Why did you decide to join the IoD?
I joined the IoD in October 2017 because I wanted to expand my professional network and, also, to take advantage of the resources maintained by the IoD. Support networks are essential in any profession but particularly as an Independent Non-Executive Director (INED) for connectivity and expertise.
What do you particularly value from your IoD membership?
The IoD provides an independent facility comprising technical resources and the continuing opportunity to connect with its expanding network of members and member organisations. A director needs to be expert in a wide range of areas from strategy to risk management and Corporate Governance Codes. Remaining current and relevant is increasingly challenging despite the ever-expanding volume of information we are offered. The IoD helps me to keep my edge by focusing on the right areas and connecting with experts.
What is the most important lesson, from your personal or business life, that has guided you the most in being a business leader?
The most important lesson that I have taken from both my personal and business life has been the fundamental importance of personal relationships. You can learn so much from your mentors; peers; colleagues and friends. Ultimately, it is people that drive communities and business which underpins success.
Is there someone who has had a major impact on you as a leader? Why and how did this person impact your life?
My father, John Donnelly, had the greatest impact on me as a leader due to his extraordinary work ethic and drive. As a teenager he landed on D-Day to fight the Nazis; as a young man he and his Mum strategised (successfully) to buy back the family business from the bank that had acquired it in a period of economic turmoil; and, in his professional life, he built the professional practice that is now Deloitte in this country. He strived to be excellent in business and help communities and networks. He was a person fundamentally fascinated by other people, and relationships. He also had a particularly succinct way at managing board meetings!
What is the one characteristic that you believe every leader should possess?
Empathy and understanding are important qualities in a business leader. Personal circumstances and educational backgrounds are unique to each person. Providing support to those circumstances can develop loyalty and an environment for freedom of thought which brings ideas and innovation. In addition, being a good listener really helps. If we hear, we have some chance of being able to think and plan; if we think and plan, we make better decisions.
What are the biggest business challenges or/and opportunities that you have seen over your career to date? And how did you help to overcome or/and optimise these?
Having lived and worked through a Global Financial Crisis (GFC), Brexit, and now a pandemic there is no shortage of challenges in life! It is how you react to them that matters. Identifying opportunities and being agile and flexible helps in these situations. Working in Asset Management in the Central Bank of Ireland (CBI) during the GFC, I experienced first-hand the impact of such a crisis on global policy development. Ensuring Irish financial service providers developed best practice to avoid or mitigate similar risks occurring in the future was a valuable lesson learnt. Similarly in pandemic times, stress testing a financial service provider’s operational resilience to ensure it remains robust, is a business opportunity that sets them apart from competitors.
From a personal perspective, adapting from private practice at PwC to the public sector in the Central Bank of Ireland was challenging at first as I assimilated into the model of public service. Having transitioned from public service back to the private sector again I take with me an appreciation of the concerns of both sectors, which is beneficial to my role as an INED.
How has your business evolved and adapted because of the COVID-19 crisis? Do you believe COVID-19 will impact your future business model?
The operations side of my business has obviously changed as a consequence of the health precautions. Meetings have all been online, meaning for example in the case of my UK Directorship with London Stock Exchange Group plc (Refinitiv) I have yet to meet the board in person! The health restrictions have demonstrated the enduring importance and vitality of personal connections with people. You cannot replace meeting someone face-to-face.
How do you think business leaders can best prepare for the future?
Business leaders can best prepare for the future by ensuring that their business is financially sound and operationally robust. COVID meant that Business Continuity Plans had to be enacted to a level never previously expected. In addition, market volatility in March 2020 increased trading volumes and, as a consequence, processing volumes for many businesses in the Asset Management sector. Having flexible and technologically mature systems meant that businesses were able to meet this challenge while ensuring middle and back office standards were maintained. The COVID crisis also demonstrated the importance of business fundamentals. Overly geared models can be highly vulnerable to shocks and the work that took place during the GFC to maintain adequate capital buffers in stressed markets helped to allay some of these vulnerabilities. That said, in any crisis there are always more lessons to be learnt, such as enhancing the robustness of the global financial system still further.
What advice would you offer to new or aspiring directors in Ireland?
Certainly, to join the IoD for a start! Being able to say to prospective clients that I was a member of the IoD and had access to this valuable network and all its educational benefits was, I believe, a differentiator.
You have to be brave in this business to be able to challenge boards on key areas. Having diversity of thought and approach can bring a sound offering so do not be afraid to emphasise your ‘unique selling point’!