Why did you decide to join the IoD
Being CEO of a small company was tough at times and, when I joined the IoD in 2009, it was invaluable tapping into a network of like-minded business leaders to discuss issues and get new ideas. Also, I joined the IoD to benefit from the wealth of knowledge and insights. I also joined to complete the IoD Chartered Director Programme so I could acquire the skills necessary to become an effective Director.
What do you particularly value from your IoD membership?
Meeting people from diverse backgrounds and sectors and the tips and techniques learnt from the events. Keeping up to date with the latest regulatory changes and access to a wide range of publications. And the odd visit to the airport lounge!
What is the most important lesson, from your personal or business life, that has guided you the most in being a business leader?
People and team dynamics are the most important ingredient for success. Always have a succession plan and recruit people who are better than you. You can get through any challenge with the right people with the right mindset. Trust, mutual respect, and humility go a long way in good and bad times.
Is there someone who has had a major impact on you as a leader? Why and how did this person impact your life?
My late mother always encouraged me to have a positive mental attitude, be curious and to continuously learn. As a teacher she believed ‘Mol an Óige agus tiocfaidh sí (praise the young and they will flourish)’ and I have stood by this throughout my career. I had three role models during my career who influenced me: Ron Corbet (ex CEO AMEV Insurance) at the start who was a visionary before his time, whose leadership style gave me the space to thrive; Aidan Cassells (ex AXA Insurance) whose mentorship enabled me to move to the next level of leadership; and Vincent Sheridan (ex VHI and Norwich Union) at the latter end of my executive career whose wise counsel guided me through business crises and later onto the portfolio path.
What is the one characteristic that you believe every leader should possess?
Integrity is a must for any leader at any stage in their career. All eyes are on you to see how you behave and you will be judged on how you react to a challenge. It also helps that you can sleep at night by doing the right thing.
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?
I left college in the 1980s when there was no jobs and everyone was emigrating. I handwrote 50 letters to HR managers looking for a job. I got no response from 43 companies. I received 5 no vacancies responses, 2 interviews and eventually secured a job. If, at first, you don’t succeed, try and try again. The second challenge for me was the realisation of the need for diversity in personality types in a team to make it effective. Early in my career I was recruiting people like me whereas I needed people opposite to give challenge and different perspectives. During my career I was involved in integrating a branch office in Northern Ireland into an all-Ireland organisation. I learnt a great deal from that to never underestimate the importance of culture in an organisation and how important constant, repetitive, communication is when change is happening. I left a large corporation as executive to join a start-up company whilst starting a part-time MBA with two children, aged six and four. Naively, I thought the start-up would be a part-time role giving me the time to focus on the MBA! Very soon after I took on the role of CEO in that company and I was juggling 24/7/365. A great team and a ‘second wife’ kept me going. I cannot overemphasise the importance of supports at home for women (or men) in a two-income household if they want to succeed – you need reliable childminding and you need someone to help with the upkeep of the home. Doing business in different countries also brings fresh challenges and you need to spend time understanding how business is done in each territory and the nuances in culture to be successful. Be ready to admit you got it wrong and be determined and resilient in achieving success. The most important lesson I learnt is the importance of people and relationships in business – surround yourself with great people. People can make you or break you in equal measure at different points in your career journey. Your choice and response are your decision. Positivity and good humour also go a long way to achieving business success.
How do you think business leaders can best prepare for the future?
Be well equipped mentally, physically, and emotionally in equal measure. We are usually good in one area, but successful leaders focus on all three and particularly develop the aspect they are weakest in.
What advice would you offer to new or aspiring directors in Ireland?
Decide your end goal first – what boards you would like to join and set a roadmap of how to get there. Have clarity on your skillset, your USP and experience. Ask yourself – why would this company want me on their board? Stay up to date with developments in your chosen sector and stay connected with your personal and professional network.