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From Queen’s to global peacemaker

Conor Houston, Queen’s Law graduate is Director of Houston Solutions Limited, and Chairman of several organisations including the Federation of Small Businesses Northern Ireland, One Young World 2023 Belfast, and of Fleming Fulton School. He is also the Governor and Trustee of the Irish Times Media Group.

Conor Houston

What does Queen’s mean to you?

 I’m often reminded of Seamus Heaney, his famous line when he talked about the original centre. I think, as I reflected, I’m making this video today, Queen’s University very much is for me, my original centre. It’s where I formed my passion for Law, which was the career I practised in for most 10 years. But it also gave me a number of skills, perspectives and opportunities that continue to this day, and I’m very proud that I have for almost 20 years, I’ve had an association with Queen’s University. 

What was your Queen’s experience like?

I graduated in 2004, with my Law degree. I had a fantastic three years at Queen’s, made a lot of friends who are still very much friends today, and I suppose it ignited my passion and interest in in law and the rule of law. I was very fortunate through my times at Queen’s to be involved in a number of summits and conferences, but also to go and study at the European Public Law Group Academy in Greece, in 2004, which was a really fantastic opportunity. It was my first time, I suppose, with young people from right across Europe studying together, all the different languages, cultures coming together and united by European Union law. 

That was a very formative and special time. And in fact, a number of the things that I’m continued to be involved in, tend to have that international perspective and lens. After I had completed my Law degree, I went on to study for my Master’s in Human Rights law, and was very fortunate that there was an opportunity to do a cross border element. So I did the first half of my Master’s in Queens, and the second half of my masters at the National University of Ireland in Galway. And again, that was a very special time and experience and a number of the friendships and relationships I enjoy to this day were because of that cross-border experience. 

What was your first graduate role?

I graduated from Queen’s with my Master’s and I then went back to Queen’s to study at the Institute of Professional Legal Studies, where I was finally admitted as a solicitor in 2008. I was lucky that I had a firm that I did my apprenticeship with John J. Rice and Company in Belfast, which was a criminal and human rights firm.I worked there for almost 10 years and was fortunate to be involved in many of the pioneering human rights cases of that time. I was dual qualified in that I was qualified both in Northern Ireland and also in the Republic of Ireland. So I practised a lot in Belfast and Dublin. And during my time in practice, I was very involved in the profession. Firstly, through the Young Lawyers Association, the Northern Ireland Young Solicitors Association, which I ended up becoming Chair of, and we had some fantastic conferences and events and a lot of fun with that group. I was then the first lawyer for Northern Ireland to be appointed to the board of the European Young Bar Association, which our relationship continues to this day. And 2010, we actually brought the European Young Bar Association conference to Belfast, so it was fantastic to bring all these international lawyers to our city. 

What has been a career highlight?

I suppose a combination of all those roles, as well as being so very fortunate to be representing some leading human rights cases represent journalists, politicians, and many others. I suppose I became very interested in how law can affect change, I was very passionate about making a difference. And that’s what attracted me into law, the power of law to create change in a society. 

I was very fortunate that the cases I got to work on, were very much about driving that change. But I suppose I became interested in how could I do even more so in 2014, I was awarded a scholarship by the United States State Department. And I spent a few months, I took a sabbatical and took a few months out to Boston College and then into Washington, and on their rule of law programme, which really started to develop my thinking more around the skills and experiences and perspective I had, and what I could do. 

Whilst my mission was very much about helping people and making a difference, trying to refine what I could do with that, I became very interested then around maybe getting involved around politics and trying to create change to help complete our peace process, and to, I suppose, realise the enormous ambition and potential of Northern Ireland. 

What are some of your favourite work-related projects? 

I was very honoured to be appointed as the programme director at the Centre for Democracy and Peacebuilding. And I worked there for a number of years and worked on some fantastic projects around working with, for example, community organisations, youth groups, loyalists bands. And it was a great privilege to be involved in their work in trying to help to complete the peace process and build capacity within both civic and political society. 

