Majella Henchion is the engineering capability manager for ESB. A mechanical engineer who graduated from University College Dublin (UCD) in 1990 and started working in the generation end of the ESB that same year.

She has worked in a wide variety of technical, managerial and strategic roles within ESB in the past 31 years while also receiving a master’s in maintenance management from Manchester University in 1994, becoming a Chartered Engineer in 1997 and becoming a Fellow of Engineers Ireland in 2011.

In recent years she has held roles as varied as plant manager of Turlough Hill and Liffey Stations (a pumped storage station located at the Wicklow Gap and three hydro stations on the Liffey); health and safety manager for ESB’s generation business; strategic human resources projects manager; programme owner for ESB Networks; and strategic craft capability development manager for ESB Networks.

Henchion is chair of Engineers Ireland’s Benevolent Fund Committee and of its newly formed Inclusion and Diversity Society. She is president of the UCD Engineering Graduates’ Association.

She is also an active business coach within ESB and a mentor both within ESB and via the UCD alumni group. Married with three adult children, Henchion has also been a swimming teacher, Ladybird leader, chair of St Colmcille’s Community School Board of Management and secretary of the local Scout Group. She paints, knits, reads and walks in her spare time. 

Majella Henchion

When did you first become interested in engineering? 

I became an engineer through a process of elimination rather than recognising an interest in engineering. A trip to my career’s guidance office was very unhelpful – the advice given was that I was bright enough to do anything I wanted.

When I pointed out that the school didn’t allow me to take the right combination of subjects to study radiography, I was told I’d find that a boring/limiting career. 

I thought this was a convenient pronouncement but looking back I realise that was true as one of the best things about my career in engineering has been the breadth and variety of things that I have been able to do – I’m not one for specialising in a narrow field (although I could have done that too in engineering!). In any case, I left the careers office, feeling that I was very much on my own.

I loved maths and science, so I started looking at medical-related fields. A couple of days shadowing various people in hospitals made me realise that medicine and all related fields were not for me since I almost fainted twice!

The only thing I knew was that I was going to college – my parents had promised themselves to put all five of us through college (an unusual aspiration in the 1980s, especially in a family with three girls).

They were well on the way, with my two brothers studying engineering and my sister studying medicine at the time. So, I sat down with the CAO handbook (which was, thankfully, a slimmer volume in those days!) and started crossing things out.

Paying for five people to go to college wasn’t easy and I knew my parents couldn’t afford for me to go anywhere outside of Dublin, so I eliminated all but UCD, Trinity and DIT (as it was called then).

I didn’t consider DCU either. At the time it was NIHE and my parents weren’t very sure of the quality of education there which, given the sacrifices they were making to educate me, really mattered.

Equally important to me was that it was on the northside and I didn’t fancy the idea of the 13km cycle each way; and knew that I’d be eating greatly into my socialising fund as well as my socialising time if I did the two-bus commute each way!

With three colleges to look at and a much shorter list of options I quickly found myself down to science and engineering. The only science graduates I knew of were in teaching, so I picked engineering!

I did very well academically but I figure that I spent the first five years, post-graduation, expecting to be found out as a fraud. It was only at that point that my views on what constituted an engineer broadened sufficiently for me to allow that I was indeed a real mechanical engineer despite my total lack of interest in cars and engines and my equal lack of interest in picking up tools to do the hands-on work myself!

Who were the mentors who helped you on your way?

When I joined the graduate programme in ESB, I was assigned a mentor, Eddie Byrne, who was plant manager in Turlough Hill at the time. He certainly helped me understand the scope of careers available to me within the organisation and particularly the management opportunities which were open to engineers.

Turlough Hill

A variety of other line managers and colleagues have advised and supported me informally over the years and I learnt a lot from observing the behaviour of other excellent engineers and managers within ESB (including Peter Davis, Dave Dwyer, Declan O’Brien and Paddy Hayes among many, many others) and emulating them.

I have also learnt a lot from the small number of people I have encountered whose behaviour were anathema to me. It is often as useful to know how you don’t want to be perceived as to know what you are striving towards.

Interestingly, it was once I matured enough to have good belief in myself that I started actively looking for the support and guidance of others, and informal mentors such as Mick Loughnane, Seamus Deeny, Gerry Mooney and John O’Gorman have all helped me along the way.

Your engineer hero, or the nearest you have to one?

