A graduate of UCD, and a Chartered Director, Breege O’Donoghue is currently Chair of the Business and Human Rights Implementation Group, Chair of Real World Analytics, Chair of The Design and Crafts Council of Ireland, Non-Executive Director of Fáilte Ireland, Non-Executive Director of Shaw & Sons Ltd, a board member of the UCD Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School, and a member of the Outside Appointments Board (Civil Service Code of Standards and Behaviour). In 2019, she received the Irish Times Top 1,000 Distinguished Leader in Business Award
Why did you decide to join the IoD?
As we know, the IoD is the representative body for senior business professionals. It is a leading voice in the improvement of corporate governance standards and is dedicated to developing and improving the effectiveness and performance of directors on boards. That was my reason. It is an important resource for networking, and a source of general information, allowing one to keep up to date with a wide range of relevant information, legislation, etc.
Since joining the IoD, have you benefitted from your membership?
Yes, I have, including undertaking the prestigious qualification of Chartered Director which combined learning, and contributing to my already established professional experience, with an interesting syllabus focused on all-round skills. The cohort of members studying the programme with me was an added advantage. I find the network events refreshing, stimulating, and also enjoyable. It supports continuous improvement including an education model, which is lifelong and allows one to play a role in society across many domains.
What is the most important business lesson that you have learned in your career to date?
While strategic direction is fundamental in a business, driving execution in an efficient and timely manner is key, and in order to do so, one must be focused, have tenacity, be consistent, persistent, be capable of embedding a systemised approach. Delivering organisational cultural changes, leading innovation, as well as having a strategy for engaging and retaining the right talent is a fundamental/essential requirement.
Is there someone who has had a major impact on you as a leader? Why and how did this person impact your life?
There are very many indeed, both men and women, but I shall mention two women, Professor Louise Richardson, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford, and, Covadonga O'Shea, Former Owner and President of ISEM Fashion Business School Madrid, Former CEO of Telva Magazine, which she developed.
Both of these women are outstanding leaders who prioritise integrity and play a role in society across the domains of education, economic development, environment and sustainability.
Where are the biggest changes you have seen in business over your career?
In whatever business, the customer is all powerful in today’s almost global digital world. Innovation, new product development, differentiation, and sustainability in business are essential ingredients. Choice, cost, convenience, quality, transparency, are also requirements. Today many businesses are a platform for discovery, engagement and experience. Business must have a strategic, authentic leadership, remain agile, have vision, constantly innovate, invest, provide newness, as well as maintaining a culture of collaboration. Contributing to the community, including supporting the protection of the environment driven by concern for sustainability, is also a fundamental necessity. The pace of technology, and its disruptive capability, requires a relentless focus in leveraging technology to add value, and drive efficiencies.
What is one characteristic that you believe every leader should possess?
Leadership skills are the fundamental characteristic, which include compelling communication, being commercially astute, capable of building long-term people capability, and coaching for high performance, ability to influence, challenge constantly, as well as possessing culture and learning agility skills. It will also include leading by example, taking complex problems and translating them into solutions, and all this to encompass the provision of an ethical and sustainable business.
How do you think leaders can best prepare for the future?
Be aware technology is reshaping business. Leaders need to educate everyone from top to bottom, to understand how it works, including identifying priorities and opportunities. Understand culture and cultural barriers, as changing corporate culture can be especially challenging. Ambition is important, one has to understand the journey, be prepared to work hard and contribute, take risks, engage, as well as hiring and retaining the best talent. Be true to oneself, show courage, independence and initiative. Be ethically aware and make sustainability a priority. Be generous in heart, mind, and spirit, and pursue what is meaningful.
What advice would you offer to new or aspiring directors in Ireland?
Believe in the magic of business, the employees, and the valued customers. A new and aspiring director has to be an enabler, a coach, has to have a vision for the organisation, has to manage change, but also deal with the realities of the here and now. It’s about making decisions, leading by example, taking complex problems and translating them into solutions that everyone can follow. Wisdom, courage, humility, modesty, prudence, and self-control are essential qualities.
Model good behaviour, innovate and develop new products to bring to market, seek to improve customer experience every day, develop initiatives that reflect your values, and which also address challenges. Act responsibly in your communities, work with all your stakeholders in areas allied to your business, identify what causes success and failure, and ensure a sustainable business in the long-term. Know when to take a risk, empower your people, cultivate their strengths, and allow them to stand out, and value their creativity. Taking care of your people is key, wellness, innovation and talent should be at the heart. Short lines of communication with core beliefs, simple strategies, and a common vocabulary are essential tools in today’s business life. Strive to drive continuous improvement to serve the core customer better, consistently, more profitably, while adapting constantly to changes in the marketplace.
Uphold the highest standards of integrity and probity. Promote effective relationships with all stakeholders. Ensure high standards of corporate governance and clear structures for the effective running of the business. Establish a relationship of trust with the leadership team, and chairman, as appropriate. Provide coherent and harmonious leadership, including representing the company externally, and understand the views of shareholders. Champion the values of the organisation at all levels.
One’s real values, and one’s reputation, always do the right thing, learn from mistakes, to be successful in business, you have to be in a successful business, find a career path and/or business that you truly believe in, and in which you are happy to have a long-term sense of personal investment. Put the good of the company ahead of any sense of ego or personal gain. “Every man is my superior in that I may learn from him” - Norman Lear