One of the amazing projects I got to work on with them was the EU debate programme, which was set up about nine months before the EU referendum. And the idea was to create a space for informed thinking and debate in Northern Ireland, on the issues that the Brexit referendum would have, particularly as it pertains to Northern Ireland. 

I was involved with the board in rolling out a very ambitious programme where we engaged with community groups, youth organisations, religious organisations, every political party in Northern Ireland. And we really began a conversation, we weren’t trying to determine the outcome of the debate, we were trying to make sure that there was a debate. So we were neutral in that we weren’t trying to tell people to leave or remain, we were just trying to present all of the arguments and create that space. And that was a very humbling experience. 

Queen’s University Belfast were very involved in supporting that project. In fact, we launched a new debate in the Great Hall in Queen’s and academics from the School of Politics, including Professor David Phinnemore were involved in writing a briefing paper for us. So it was very important to us that it would be underpinned by that credible academic expertise, but also the have that support of the reputation of Queen’s.

Why did you set up your own business? 

I decided to set up my own consultancy, and I suppose what brings together a number of the clients and projects that I work on, is that one thing to realise the ambition of Northern Ireland. So I work with a number of leaders, all of whom may be coming from very different backgrounds and sectors, but all of whom are very passionate about realising the enormous potential of Northern Ireland, and trying to drive change here. 

I suppose that’s what unites the number of projects that I’m privileged to work on now. And as I mentioned, I’m government trustee of the Irish Times Media Group. So the Irish Times is owned by a trust, and there are eight of us appointed to effectively act as the shareholders of the group. So we’re there to sort of look at the long term vision and that’s been particularly interesting, interesting in an age of post truth and thinking about the lines around freedom of speech, etc. So, and a lot of that, of course, goes back to the learnings that I had when I studied both my Law and Master’s degree around the issue of proportionality and competing rights. 

What is One Young World? 

I’ve been involved in leading a bid to bring One Young World to Belfast in 2023. So in 2017, I was asked to address the one Young World Youth summit in Bogota, Colombia. One Young World is the world’s largest youth summit. It brings over 3000 young people from every country in the world, to a city each year. And it’s one of the only organisations aside from the Olympics that actually gets every country in the world involved. 

And this is about identifying the future leaders, both within business but also within NGO sector, just young people that are passionately driving change right across the world. So I was very fortunate to be invited to address this summit in Bogota, Colombia in 2017, and was introduced on stage by the then president of Colombia, President Santos and the late Kofi Annan, the former Secretary General of the United Nations. Both of those men spoke about the impact that Northern Ireland had on their journeys to peace, and this was a very humbling moment for me. 

When I addressed the summit, I realised the power of our generation and the generation watching this video, to effect real change, not just within the place we will call home, but also in terms of making an impact in the world. So I then began the process of building a team to put together a bid to bring One Young World to Belfast in 2023, and we were successful in that. 

How has your degree from Queen’s helped you?

Queen’s is that passport, not just for your career, but to accessing opportunities, and a fantastic network right around the world. So, you know, I’m extremely proud of the many hats and roles and things I’ve been involved in being a graduate of Queen’s University is really up there, and I look forward to continuing that role with Queen’s. 

What challenges have you faced?

When I was a lawyer, and some of the projects I work on, particularly some of the Civic roles that I have, I think one of the challenges your generation is going to face is how we engage with the people we disagree with. So one of the challenges is always when you have very passionate about change, or seeing something happen, and you encountered the resistance to that.

I think that one of the big challenges that I challenge myself every day, I think that we have to all turn on is what can we do to engage with the people that we disagree with, how we, I’ve often said we don’t have to agree but being disagreeable is a choice. So we need to find more places and spaces in which we can find that ability to respectfully engage with each other and actually see that compromise is an art, it’s not a sellout.

I think this is something that I encourage your generation to really challenge I think that the future will belong to those who can build relationships that can be constructive that can respectfully disagree with each other, but can see the common good can work together for the common good, can see the bigger picture that is the challenge of your generation. 

What gets your out of bed in the morning?

