyone in a leadership role or who considers themselves to have leadership potential that they should learn as much as they can, in different business areas, and then become an expert in their chosen field.  My own career path exposed me to the world of operations management across the food services, property and car park industries each with a particular set of business challenges to overcome and skills required.  My experiences have proven advantageous and instrumental in my career development. 

What do you believe makes a great leader?
I believe a key strength of a leader is to know their own weakness and to surround themselves with a team that complements their skillset. Great leaders have the ability to build good teams and foster team work in business.  The key to this is communication: employees must have an understanding of what is expected of them and the communication must be two-way.  It is important to empower the team around you to be accountable for their own role within the business.  So many great leaders are also great communicators.

My own approach would be best described as firm, fair and friendly!

Being able to delegate and trust the team around is also a valuable trait in any leader.  You have to provide autonomy to employees in how they manage their work and in so doing at Aramark we have found it creates a healthy level of energy where everyone is focused on performance – both their own individual performance and the collective performance of the business.

What particular traits do you think women in general bring to leadership roles?
There is sometimes a perception that women are emotional while men are rational or that men are more aggressive in their determination to succeed while women are more sympathetic bosses.  But the reality is that drive, determination, ambition and willingness to take risks are common characteristics of any leader whether male or female. I think women somehow have an ability to see around corners, which is a very useful skill when leading a team or a business. 

How do you feel about gender quotas?
I would not be in favour of gender quotas; I think it actually weakens the argument for more women in leadership roles. Quotas aren’t necessarily good for business; it’s better to take the voluntary approach. That’s why we need to encourage more women while giving them a choice.

In the UK they have seen a rise in women throughout boardrooms, based on techniques like naming and shaming, where companies with poor female representation are ‘named and shamed’, as well as the voluntary approach which encourages big companies to make the right choices. There may be a case for quota approach initially to fast track the number of females in the board room but I would not be a supporter of quotas in the long term.

What do you believe are the main obstacles to women getting into leadership roles and how do you think these can be overcome?
All too often women have to make the decision between their career and family life. Many struggle to maintain a healthy work-life balance. This can be overcome by having the right support structures in place and companies need to become more flexible in terms of the flexible work options they provide to their employees. There is no doubt, a balance is hard to achieve but with good planning and a patient partner, career and family is compatible.


Do you feel that being a positive role model to other women and to girls is important?
Yes, in general I believe anyone who is in a senior leadership position should always lead by example.

Are you actively doing anything to encourage more women into leadership positions? If so, could you give me details?
I would say that I place a significant emphasis on personal development and training for all those working within Aramark’s food services division.  Again I think I’m most effective when I am leading by example and showing all my colleagues, whether male or female, that anything is achievable through hard work and persistence. 

What would your main tips and advice for success be?
Be the best that you can be, find what you are interested in, excel at it and enjoy the journey! Your achievements should speak for themselves, but don’t be afraid to shout about them when you need to. 

Who or what has influenced you most?
Growing up in Dingle on the family farm and guesthouse has been a huge influence and I inherited a strong work ethic from my parents. I developed a grá for good food and the hospitality business from a young age which led me to do my degree in hotel and catering management and work in the sector both nationally and internationally.

Being involved in the family business required hard work, optimism, determination and a can do attitude which is all very relevant in the business environment that we work in today. Particularly in farming there are factors outside of your control that can have a negative impact on your business, so you learn to focus on what is within your control and plan for the future as best you can.