I didn’t have an engineering hero when I became an engineer but when I look at all the engineers I have known and know of, my dad has to be the one for me. He graduated from University College Cork (UCC) in the 1950s as a civil engineer and worked in construction through the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

As a child I knew that he loved his job, that he was dedicated to it and that it was important. He loved working on site, overcoming the impossible expectations of architects and dealing with the myriad problems that arise day to day, hour to hour on a large construction site.

My first memories of project management are of him spreading out his A0 Gantt chart on the kitchen table and meticulously updating it in red ink prior to a monthly update to the board of the company. 

Gantt chart

In the recession of the 1980s he was made redundant but found temporary contract work immediately. I think what makes him my engineering hero is what he did next. With two children in college and three more hoping to start within the next five years, he knew that to engineer their (our) future, he needed to compromise on his own.

To ensure that we all got to college, he took the only permanent job he could get at the time as a lecturer in DIT. He hated the idea of leaving site but this was the only way to ensure he could afford to support us.

He then dedicated himself to doing the best possible job he could.  He spent hours developing his lectures and the student handouts to go with them. He took great efforts to correct student work, giving them detailed, useful feedback.

He would always take a call from a student with a query – many an evening approaching exam time his dinner would go cold while he dealt with a student’s call! And he was rewarded – the attitude he took to the change in role, that of endeavouring to make the most of it and be the best at it that he could be, meant that he had a very enjoyable second half of his career and was no more interested in leaving it when he hit retirement age as he was interested in leaving site in the 80s.

Even when he retired, his interest in engineering didn’t disappear, if anything he became more interested in hearing about what myself and my brothers were doing at work. So why is he my hero – because he has not only been a brilliant engineer but he has been an excellent role model who has left a legacy far beyond the buildings he constructed, in his children and the hundreds of engineers he taught.

What are your favourite engineering feats?

Throughout this decade, Nasa will explore more of the Moon than ever before and will establish a sustainable human presence with Artemis program in preparation for future human missions to Mars. Nasa is seeking new partners to help the agency tell the story of lunar exploration with Artemis in ways that engage, excite, and inspire a worldwide audience. Image: Nasa

I am in awe of many of the amazing structures which have been built around the world and the feats of Nasa in the 1960s when they overcame so many obstacles to get to the moon but for me the feats of engineering which most inspire me are things like:

  • the engineers in the pharmaceutical industry who take a product developed by scientists in the lab and enable it to be produced in bulk with the certainty that every dose will have the right amount of all the various ingredients to be efficacious;
  • the stint which has transformed medical treatment from the days where a person had open heart surgery followed by six months’ recovery to virtually a day-treatment process with immediate health improvements;
  • the volunteer programmes bringing water to the impoverished of Africa and thereby changing the future of hundreds of families with each village pump;
  • I love the fact that through engineering in a single lifetime, the standard of living for everybody in Ireland has been raised by such a huge amount. My mother was born into a middle-class rural family – small farmers who owned their farm – with no electricity, no indoor plumbing, a bicycle to get to school and a pony and trap to take the churns to the creamery after hand-milking the cows, cooking on an open fire etc. Coming up on her 85th birthday she lives in a far more comfortable world where such conditions would be considered to be way below the poverty line.

What is/are the most important trend/s in engineering right now?

I’m not sure what the most important trends are but I am conscious that we need to ensure that the focus on new tech and digital doesn’t result in the loss of talent from traditional areas of engineering.

We need to make sure that future generations of engineers see the need to do the traditional things better as well as wanting to get into the cutting-edge new areas. 

In the same way that the biotech company who produces stents can save the lives of more patients than any individual surgeon, an engineer who can improve the efficiency of the electricity network by a fraction of 1% can do as much or more for climate change as the many attracted to renewables technology.

I really believe that engineers can solve many of the problems facing the world but we need to attract people to work across the range of engineering activities and help them to see how in each of these there are ways to contribute significantly to the sustainable future we all need.


I would note that there are also some very exciting trends in software engineering, with developments in AI and virtual universes. We need to ensure that these are developed in ethically sound ways with proper risk assessments of possible unintended outcomes and the involvement of philosophers, psychologists, anthropologists and others in their development.

The final trend I’d like to highlight is more of a business trend than an engineering one but it has major ramifications for engineering: more and more businesses are recognising the need for inclusion and diversity in their workforces to ensure better innovation and delivery for their customers.

Engineering in Ireland is not offering employers the gender diversity it needs and we need to tackle that. There are many other countries that also struggle with this. If we could get ahead of the curve, it would be another incentive for investment in Ireland by multinational tech companies – the CEO of Intel is on the record complaining about our lack of women in STEM.