I don’t feel that there’s an average week. For me, I think that’s probably what I love most about my, my work. In fact, I don’t even feel like I have a job because I’m very fortunate that everything I do, whether it be in my business life or my civic life, they are projects and issues that I’m very passionate about. So I jump out of bed in the morning, passionate about making the change in the area that day, whether it be through being on the border shadows and LGBT youth organisation, whether that be in promoting the role of small businesses through the five and a half 1000 members, and I have the privilege of being Chair of the FSB, and speaking up on their behalf, whatever I can do to to advocate change, to advance those who are trying to make a real impact. 

That’s what sparks me on in the morning. 

What advice do you have for graduates?

I think that’s one of the most exciting things about this generation, the graduates of today is that you really do have a blank canvas to create the kind of life and career that you want for yourself. And Queen’s University, as I say, is the ideal place to give you that toolkit for you to be able to do that. 

It’s for me, it’s that life journey, it’s not just about getting that degree wasn’t really that important that you do, and it’s about the relationships that you build, the skills that you have, and they will sustain you for the not just years but decades ahead. And you know, as I said, it’s 20 years this September since I started Queen’s, and I’m reminded of something my late grandfather said to me, he said 20 years is a long time looking forward, but nothing looking back. 

And for the first time, I can tell you, it doesn’t feel like two decades ago I entered Queen’s University, but those two decades, I’ve had that original centre of Queens, which has, as I say, been a constant thread throughout my career both here in Northern Ireland and through the international experiences and opportunities I’ve had. 

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Lessons from a tech leader

Categories
Alumni Employers Finance Graduate recruitment Graduate Recruitment and Placement Fair Graduate success graduate training schemes Law Virtual recruitment

My Virtual Recruitment Success Secrets

Queen’s Law graduate Norma Taggart just secured a graduate position as a legal analyst with FinTrU Belfast after a rigorous virtual recruitment process. Here is how she did it.

Norma Taggart

The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly affected the recruitment process as employers are forced to shift away from in-person interviews to online recruitment methods. Many businesses have had to quickly become accustomed to online recruiting by using video software and telephone interviews instead of the traditional styles of interviewing. This new approach to recruitment can be daunting to a student or graduate who has not been exposed to this process before. 

However, if the idea of online recruitment intimidates you, I recommend viewing it as an opportunity to upskill rather than as a challenge. By going through the online recruitment process, I have learned how to use numerous video call software, such as Zoom and Bluejeans and have developed my ability to adapt to a changing work environment. As the world becomes more tech savvy and firms are transitioning to remote working, these technological skills will become highly sought after. Students and graduates that have a proficiency in software such as these will stand apart from the crowd.  

I gained first-hand insight into this process as I have recently secured a graduate position as a legal analyst with FinTrU Belfast after completing their 6-week FinTrU Legal Academy. FinTrU is a multi-award winning financial services company that gives local talent the opportunity to work on a global stage with the largest international investment banks. The company conducted three stages of recruitment in order to fill the positions, thus I went through virtual recruitment as opposed to the traditional recruitment process. Although it was a daunting idea at first, I have learned valuable tips and tricks to nail a video interview and get the job. 

How to Get the Interview and Succeed 

The first step in succeeding in the virtual recruitment process is to utilise the Queen’s Careers team. The Careers Department have been an invaluable resource in preparing me for both recruitment and the world of work. The Careers Team support students and graduates with all aspects of career planning and decision making. They offer practical, tailored advice for every step of your career journey. My advice is to seek their help long before you need to start applying for internships, graduate jobs or placement. 

I was fortunate enough to work as a student assistant in the Student Guidance Centre where I witnessed first-hand the amount of work that goes towards helping students get ready for the world of work. I took part in CV workshops and one-to-one CV sessions with experienced Career Consultants where I was able to tailor my CV to the industry I was applying to. Your CV is the first impression you make to an employer; therefore, it is important it is up to date and well laid out. 

