*This Interview is taken from an article first published on The Irish Times website on Monday, 9th October 2023.
Lorna Conn CDir was motivated to join IoD Ireland over 8 years ago to round out the experience she had gained as a member of various boards over the years. She has crammed a wealth of experience into a relatively short career which began in 2002 with Deloitte. During that time, she has held senior leadership positions with several publicly listed companies along with a number of board positions over the past 15 years. Last November she joined the board of Bord na Móna plc as an independent non-executive director (NED).
“I have met great people since joining the Institute of Directors (IoD) in Ireland. It has ticked all the boxes for me.”
“I wanted to see how another company in a very different industry is run,” she says. “I wanted to see how the board is run, the governance structures they had put in place and so on. I also wanted to learn about another industry. Bord na Móna is a fascinating company. It has been on a journey of transformation from peat harvesting to climate solutions and is now helping to lead Ireland towards a climate neutral future. I am very glad to be able to contribute in some small way to Bord na Móna as it continues on that journey.”
She began her career as a chartered accountant. “I always wanted to be an accountant. All through secondary school I knew that’s what I wanted to be. I went through a very linear process to get my chartered accountancy qualification. I did a B Comm in UCD and then did the milk round and was fortunate enough to receive offers from all of the Big 5, which they were known at the time.”
She joined Deloitte who sponsored her Masters in Accounting in the UCD Smurfit School. “I stayed with Deloitte for five years. I was very lucky to work with two of their flagship clients. I got the opportunity to travel to the US for three months on a SOX readiness programme and I also got to work in Deloitte Darwin, Australia for four months.”
She left to take up a position with NTR plc. “I felt I was at a point in my career when I had to decide whether I was going to commit to private practice or move into industry,” she explains. “I was very fortunate to join NTR Plc as CFO of the company’s roads subsidiary. I got appointed to the boards of the toll road operating companies in 2008 and was appointed as a shareholder representative on the joint venture companies in 2010. That was a great opportunity for a 27-year-old.”
That was followed by stints in the US with the company’s waste and wind energy subsidiaries. “NTR were ahead of their time, they got behind the person and didn’t look at their age,” she says. “I got fantastic experience during my six years there. I was also fortunate that a senior female leader in the company backed me for the initial move to the US. I am very grateful for that.”
Returning to Ireland
On her return to Ireland, she joined Independent News & Media and stayed for a year before moving on to a role with ISS, an integrated facilities management company listed on the Copenhagen stock exchange.
She joined Cpl in 2017 and helped manage the company’s takeover by Japanese group Outsourcing Inc in January 2021. “We de-listed at that point and three months later I was appointed Deputy CEO and in January 2022 I was appointed CEO. Earlier this year I took on an additional role at Outsourcing as senior managing executive officer and joined their Executive Committee which oversees group operations in 38 countries.”
IoD Ireland Membership
Conn had become aware of the Institute of Directors (IoD ) in Ireland and decided to join in 2017 to round out the experience she had gained as a member of various boards over the years. “I had pretty constant board experience from 2008 onwards and gained a good range of experience,” she says. “I wanted a structured access point to add the theoretical layer to that on-the-job experience. The Institute of Directors (IoD) in Ireland runs great director development programmes and events and gives you access to a very broad network. I have met some great people since joining. That has given me access to other people’s thoughts and perspectives. I’ve always been interested in that.”
"The Institute of Directors (IoD) in Ireland runs great director development programmes and events and gives you access to a very broad network. I have met some great people since joining. That has given me access to other people’s thoughts and perspectives."
IoD Chartered Director Training
Lorna then decided to do IoD’s Chartered Director programme in 2019. “I loved the programme. It’s completed over a year. I did the certificate and then came first in Ireland in the diploma. It had been 17 years since I last studied and it was great to get the theory of good governance, strategy, leadership to underpin my employment experience. It’s a really good qualification. I’m a very strong supporter of the programme and I’ve already put three members of our executive team through it. I didn’t do it to become a non-executive director. I did it because it was time to invest in myself from a learning and development perspective. It was the first course I ever considered doing after leaving college. I met some wonderful people who are still friends. The lecturers are world class. It has ticked all the boxes for me.”