This is only going to become a greater issue as gender pay gap reporting requirements are introduced around the world. We really need to grab the opportunity to do something about it now.

What are your favourite book/s? And what are you currently reading?

I am an avid reader of fiction which I find to be a great escape and relaxation but also something which helps to feed my imagination and hence my creativity.

I read a wide variety of genres including historical, crime, mystery, saga, romance, sci-fi, fantasy and dystopian futures. If I had to pick one favourite book it would be Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, which I first read when I was 13 and which I have re-read countless times since.

I love the humour, the insights into the characters and the story itself. More generally, my favourite authors include: Jane Austen, Trudi Canavan, Lee Child, Tess Gerristen, Laura Ingles Wilder, Robert Jordan & Brandon Sanderson, Walter Macken, Anne McCaffrey, Jojo Moyes, Jodie Picoult, Terry Prachett, Leon Uris and many more. Right now, I am re-reading the uplifting anecdotes in Chicken Soup for the Soul.

What is the one piece of advice you would give to somebody starting out in the profession?

Engineering is a very broad career, with lots of different possible routes to take to a really fulfilling future. It can be a very powerful/impactful profession. We all can make a difference for society and some of us will do so on a scale which few others can.

Take your time to get to know as many  aspects of the profession as you can before choosing your path. Don’t rush along the first route you happen to land in, chasing promotions and more money, without first being sure this is the route that aligns best with your values and what you want to spend your life doing. 

Concentrate more on gaining the rounded depth of experience of a Chartered Engineer in your first few years to establish a sound base for a future you will enjoy rather than pursuing short-term gains in an area that may not give you as much satisfaction in the end.

Spend time working out who you are, what matters to you and what kind of engineer you want to be. There is an infinity of possible futures ahead of you, take time to pick the right one for you.

Elaborate on the measures we need to take to help improve gender balance within the profession?

There are many measures we need to take to bring about a more gender balanced profession but until we address the unconscious biases within society we are always going to make slow progress.

It is not enough to sell STEM subjects and careers to girls, we need to address the gender stereotypes that our children are trained into accepting from the cradle.

Why did I have to buy boys’ clothes for my daughter when at the age of four she took an aversion to the colour pink? Why did I have to buy her ‘boys’ toys’ when I wanted her to be able to use her imagination to build things?

Why was it considered odd that her favourite Power Ranger was the blue one and not one of the girls? Why did my son only get to play with the toy kitchen because he had older sisters and hence there was one in the house?

Why did the guys I was in college with in the 1980s decide there were three genders – male, female and female engineers? Well there had to be since most of us female engineers dressed and talked differently so that we could fit in and so they could talk to the girls in their class but many of them found it very difficult to talk to ‘real girls’.

Changing society and the way we programme our children from birth is going to take a long time. However, there was a time when female medical staff were never doctors and that has changed because enough women decided they wanted to make it happen.  

We need to encourage woman to recognise how much of a difference they can make being engineers and to want it. At the same time we need to help their parents, families, teachers and friends to recognise that engineering (or any other STEM career) is a good fit for their daughter, sister, cousin, niece, pupil, friend. 

There are great efforts going into attracting the students themselves and this also gives insights to their teachers and friends. We need to find a way to get to the parents – the people who have great influence over the final decision their children make – as to career choices but even greater influence over every little experience on the journey to that decision.

Looking back over your career, is there any project, or particular time in your life, that stands out?  

There are many stand-outs in a 30+ year career, but one that I have been recalling with some frequency recently is a piece of change management I got to lead without even recognising it as change management at the time.

The company had been trying for years to get plant outages managed more effectively. On a regular basis it is necessary to shut a generating plant down to carry out maintenance and equipment replacements to make it more reliable and efficient and to extend its life.

These periods are known as planned outages and, since the plant is not running, every day of outage is a lost income opportunity. Even before the competitive market, we were trying to shorten these outages to ensure we could make electricity as cheaply as possible.

We knew that if we could project-manage these outages we could complete them more efficiently. As I had a master’s in maintenance management achieved through completing research on the use of contractors in delivering outages, I was selected as the appropriate person to write the guideline on the project management of outages.

I wrote a first draft in two weeks and petitioned for more time to do a better job. I got more time and a team of three part-time supporters who all were in roles that would have to implement the output. We put a lot of effort into producing a guideline that would help others see the management of outages differently and have tools they could flex to deal with their individual circumstances. 