The Graduate and Placement Fairs organised by Queen’s Careers Team are an excellent source of information for students and graduates. I recommend going to as many as you can throughout your time at Queen’s as they give you insight into both the industries you are interested in and the ones you are not. For example, I did an undergraduate degree in Law which often has a very traditional career path associated with it. The Graduate Fair, alongside employer panels, insight days and employer presentations organised by the Careers team, allowed me to become more open-minded to different career routes available and develop my skill set beyond strictly legal skills. Therefore, when the opportunity arose for me to apply for a career in the financial services sector, I knew I was capable of adapting and succeeding as an analyst.

MyFuture also can act as a vital tool in your job search as it is constantly updated with new opportunities and it is where you can book Career Consultations with experienced members of the Careers Team. Participating in different employability programmes and events will make you more of a well-rounded candidate and show employers that you are not afraid to go outside your comfort zone. The Careers Team are there to help you in every stage of your job hunt, therefore I recommend taking advantage of their help as soon as possible. 

Tips for Virtual Recruitment 

The virtual recruitment process for the FinTrU Legal Academy consisted of an online application where you expressed why you want to work in the financial services sector and for FinTrU specifically. The second round of the recruitment was a telephone call and the final round was a video interview conducted over a software called Bluejeans.

I had never done a live video or telephone interview before. It was daunting as it is difficult to convey the same enthusiasm over a phone or webcam than when you meet the recruiter in person. Technology can also be temperamental so I was aware that a lot could go wrong. To combat these concerns, my top tip for the next student taking part in virtual recruitment is to be prepared. The more prepared you are, the less stressed you will be and the more you can focus on the task at hand. 

In preparation for the interview, get familiar with the job description and the specific skills they are looking for in a successful candidate. You can familiarise yourself with the company and its employees by attending graduate fairs, industry insight days and employer panels. Using the STAR method, identify times throughout your career where you have used or developed the skills in the job description. This will show the interviewer that you have a number of transferable skills that will benefit their company if you were to get the job. 

On the day of the interview, log onto the software early to download it and test your internet connection. Confirm that your camera and microphone are working as soon as you agree to the interview. I made the mistake of waiting until it was time for the interview to click the link to join. I then had to download the software which made me stressed before the interview even began. The more you do to mitigate stress before the interview, the more comfortable you will feel. 

Set up a space in your house where you will not be disturbed and ensure that the lighting is appropriate. If the interview begins and you realise that they cannot see you properly, this will put you on edge and you will lose your concentration on answering questions. If you are in a well-lit area without distractions, it will also show the hiring manager that you are professional and taking the interview seriously. 

You should not memorise answers to questions as this will come across impersonal and rehearsed. One of the benefits of a virtual interview is that it allows you to have your CV and notes beside you. Utilise this to your advantage and have your preparation close by. Employers will go through your CV in depth so make sure you have it nearby so that you can reference it in answers. 

Do not forget to dress to impress. Even though the interview is being conducted online, employers still expect you to look presentable and interview ready. This is good practice for when you get the job as clients and senior management will expect the same level of professionalism when you are working alongside them, whether that is online or in person. 

One obstacle associated with virtual recruitment is that it can feel impersonal. It is difficult to express your enthusiasm for the job when it is over a webcam. You cannot shake the interviewer’s hand over a webcam; therefore, it is essential that you monitor your body language. It is important to sit up straight and look into the camera when speaking and not at the screen. Ask a friend or family member to run through possible questions with you over a Zoom call so that you can get feedback on both your answers and the impression you make with your body language. 

Know your chosen employer inside out and stay up to date with the industry. I attended numerous employer panels where I was given the opportunity to ask questions about the world of work and the skill sets needed to succeed. I was told to stay informed with the industry I want to go into by reading the news, following relevant outlets on LinkedIn and keeping an eye on exciting developments in the area I was looking to qualify in. By doing this, you can display your enthusiasm for the industry by asking the interviewer relevant and informed questions. 

Join Norma at the Graduate Recruitment and Placement Fair on 22 Oct for more top tips.

Register here: https://virtualcareersfairs.qub.ac.uk/events