In conversation with Gerry Murphy: on his career, HR challenges leaders face and life outside Nua
Co-founder at Nua Group, Gerry Murphy reflects on his career, the challenges HR leaders face and his favorite dining spots in San Francisco.
How did you start your career in the HR consulting space?
I started as an actuarial student with a company called Irish Pensions Trust in Dublin Ireland. I was interested in math as a kid, and was attracted to the profession. I completed my actuarial credentials when I was 25, ready to take on the world!
I worked initially on pension plans, eventually getting involved in a variety of different areas of rewards. That included all areas of benefits: medical, life and disability. I was also fortunate to get involved in a number of firsts; for example, helping launch the first investment performance monitoring service in Ireland, and taking a client through one of the first defined benefit to defined contribution plan conversions.
What's the biggest change that took place in the HR space since you began your career?
I think the biggest change has been the redefinition of what a career means. When I started working, most people aspired to a long career with one or two companies, and many companies took a paternalistic, one size fits all approach to managing their people. That has changed to a point now where careers span many companies and companies provide people with the opportunities as individuals to achieve their goals.
This has obviously meant that the area I’ve spent my career in - total rewards - requires a fundamental change in approach. We’ve seen a decline in defined benefit pension plans and retiree medical and an increase in individually focused programs like incentive plans, stock options and 401k plans. That has then led to a huge change in how employees are managed; from a group, one-size-fits-all approach to an individual performance management with individual goals.
What made you leave your previous job and start Nua Group?
Prior to joining Nua, I had a great career across 6 different companies, the bulk of who are now Mercer and Willis Towers Watson companies. I met some great consultants along the way and worked on many interesting client projects.
I was fortunate to have accomplished pretty much all I set out to within the companies I worked at, at least that was going to be open to me! So it was time to face a new challenge as to what I could create on my own or more specifically with my partners. I had also some opinions on serving clients’ and consultants’ needs that really needed a new platform to address.
"Probably the most rewarding thing about what we do is seeing the positive impact of our work."
What's your take on Nua Group's "anti-consulting" approach? How do you explain it to clients?
Well, it certainly creates interesting conversations! I explain it this way; we strive to deliver an experience to clients and consultants that is fundamentally different to how typical consulting firms work today but recognizable by clients and how they would define the experience. At its core, we look to take a holistic view of client problems, develop bespoke solutions to them and align the interests of our clients with the interests of our consultants.
What does this mean in practice? For clients, it means a focus on solving your problem without any preconceived notions or letting pre-packaged products drive the solution. It means a focus on the outcome and not the specifics of project scope. It means unbiased advice you can trust. All for reasonable fees that go toward rewarding the consultants; not supporting overhead and the objectives of a publicly-traded company.
For consultants, it means an egalitarian environment where you get to do the work you want to do, where you can learn new areas from experienced partners, all without constraints like billable hour targets or sales targets for products you don’t believe in. It means being measured and rewarded on one goal; client satisfaction.
What do you enjoy most about your work at Nua Group?
I greatly enjoy coming to work to be faced a metaphorical blank sheet of paper! Creating solutions for clients, and using experience and expertise collaborating with colleagues has been a real highlight.
Probably the most rewarding things about the work is seeing the positive impact it makes. Whether it is clients acknowledging the value they’ve received or consultants becoming part-owners in our vision, this sense of impact is truly inspiring.
What have you learned about yourself, leadership and the HR space since you started Nua Group?
Relationships matter! I am grateful for those relationships and the universe of people; clients and friends, who have helped launch and support Nua.
In addition, all the supporting tools and structure in the world don’t matter if you cannot help your clients succeed. The HR space is evolving rapidly and clients are in need of truly unbiased advice to help them cut through the myriad of problems and potential solutions they face.
And lastly, for me, leadership continues to be defined as what I can do to help colleagues be successful and engaged.
What are your plans and ambitions for Nua Group for the years ahead?
We want to expand our impact on clients. We want to have a positive impact on their businesses and help them meet their goals. We would like to set an example for others to follow with our work and the development of our team.
We would like to explore new avenues of work, led by our clients’ needs and our consultants’ areas of interest. Within this, I hope to continue my personal growth as a consultant and a leader.
What are the biggest challenges you see HR leaders are increasingly facing more of?
We are seeing challenges in a few different areas. Firstly, how work gets done is changing rapidly and companies need to think about what impact that has on the jobs their people do.
Second, companies have to find the key differentiators that make them different and appealing to current and future employees. There is so much convergence in rewards practices - every one “targets the median” - that finding a way to stand out is quite challenging.
Lastly, how HR itself gets its work done is a significant challenge. Implementing strategy for their business and their employees is a fundamental requirement but often difficult to achieve, driven in large part by the disruption caused by new technology and new demands.
What's your most favorite book about leadership?
The Kennedys: An American Drama. It's not necessarily about leadership but about leaders! I really enjoyed the insider view of the Kennedys, particularly in the early years and, despite many faults, how they succeeded and inspired generations.
What's one piece of advice you could give to someone who is considering their career move?
Make sure you are doing a positive change, and not just leaving a negative situation.
What's your favorite dining spot in the Bay Area?
This changes on a regular basis. The latest favorite I have is Sakesan on Ocean Avenue. Good sashimi and pitchers of Japanese beer in a casual environment with my wife. Another good one is Le P’tit Laurent in Glen Park. Good food and good wine.
What is your perfect Saturday afternoon?
How about a sunny day at the ballpark for a Giants and Dodgers game with the G-men coming out on top!
If you were to eat the same thing for lunch every day, what would it be?
Eating the same thing every day would be difficult but if I had to I’d go with the halibut sandwich... If you know me, this won’t be a surprise!
Where are you going on your next holiday and why?
Ireland for my sister’s wedding.