What works for women at work

Honesty, family support, self-belief, learning to switch off – these are just a few of the non-negotiables for getting on in life. So say a group of Ireland’s most successful women, whose achievements are being recognised at a WXN network award ceremony next week


Ramona Nichols‘Don’t panic. take a deep breath’
Ramona Nicholas
CEO and founder of Cara Pharmacy Group
Growing up I had two siblings who suffered from having narrow trachea. If my sister Claire or brother Thomas didn’t chew their food properly, they ran the risk of it lodging in their throats and choking. The first time it happened to my sister I panicked thinking she was going to die. If you panic someone their whole body tenses up, narrowing their trachea even further. It happened several times before I learned that I could control the panic she and I felt by breathing exercises. Breathe in deeply through the nose, hold your breath and count to eight. Repeat 10 times to learn how to keep calm and carry on. I am now very good in a crisis. When a customer came into one of our chemists with his dental plate lodged in the back of his throat, restricting his breathing, I kept him calm. It saved his life.

Pat Storey‘Know who you are’
Reverend Pat Storey
Bishop of Meath and Kildare
Being yourself is the most important lesson life can teach you. To do that you’ve got to know who you are. Self-knowledge is a strong asset to bring to any job. Part of it is being quite secure in yourself. I couldn’t do what I do on my own strength alone. I lean on God and gain strength from him. I incorporate prayer into my everyday activities, multi-tasking if you will, while walking the dog, a golden retriever named Rudy after Rudy Giuliani who was mayor of New York when 9/11 happened. He’s one of my heroes. I also swim in Carton House, praying while moving up the and down the lane – although not out loud.

To get to know yourself you need time to think. I accompanied the whole house of bishops, 12 of us in total, on a four-day silent retreat to a monastery in Yorkshire. I had hours and hours to think. To slow down and not speak for four days really helped me.

I also have a life coach who I talk things through with, such as how I perceive myself to be, what I want to achieve. I even talked to her about taking on this job. Her name is Kate Marshall. I saw her speak at an event in Derry when I was based there, really liked what I heard and took a punt on asking her if she would be willing to coach me. vistagespeakerbureau.co.uk

Maria Smith‘Family and friends come first’
Maria Smith
Assistant Global Controller and vice president for M&A at Oracle
Never give up a special family or friend’s occasion for a meeting that happens once a month. In life what you will regret is not attending events such as a milestone family birthday, a special anniversary or a son’s rugby match. If you have a good team, the works gets done. The more you balance life the more one aspect of it helps another. At work, my boss and I go through the family events of our core team and work our travel commitments around these.

At each career and life stage you’ve got to adapt and learn how to work differently. I was not a natural delegator. When I was 30, I teamed up with a colleague and we mentored each other. She over delegated. At that point I needed to check every detail. By standing in each other’s shoes we could see how the other approached a problem. We both learned on the job and it helped me climb the ladder. Never underestimate the power of a good night’s sleep. Ariana Huffington advocates seven hours a night in her book Thrive, describing it as the only way to get to the top.

Catherine Day‘Fight for what you believe in’
Catherine Day
Secretary General, European Commission
The biggest lesson life has taught me to date is to be a fighter. If you believe in something you should be prepared to work for and fight for it. You can’t always win, but at least give it a go.

After 35 years, I know the European Commission inside out. I have a good idea of what can work and what does not. My current job involves a huge amount of forward planning. I find it important to be clear about priorities and to make sure they are delivered – otherwise you can get drowned in what is urgent today but not important for tomorrow. I hope for the best and plan for the worst.

The EU moves forward by trying hard to bring everyone on board – which makes for a lot of long and sometimes tedious meetings, but it is important to make sure that all points of view are heard. Stamina and diplomacy are essential.

Kitty Holland‘Say no to prejudice’
Kitty Holland
Irish Times journalist
Growing up, my mother (journalist Mary Holland), and father (author, activist and journalist Eamon McCann), taught me that the way you view the world is important, that there is no room for prejudice. Every person you come across is just the same as you are.

The mother bringing up her kids on a halting site has the same hopes and dreams for her kids and the same frailties as the mother living in Stillorgan or Blackrock. Don’t judge someone until you have spoken to them; don’t judge their situation and don’t judge how they got into that situation. The world is a tougher place for women to be in and women need to be alert to that and that misogyny ends up killing women, not just in Pakistan and Nigeria but in the western world and in Ireland.