Kotter’s 8 step Model of Change

Without my ever realising it (and I don’t know if he did either), the senior manager who had put me to this task and I applied Kotter’s model for managing and adapting to change almost perfectly.

He created a sense of urgency among the senior management team and through them among station managers across the country by getting them all highly focused on their availability statistics (percentage of the year in which your plant is available to run).

He figured from reading my thesis that I could articulate the vision and once I had confirmed that in my two weeks’ work, he pulled together a guiding team in the form of me and the three station middle managers he put working with me.

With them involved he knew that the change vision and strategy we would develop would naturally address the concerns of those who had to implement it and without any prompting we worked equally hard on defining how people would deliver as on what people had to do.

When we were ready, he had us communicate the strategy from the top down. In fact, we almost came undone when we sold it so well to the SMT that they didn’t want to go with a pilot programme but wanted to roll it out everywhere at once. 

We had hoped to support the first few implementers through the process before letting everybody at it and that would be much more difficult if everybody were going at it at once. But others were now empowered to act.

We had carefully avoided using language which was associated with previous failed attempts and, in fact, had introduced the term ‘overhaul’ to replace outage, as a key message was that project management of downtime starts months/years before the plant shuts down and isn’t finished until well after the plant is back in operation.

Our guideline outlined an implementable strategy, which made sense to those who needed to implement it and helped them communicate what they needed to their bosses. 

We found places where it was being implemented already and used these to demonstrate that it worked producing short-term wins. When concern was raised over its applicability in smaller stations, we used the opportunity to get three new station middle managers into a working group to produce a ‘lite’ version of the guideline which was really just a way of helping them to see how to apply the guideline in their circumstances – so we kept communicating, kept empowering others to act, and didn’t let up.

Soon, there was no other way to manage planned outages than to apply our project management approach.  This was incorporated into all our systems including budgeting, human resource planning, training and development.

Nobody in our generation division would ever think of trying to manage an ‘overhaul’ from within the normal day-to-day operating environment any more and it is more than 20 years since anyone in ESB’s generating division talked about managing a planned outage.

What is a typical day for you? 

No such thing as a typical day for me but I find I spend a lot of my time in meetings with individuals or groups. I try not to complain about back-to-back meetings because I understand that at this point in my career, most of what I deliver is done through others.

Hence, my meetings have purpose - developing relationships, developing or increasing understanding of our strategies and implementation plans, guiding others to deliver on our goals or getting buy-in to those goals and ambitions, developing/guiding the future leaders of our organisation.

These interactions can take the form of briefings, workshops, 1-2-1 coaching or mentoring, team catch-ups and sometimes just a good chat. The challenge is to find time between the meetings to reflect and take what I have learnt and apply it where it is needed.

So with increasing frequency in recent years, I also schedule meetings with myself to reflect and work on increasing my own understanding of what I am trying to achieve and who best to work with to achieve it.

What are your favourite films/TV dramas?

I don’t really have any favourites, although I have a box set of The West Wing, which I have watched many times, having also managed to watch almost all of it when it first aired – it was the only thing I got to watch in those years with a very young family as it was on late on a Thursday, so I could afford to stay up to watch it as there was only one more day of school and work to get through before the weekend.

The Good Life

I also have a soft spot for sci-fi such as Dr Who and Star Trek; romcoms; police procedurals such as Lewis, Vera and Death in Paradise. I watch comedians doing quiz shows such as 8 out of 10 cats does countdown and Taskmaster and then I have watched some of the oldies such as Fawlty Towers, The Good Life and Yes Minister so often that they have almost stopped being funny.

What is the best piece of advice that you have ever been given?  

The best advice: know exactly what you want out of a meeting (with an individual or group) before you go into it and be prepared to ensure that you have the best possible chance of getting it.

The supplementals: don’t try to achieve too much at one go. Even if it is very difficult to get to meet with a person or group be sure to know what one to three things are the most important ones to get right now and go for those and work to ensure that you keep the door open to come back again for the other things.

If it doesn’t look likely that you will achieve your goal at the first attempt, adapt and pull back to ensure you can and will get a second chance. Not only does this advice make sure that the meetings are more effective and that you show yourself to advantage, it encourages you to build relationships rather than using meetings as purely transactional situations.

What do you do to relax? 

Majella Henchion and her art

I don’t know if I really know how to relax, but the things I do to restore equilibrium include going for a daily walk; having a cuppa and chat with my mam or a friend; attending a weekly art class (and sometimes even finding time to do some painting outside of class!); knitting while watching light entertainment on TV; losing myself in a good novel.