Tina McKenzie On Tenacity, Hard Work And The Biggest Misconceptions About Northern Ireland’s Business Community

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It’s no secret that CEOs are some of the busiest people you’ll meet. For Tina McKenzie, life is even busier as she hails the impressive role of CEO at Grafton Recruitment, Managing Director for Staffline Group Ireland, Chair for the Federation of Small Business Northern Ireland and Honorary Consul of Finland. These are just a few notable achievements that have taken place over the course of Tina’s career. However, it’s not all been plain sailing and what’s glaringly obvious is Tina’s tenacity and commitment to hard work. It’s these qualities that have got her to where she is today and these same qualities that she’ll continue to employ to get to where she still plans to go.

Ahead of International Women’s Day Tina, along with her already very accomplished daughter chatted to The Style Edit about Tina’s start in recruitment, her biggest lessons in business and for Molly, the important pieces of advice she’s not only inherited from her mother but the wisdom she’s keen to share with Tina herself. 

Watch out world, this mother-daughter dynamic duo is a real force to be reckoned with.

What drew you to the world of recruitment?

My first career role was a position working with former prisoners to help them secure employment. This helped me find my passion for placing people into work, something I do and enjoy to this day.

What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced throughout the journey of your career? How have you overcome these challenges?

In the early part of my career, I had to travel extensively for work which meant leaving my young children behind at the time. Luckily, I have a very supportive husband who is a wonderful father too. The sacrifices I made were extremely tough and nothing ever came easy. When people ask me how I have achieved what I have the simple answer is this – hard work. There is no substitute for it.

“When people ask me how I have achieved what I have the simple answer is this-hard work! There is no substitute for it.”

What’s the biggest misconception about the business community in Northern Ireland? 

That we don’t speak up enough! Despite the demands of my recruitment business I have spoken out in my capacity as Chair of the Federation of Small Businesses on Brexit and pushed to secure the best deal possible for Northern Ireland. During this time I have asked robust questions of PM Theresa May, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, a number of senior cabinet Ministers and of local elected representatives. I am pleased that most of these efforts have taken place in co-operation with my colleagues in the business community who have adopted a mature and reasoned approach in difficult circumstances. 

Is there anything about the business community in NI that you’d like to change?

In the past, the business community has had to tread a very careful balancing act between advancing the concerns of their organisation and keeping on the right side of local politicians. It is good to see business leaders now constructively challenging the delivery of politicians and demanding that business doesn’t suffer due to the current stalemate. So I think the business community has evolved for the better.

“The business community has evolved for the better.”

Which traits do you most admire within other business women?

Female leaders in business, academia, politics and wider civic society have my respect for continuing to try and break the glass ceiling! I hope I am playing my part in trying to make that happen too. While we have made much progress on the road to greater equality, we still aren’t there yet.

What are you most proud of so far? 

In 2013 I became the Managing Director of Staffline Group Ireland, starting with just two employees before entering a sustained period or organic and acquired growth, including the latest acquisition of Grafton Recruitment Ireland in July 2018. I was responsible for growing the business from a standing start in 2013 to an overall business with £180m turnover (£60m of which is organic growth!), 250 permanent staff and contracted workforce of 10,000 across Ireland in 2018. Quite a busy and productive five years all round and hopefully more to come in 2019.

“Work so much harder than everyone else, that’s the only way you get ahead. There is no quick fix!”

What advice would you pass on to someone starting in business? 

Be bold, be tenacious. Don’t be afraid to ask. Work so much harder than everyone else, that’s the only way you get ahead. There is no quick fix.

Helping others is a must and can lead to new opportunities. I had a few doors closed in my face over the years and I have never forgotten how that feels. 

Find a sponsor/champion. This can be someone who works with you or from another organisation who you admire. That kind of support can be crucial to supporting your growth and development.

What does success mean to you?

As Cervantes said, “The journey is better than the Inn.” 

Success isn’t a destination, it is a journey and I am still keen to do more. 

What do you wish more people knew about you?

That I can actually be quite shy and sensitive at times believe it or not.

As a successful businesswoman and mother, do you feel a pressure to be the perfect role model for your daughter?

Of course, I do! I want Molly to look up to me both career-wise and personally. But there is no such thing as perfect and I think it is important for her to learn the lesson that good is good enough. Life can have its disappointments and rather than striving for perfection which doesn’t exist the greatest gift I can give Molly is self-esteem and a belief that she is enough. 