She has since taken the IoD Ireland's highly rated ‘Leading Sustainability: What Directors Need to Know and How to Do It’ ESG training course. “Sustainability is critically important for us in Cpl. It’s an integral part of our business model. I didn’t want to talk about it without educating myself about it first. The IoD course gives you the opportunity to learn about the latest thinking around sustainability.”
“It’s a really good qualification. I’m a very strong supporter of the Chartered Director Programme and I’ve already put three members of our executive team through it. I didn’t do it to become a non-executive director. I did it because it was time to invest in myself from a learning and development perspective.”
Advice to Prospective NEDs
As the holder of both executive and non-executive board roles, she believes it is very important for would be independent directors to understand the difference between the two. “People sometimes underestimate what’s required of a non-executive director in terms of commitment and capability,” she says. “You are still accountable, but you are not involved in the day to day running of the business. You have to find a way of fulfilling your obligations while not straying into a domain that’s not yours. You also need to be clear with yourself on the time and commitment you can give to the role. It’s not just about turning up for three hours a month. You need to give sufficient time to board papers and build up knowledge of the sector the business operates in. You need to come to a board meeting as prepared and informed as you can be.”
“You need to give sufficient time to board papers and build up knowledge of the sector the business operates in. You need to come to a board meeting as prepared and informed as you can be.”
Being a step removed from the day to day running of the business, NEDs bring vital independence and external perspectives to a company, she adds. “They bring different perspectives and expertise from their own careers and experience. They also bring different competencies. Companies are now looking for different types of expertise including HR, sustainability, legal and compliance and so on. Board members also need to bring challenge that’s constructive and non-combative in nature. Respectful challenge is hugely important, otherwise, inertia and groupthink can take hold. That forces leadership teams to think differently. That’s the power of having different perspectives.”
Her advice to prospective NEDs is to do it for the right reasons. “In the past, the nature of the NED role wasn’t very demanding. That’s changed and the obligations are now quite heavy. Your personal reputation is at stake, so you’ve got to be sure you have the capacity to do it and be able to add value. If you don’t think you can do that, don’t do it. And don’t necessarily take the first NED role that comes up. Make sure it’s the right fit for you.”
“Your personal reputation is at stake, so you’ve got to be sure you have the capacity to do it and be able to add value. If you don’t think you can do that, don’t do it. And don’t necessarily take the first NED role that comes up. Make sure it’s the right fit for you.”
The Future of Boards
Looking to the future she believes boards will become more diverse. “It’s not just gender. It’s about having people from different backgrounds and perspectives and with different skills. That brings a more rounded approach to governance. I’ve seen the benefits time and time again when people with different perspectives contribute. There is nothing as bad as 10 like-minded people in a room all agreeing with each other and saying the same thing.”
As a highly successful female leader and the mother of three children she has never felt that gender has held her back in her career. “I found that it has been a real positive for me in my career. I come at it from the perspective of having seen some amazing female leaders over the years. I have also seen great interactions between male and female leaders. Men and women working together in an environment of equality and respect is a very powerful thing.”
“It’s not just gender. It’s about having people from different backgrounds and perspectives and with different skills. That brings a more rounded approach to governance.”
Thoughts on Leadership
And her thoughts on the key characteristics of a good leader? “The ability to make decisions concisely, transparently and to communicate them openly. That’s one of the things I pride myself on. I believe I am a very accessible leader. Yes, there are decision making structures in place in the organisation, but I try to be as down to earth as possible. We operate quite a flat structure in Cpl. We are all striving towards the same goals and shared strategy and vision. The old style of command and control with the leader in their ivory tower doesn’t wash with today’s generation; they won’t respond to it, they’re not inspired by it, and they won’t go on the journey with you.”
“The ability to make decisions concisely, transparently and to communicate them openly. That’s one of the things I pride myself on. I believe I am a very accessible leader."