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Helen A. Keelan

Independent Non-Executive Director

Helen A. Keelan

Helen A. Keelan

Independent Non-Executive Director

Helen Keelan has 25 years of senior finance and strategic leadership experience gained in KPMG, Ericsson and Intel. 

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Helen is currently an Independent Non-Executive Director (INED), Chair of the Audit Committee on the Board of Zurich Insurance plc;  Senior Independent Non-Executive Director, Chair of the Audit Committee of PM Group, and Independent Non-Executive Director  of Irish Life Assurance plc. She has previously served as Chair of Barclays Europe and as an INED of Barclays Bank plc, Liberty Insurance DAC and Standard Life International DAC. Helen holds a B.Comm; an M.Sc.(Mgmt), is a Fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants, a Chartered Director and a Certified Bank Director.

As a senior business leader, what are the leadership characteristics which have proven to be the most valuable since March 2020?

The characteristics which I have observed to be most valuable are empathy, decisiveness, good communications and foresight. It has been important for leaders to relate to their colleagues and understand the challenges that they were personally facing in the crisis, pivoting into remote working while continuing to meet clients’ needs. Being able to empathise, listen and understand how individuals were experiencing the crisis, helped to create connection and encourage collaboration. It also provided the feedback and the understanding needed to communicate in a relevant, supportive and effective way. Leaders, using multiple different approaches from town halls, to coffee table chats, to 1:1s and virtual ‘social’ events, needed to be accessible, visible and direct. I believe that the boards and executive teams with strong social capital vested at the time of the crisis were more likely to pivot seamlessly to online.  Given the uncertainty at the time, leaders have had to be open and frank while at the same time being positive and optimistic in navigating through the crisis. Leaders have had to be “pathfinders” to the future for their employees, customers and other stakeholders, demonstrating courage, agility and commitment to the future direction. 

"More than ever, boards and leaders in organisations need to think long term and be bold and courageous."

Looking forward what are the leadership qualities required for the future and how are they different than before?

In a post-crisis environment, for many businesses the traditional leadership approach is changing rapidly on a number of dimensions. Given the challenges of changing stakeholder (including customers’) expectations, a hybrid working environment, intensifying digitisation, re-engineering of supply chains, confronting climate change and recovering from (and learning to live with) COVID, leaders need to be ambidextrous. They will need to set a compelling vision and future purpose which is informed by engaging with multiple stakeholders. Boards and executive teams will need to understand the role and impact of the organisation they lead in a much wider context than in the past. In particular, they will need to comprehend the impact of their business model and organisation on climate change. Looking to the future, the ability to absorb different perspectives, to engage and collaborate with, and then communicate a new and compelling direction will be essential and doing so in a short timeframe. Leaders will need to be visionary and strategic, have strong emotional intelligence, be optimistic for the future, be authentic and pragmatic in managing transition as well as being courageous and bold. 

What do you believe will change for directors/leaders in the future?

While leading change has always been an expectation of leaders, what is different is the scale of the change needed across multiple dimensions and in a short period of time. There is no doubt the pace and scale of change is now more challenging and faster paced. Digitisation is reshaping the nature of relationships with employees, customers, suppliers and wider stakeholders. Climate change impacts organisations in different ways and for many will require ‘revolutionary’ change. The fundamental purpose of organisations is being challenged, what in the past was labelled an evolving “ESG” agenda is now core to the very purpose of the organisation and its impact on society and the planet. Stakeholders including investors, employees and customers expect companies to coherently layout their strategy, the key transition milestones and ultimate success metrics. Stakeholder scrutiny will be much more intensive and intrusive. Disclosure and reporting will be significantly enhanced - more transparent and meaningful. The challenge facing directors and executives is that radical, not incremental, change is needed and is expected by employees, customers, investors and regulators. 

Have the skills required for leaders changed? 

Leaders have always needed a range of skills that they can leverage in confronting different challenges. For example, the skills needed to lead through a crisis are different to the skills required to create a new purpose and set a new strategic direction. In my opinion, the leadership skills that are needed to confront the challenges of today put a premium on leaders having long-term strategic thinking,  strong emotional intelligence, communications skills and the ability to connect with and relate to stakeholders. While leaders do not need to be experts, they must be credible and be authentic. Not only do they need to understand the complex challenges but,also, they must be able to articulate and communicate the way forward – both the transition and destination -  in a way that resonates with stakeholders. Furthermore, given the imperative of connecting in a meaningful way with key stakeholders, leaders today require emotional intelligence. For many leaders, a new challenge in a remote or a hybrid work environment is how to nurture that connection with colleagues, customers and other stakeholders in the absence of regular face to face contact. More than ever, boards and leaders in organisations need to think long term and be bold and courageous.