Men are rarely described as being angry, hysterical or over reacting. Calmly be the best you can be and be confident enough to display it. Women need to know they deserve the recognition, be it a pay rise or the job. A lot of the time working women are just getting on with it because they also have responsibilities at home, responsibilities that men don’t feel they have.

cathriona Hallahan‘Understand what makes you happy’
Cathriona Hallahan
Microsoft Ireland managing director

Your work needs to drive and energise you, so do something that will have you bouncing out of bed. If something is no longer making you happy then you should stop doing it. This is how you can be authentic as a person. In early working life there can be an expectation from people for you to be someone that you are not.

I recall a manager I had who at the time was vice president of the company. I was at senior management level. He told me that he didn’t think I was assertive enough. My response was to ask him to measure me on my results, my ability to deliver and on feedback from others. At the time it was a brave thing to do. But I didn’t want to be someone I genuinely wasn’t and I felt strongly enough to say it. He wasn’t happy. A couple of years later we talked about it and he told me then that he admired me for standing up for what I believed in.

In the early part of my career I wouldn’t have had the confidence in my own capacity to push back like that. It was only after achieving several promotions that I understood my own value.

Sarah Gallagher‘Channel your inner role model’
Sara Gallagher
Legal director of Tesco Ireland

Disagreement is part and parcel of working life. Things will always have their difficult and confrontational moments. How you deal with them is important. Respond but don’t react is my advice. A smile can be very disarming, but what really works for me is to channel my inner role model – someone who does extremely well under pressure. For me, it’s my former CEO at Burberry, Angela Ahrendts, now at Apple, a woman who is quite simply awesome under pressure. And with that I find my shoulders dropping, I take a deep breath, settle and think before I speak. Your role model should be someone you admire. It is also vital not to take things personally. In business it is rarely personal and if it is, that is an entirely different situation to navigate. Feedback should be welcomed. Accept it for what it is and be big enough to learn from it. Really listening to others is a talent that can be learned. Remember that every member of your team has a voice that should be heard.


Rosaleen Burke‘Learn the art of presentation’
Rosaleen Burke
Multi-Site Vice President of Quality Assurance at Boston Scientific
One of the biggest leg-ups you can give yourself is to learn how to present well. At NUIG I was a member of the literary and debating society, but it took taking a professional course when I had just been promoted to director level at Boston Scientific for me to really find my feet when speaking publicly. While I felt confident, I didn’t project that attitude. The company hired Kristine Ryan of Quest International (questillc.com) who put how you stand, your hand gestures, idiosyncrasies such as repeating a word, and whether you appeared confident under the microscope and had your efforts critiqued by the group, not just on a one-on-one basis.

Such skills help with all sorts of situations including dealing with conflict. I would put as much thought into planning such a conversation as I would into having the conversation. Try to figure out how people are going to react and how you are going to get to a point where it doesn’t become a problem. Presentation skills should be taught in school. At present our graduates are not as confident as their peers in the US.

Judy Byrne‘Audit what happens every day at the end of that day’
Judy Byrne
HR director and co-founder Crewlink
All my work in HR and with unions is about learning to listen to things I don’t like to hear. I’ve been called arrogant, aggressive and unapproachable. I have to stand back and take a look at myself and find a way to unpick it.

My Masters in organisational psychology and the personal audits I do at the end of each working day help. Questions such as, “Why did that happen?”, “What did I do to make it better or worse?”, “How could I make it better?” and “What am I doing to change?” are good ones to ask and will give you a better understanding of yourself. Any question that starts with why can feel upfront or in your face.

If it doesn’t work out, don’t give up. My Leaving Cert results were not what I had hoped for. By not getting what I had wanted it gave me the drive to make the best of my lot, to believe in myself and to find another way.

Ann doherty‘Be truthful’
Ann Doherty
Chief Executive Limerick Hospitals Group
One of the principal tenets I’ve taught my three children is to be truthful. If you’re truthful you have credibility and integrity. People can believe in you. If there is to be change in the work environment then I have to be honest about the expected consequences of that change. There is no point in saying my intention is one thing when it is not. In that instance I would stand up and say I got it wrong.

A value system is something you can hone. I encourage my kids and my staff to do their best. The one person you have to face every day in the mirror is you and you have to be able to be proud of yourself. Can you honestly say you were satisfied that you did the best you could that day? It is also worth noting that it costs nothing to be nice, courteous and helpful, to ask a member of staff “How are you?” and to ask a patient, “Can I help you?”.

Brid Horan‘Get out of your comfort zone’
Brid Horan
Deputy CEO, ESB
Perfection is overrated. There is no such thing as the ideal job or ideal partner. To paraphrase Voltaire, “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good”. In life a whole collection of people give you different things, from family to a partner, children and friends. Looking for everything in the one place is unrealistic.

I believe in having a big vision, but also in being realistic about what you can achieve in the short term. Figuring out your way to a goal may take small steps, but those steps are important steps. By moving, adjusting and redirecting you can learn from mistakes and from achievements. By simply having momentum you are looking for opportunities to broaden your expertise. Do not be afraid to get involved in areas that are outside your own area of expertise or comfort zone.

