In a continuation of our series profiling our five winners from Totum’s Best Business Leaders awards, we are delighted to talk to Elizabeth McGarrity, Senior HR Director at Fragomen.

Our judging panel chose Elizabeth McGarrity for one of our Best Business Leaders awards for transforming Fragomen’s HR function and putting people strategy at the heart of the business. She has undertaken numerous successful projects for her firm including establishing a crisis management task force, designing and rolling out Fragomen’s responsible business strategy, improving the firm’s talent attraction strategy, carrying out a large-scale UK-wide compensation review, re-designing the firm’s business Operations strategy, revolutionising the firm’s approach to agile working… the list goes on. Her significant contributions led her to getting promoted to Senior HR Director in 2021.

HR leadership

Winning Totum’s Best Business Leaders award came as a complete surprise to Elizabeth, who was secretly nominated for recognition by the firm’s Client and Business Development Director, EMEA and APAC. ‘I hadn’t seen anything about the awards,’ she admits. ‘But once I found out, I was embarrassed and thrilled in equal measure by what had been written about me. I have never won anything like this before!’

That the judges selected Elizabeth reflects to some extent the great deal that has been going on in the HR and people world in the past few years – and the recognition that is due to HR leaders through difficult times. During the pandemic, many HR professionals came to the fore, guiding their firms through the most challenging shake up of business norms – as everyone suddenly shifted to working from home and firms had to maintain operations while also caring for the wellbeing of individuals through an unprecedented time of uncertainty.

But Elizabeth as an individual leader stands out beyond the function as a whole. The formidable list of projects she has successfully undertaken in such a short space of time, and the considerable admiration she has clearly won from people across her firm, made her nomination shine. ‘The award is a great validation for the work that I do, as well as business services generally. The partners at Frogomen always make you feel valued but the external validation really is lovely,’ she says.

Elizabeth came to HR in the legal sector via the Prudential Insurance Company of America and then Goldman Sachs, where she was part of a very large HR team. She followed that up with Baker Hughes, gaining experience in the oil and gas sector. ‘On all of those journeys I saw HR adding so much value – and I could see that if you have the right mindset, you could have a seat at the top table,’ she says.

In 2018, she was drawn to Fragomen, a global firm specialising in immigration services, because of its people and the relationships – it felt collegiate, collaborative, business and client-service focused. ‘There are really skilled people here who are also hugely friendly. I really liked them on a personal level and I have gone on to feel very much part of the team,’ she explains.

Instinct for change

She describes her greatest strength as her instinct for good business, which helped her gain seniority with every new role. ‘I could see the role of HR could be so much more and that you could achieve top leadership if you were good at what you do. I love the complexity and the need to anticipate change and pivot strategy. You have to be very agile…. And I like to have that position of influence,’ she says.

The sheer number of initiatives Elizabeth has undertaken in recent months is hugely impressive, the evidence of her impact showing in the figures. While HR Director for EMEA, headcount in the region increased by 42%, while in the same period, Fragomen’s revenue in the region increased by 60%. Elizabeth’s redesign of the firm’s talent attraction strategy no doubt helped support this rapid growth, improving internal approval processes and ensuring the firm had access to a steady pipeline of talent via external partnerships. In addition, her work establishing a robust and transparent process for career progression resulted in the highest number of career progression moves to date.

Interestingly, she refutes the idea that she’s good at keeping on top of absolutely everything, instead arguing that her success lies in establishing priorities. ‘I have a very strong work ethic but I do what needs to be done and don’t get caught up in things that don’t matter. I work quite fast and have a good instinct to know what needs to be done at the right time. I also forgive myself for the things I cannot do.’

The A-team

What has she learned about leadership along the way? That intuition is important and that you need to be able to anticipate change. ‘Be prepared to make decisions. Leadership is about knowing how to leverage the skills of others, seeking advice from colleagues, mentors, your spouse… But after that you have to be prepared to make decisions and then have the abilities to communicate that with gravitas and presence.’

She believes HR still has some way to go – people can still see it as ‘personnel’ rather than a leadership function. But she also feels HR is well on its way. ‘Best piece of advice I can give? Always have an A-team. It transcends everything else. I am really lucky as I have an amazing, very strategically-minded team. I try very hard every day to empower them to achieve great things,’ she says.

Genuine, trusted, a source of wise counsel, humble, inspirational and respected by all… Just a few of the ways Elizabeth’s colleagues chose to describe Elizabeth in her nomination. A worthy winner representing a function that surely deserves its time in the spotlight.

Huge congratulations to Elizabeth and all our Best Business Awards winners. Thanks also to all those who submitted such fantastic nominations and to our judges who had the difficult job of choosing our winners.

Click here to read our winner’ profile on Stacey Rickford at Travers Smith.

If you would like any more information on our Best Business Leaders awards, please contact [email protected]