“Helping others is a must and can lead to new opportunities! I had a few doors closed in my face over the years and I have never forgotten how that feels!”

What are some of the biggest pressures of modern-day motherhood?

I often have to travel for work and that means time away from my wonderful husband and children. That is hard! Sometimes you can give in to feelings of guilt but I know that it is important to them to see me fulfilled in my career. I also make sure that as soon as I have downtime, I switch off and spend quality time with my family. In our house, everyone had a brilliant sense of humour-so we don’t take ourselves too seriously! We laugh and have fun.

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned in life that you’ll pass on to your daughter? 

Be kind and understanding to each person you meet. You don’t know the battle they might be going through or the pain they have endured. 

“Life can have its disappointments and rather than striving for perfection which doesn’t exist the greatest gift I can give Molly is self-esteem and a belief that she is enough.”

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned from your daughter, Molly?

Molly continues to amaze me every single day! She has a tremendous desire to travel and expand her horizons. She has maturity too beyond her years, far more secure and confident than I was at her age! What makes me very proud is how kind she can be, particularly when she sees anyone being left out or needing some encouragement.

How are you celebrating International Women’s Day?

I am bringing 25 of my outstanding employees at Grafton to New York for a long weekend when we will take in the bright lights and also be kindly hosted for a reception at the Irish Consulate on Park Avenue! This group has performed exceptionally over the last year and I am extremely proud of their achievements. In this instance, the group is made up of more women than men so it seems fitting that we jet off on International Women’s day! I am also delivering individual roses with bespoke messages to each of the 160 women across my business! 

This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is #BalanceforBetter. How do you feel we can best work towards forging gender equality within the workplace?

In my business, we have a robust strategy to narrow the gender pay gap across the business and a strong commitment to promoting equality and respect more broadly in the workplace. I am delighted to say that we have an excellent female presence at the most senior levels of the company and indeed across the board. I find this balance leads to better professional outcomes. We all do better when there is a good gender balance in an organisation. I also believe women need to support women. That’s why I mentor business women and aspirant entrepreneurs through the Women in Business mentoring network. I also had the pleasure of serving as European Ambassador for Women’s Entrepreneurship Day in 2016. 

“I am delighted to say that we have an excellent female presence at the most senior levels of the company and indeed across the board. I find this balance leads to better professional outcomes.”

Tell us about the most inspiring woman in your life. 

It might seem like an obvious point but the women I work with and come into contact with each and every day inspire me! My mother, my sisters, my cousins and many of my professional contacts help to drive me forward and keep me striving for more.

Molly McKenzie

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned from your mum?

You should never apologise for going for what you want. She’s taken a lot of risks over the years and dedicated a lot of time and energy into achieving her dreams, a lot of people criticise her for it but she just keeps pushing. I think we often blame men for putting women down but I’ve seen far more women criticise my mum for being ambitious than men! Women should support other women. 

If you could pass on any piece of advice to your mum, what would it be?

Be more selfish! She is constantly worrying about others and although it’s a great quality to have, it can add further pressure.

What does International Women’s Day mean to you?

I am passionate about politics and want to see more women becoming involved. It was really inspirational to see the number of women standing in the recent primaries in the states.

Tell us about someone who truly inspires you

That’s an easy one! My Mum of course. I also like Angela Merkel. As a politics student, I admire her stance on social issues and her desire to promote inclusivity. I particularly like the quote ‘I want us to be a secure, prosperous, tolerant country – a magnet for international talent and home to the pioneers and innovators who will shape the world ahead’ Angela Merkel. 

“I want us to be a secure, prosperous, tolerant country – a magnet for international talent and home to the pioneers and innovators who will shape the world ahead” – Angela Merkel.

Styling and Direction – Jennifer Taggart – @jennifertaggart

Assisted by Bronagh Rafferty

Interviewed by – Niamh Crawford-Walker

Makeup: Amy Savage @cosmetics.junkiee

Hair: Hugo at Andrew Mulvenna Hair

Photography: Hernan Fariaswww.hfphotography.co.uk

Niamh Crawford-Walker

Niamh is a full time fashion and features writer at The Style Edit. Her work has previously appeared in IMAGE magazine, image.ie and Emirates Woman.

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