Being asked to join the IDA board in the 1990s was an obvious opportunity for me that brought me into a new area of Irish life and business. Have the courage and confidence to take on new responsibilities. The question “How do you do it all?” is rarely asked of a man and makes the dreadful assumption that we can do it all. I don’t do it all. I work with others in everything that I do. Life is lived in the round and no one person does it all.

Emily O'Reilly‘Persist to succeed’
Emily O’Reilly
European Ombudsman
There is no recipe for success but a certain can-do attitude is a defining characteristic of the successful. People who get on in life have drive and possess an attitude that enables them to pick themselves up and persist. I’m not sure it can be taught. The trick is not to see obstacles in too sharp a focus.

I tend to blunder through aiming instead for the horizon beyond. Some people react enthusiastically to problems and find a way of shooing them out of the way; others find excuses not to tackle them, afraid, possibly, of not getting what they want. I always felt that a lot of what I achieved came from myself. I was very shy and lonely as a child. At the age of five I spent several months in hospital with a learning difficulty. During that period I learned to rely on my own resources, something that has helped me when times have been tough in my adult life.

You are the one who has to put one foot in front of the other to get there. My principal driver was unhappy experiences in childhood that I managed to overcome and conquer. For women to succeed at a reasonably high level you need to choose your partner well. Without that it can be a recipe for deep unhappiness.

Marian O'Gorman‘Grab opportunities with both hands’
Marian O’Gorman
CEO Kilkenny Group
When life offers you a chance you have to grab it with both hands. I left school age 16 to join the family business. I didn’t really think about being CEO but I always wanted to go that extra mile to give our customers what they wanted. When opportunity comes knocking not everyone is ready.

I first came across Bernadette Daly of Wacky Clothing at the National Craft Fair and really wanted to sell her product. She was starting out and still working as a security guard and turned me down. I gave her my card and a few months later she contacted me and over coffee I convinced her to take a small order from us. She was finally ready to take the chance. Now she has four or five people working for her. We continue to foster such talents.

I lead by example. If I’m on the shop floor I will help tidy up. I spent three months working in the restaurant in Nassau Street to get it up to a standard I was happy with. One Sunday recently in the cafe in Shanagarry we were short a dishwasher. I rolled up my sleeves and spent the day at the sink.

Orla Kiely‘Pick up the phone and plea’
Orla Kiely
Fashion designer
Hard work and a passion helped me get to the position I’m in. Commitment, determination and a great support network help keep me there. As you establish a business, certain supports become vital. I have a cleaner every day that I couldn’t live without. I always had a nanny for the children when they were small, and I have a great team at work who understand and support me day-to-day. I enjoy cooking and I share this with my husband.

In my line of business it is important to stick to your guns . . . believe in yourself and your opinion, as it will always be challenged. When a problem arises we tackle it head on. You have no choice sometimes but to find a solution. We never have enough time, and we are always up against a deadline. In these cases I am a firm believer in just picking up the phone – it’s amazing what a friendly conversation and a good honest plea can do.

When I’m hiring, attractive and valuable qualities in people are honesty, positivity, empathy, resilience, compassion, integrity, approachability, good listening skills and a very keen eye

Aisling Keegan‘Learn to switch off’
Aisling Keegan
Executive director and general manager for Dell
Being able to switch off is a really important life lesson. I have two boys, aged six and seven, and during school term juggling work and home requires serious structure. To make everything work smoothly, I have to plan my working and home life three months in advance. It can be quite militant.

We share the management of our two kids’ after school activity schedule, squeezing most of it into Saturdays. It starts with piano classes on Thursday, then swimming, followed by GAA, football and guitar on Saturdays. Then there’s rugby on Sunday mornings. During term time we also spend part of Sunday reconciling our calendars on Outlook so that we both know what we’re doing.

Conversely, at weekends my husband and I both disconnect our Blackberrys and switch off the email services on our smart phones.

During the summer when the extra-curricular activities stop, we use the weekends to be utterly free – sometimes we hit the beach nearby in Sutton or escape the city and head west, revelling in the utter tranquillity of doing nothing. I’ve learned that it is not sustainable to run at the pace I run if I can’t disconnect. This includes two full weeks off grid at Christmas.

The women featured in this piece are among the Top 25 award winners recognised by the Women’s Executive Network (WXN). This year’s awards take place next Thursday, June 19th in the Four Seasons Hotel, Ballsbridge. The awards dinner and afternoon leadership summit are both sold out but further details on WXN and the awards can be found online at wxnetwork.ie

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