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Developing leaders for a volatile global stage

With Brexit on the horizon, international trade disputes increasing in intensity and greater worldwide competition, Ornua partnered with IMI to develop the mindset of their leaders for this complex and volatile environment


Lisa Melody, Ornua: “The programme was designed to give leaders the headspace and tools they need in developing the strategic thinking and flexible mindset to grow globally in a volatile arena.” Photograph: Getty Images


A global business is necessarily complex. From external forces such as trade and market fluctuations to internal machinations such as aligning global strategies to what is possible locally, it is now a leader’s role to deal with complexity and volatility on a daily basis.

In an environment where clarity and control are close to impossible, leaders need to develop an agile and flexible mindset to seize those opportunities that others see as threats.   

The food sector is a particularly volatile marketplace with unknown future risks and opportunities and Ornua, Ireland’s largest exporter of dairy products with annual sales in excess of €2 billion, sought to develop the strategic mindset of its top leadership team.

Partnering with IMI’s Customised Solutions team, the Global Leadership Programme was designed to focus the group’s efforts on growing globally organically and capitalising on their acquisition’s strategy across the world. Ornua’s publicly stated goal is to reach €3 billion in revenue by 2021, and the Global Leadership Programme, developed by IMI, was a part of supporting its leadership team to achieve this ambition.

Majella Darcy, group HR director at Ornua
Majella Darcy, chief people officer at Ornua

“We are continuously looking at growth and talent.” says Majella Darcy, chief people officer at Ornua. “It’s really all about the people agenda – we can’t have growth without the right people.”

A complex challenge

While Brexit causes uncertainty in Ornua’s UK operations, it is only one of 110 marketplaces Ornua export to, so the challenge for Ornua is to efficiently develop their business globally through a shared vision and strategy execution acumen through the senior leadership team.

Product prices in the dairy industry are consistently volatile (for example, the price of butter hit record highs in September 2017, rising 33 per cent from April, and has continued to be extremely volatile in 2018), which has significant impacts on Ornua’s hedging department.

Future issues, such as the current consumer driven trend towards non-GMO foods, meant that Ornua needed its leadership team to constantly look at the marketplace strategically and be agile to oncoming challenges, threats and opportunities.

“The major realisation I had while on the programme was my role had changed. It wasn’t about working harder, it was about managing other people,” says Bill Hunter, managing director, UK Foods and programme participant. “I need to be a shaper of strategy for my team and the decision-maker in the business - not to have my head stuck in a computer all day. That shift in thinking was a real insight and has fundamentally changed how I act as a leader.”

Strategy for growth

As an organisation with a strong history of promoting from within, Ornua balances performance today with sustainable performance in the long-term, this is centrally dependent on a succession pipeline right across their business.

A common challenge with leadership roles is the top echelons of management getting caught up in the day-to-day tactical operations in their business and not getting the time or space to step back and think strategically. Ornua had the same issue.

Lisa Melody, head of talent acquisition & development, Ornua
Lisa Melody, head of talent acquisition & development, Ornua

“The programme was designed to give our leaders the headspace and tools they need in developing the strategic thinking and flexible mindset to grow globally in a volatile arena,” says Lisa Melody, head of talent acquisition & development, Ornua. “We wanted them to think more and do less.”

The focus of the programme was on developing that strategic, agile mindset that could be translated into action. As part of this goal participants received performance based one-to-one coaching, documented how their insights became actions in their executive handbooks and worked in peer groups to either activate or pursue a specific project that directly connected to Ornua’s strategic goals and priorities of the next few years.

Julie Ryan, head of IMI Customised Solutions
Julie Ryan, head of IMI Customised Solutions

“With customised programmes, it’s so important to really drill into the unique challenges of the business – in this case Ornua – and design a programme that develops their talent to match those challenges,” says Julie Ryan, head of IMI Customised Solutions.

“With senior teams, it’s rarely skills training that they require, but more a strategic ‘kick-start’ to get their mindset right to deal the oncoming headwinds.”

A global panel of experts was assembled by IMI, who then curated and facilitated the sessions to tie all the sessions under the strategic goals of Ornua.

“IMI’s ability to bring together that international blend of experts was key to us working with them,” says Majella. “When people would look at the lineup they would say ‘that’s truly international and will help me in my role’, whether they were based in Shanghai or Germany.”

Results and business impacts

One of the most palpable business impacts for Ornua from the programme came from the group projects. They acted as an insight into the leadership mindset shift made by participants and how that would translate into business results.

“The group projects had real business results, which was great to see,” says Lisa. “I’ve seen projects go back onto the shelf after a lot of blood, sweat and tears, but the three projects developed within the GLP have had significant impacts on the Ornua business on a global level.”

“A case study on customer engagement had a real impact on our thinking,“ says Lisa Melody. “For instance, we have now created customer-centric hubs in our head office in Ireland bringing together our commercial, technical, finance and customer service team members into one hub for each of our key markets.”

On an individual level, since the programme ended nearly every single participant on the Ornua Global Leadership programme have moved positions. They have either taken on extra responsibility, have been promoted, or their portfolio has expanded.

“While we had a clear vision for the outcomes, we didn’t expect so much to come out of the programme. It certainly acted both as a lens on the talent within Ornua and as a catalyst for action. It opened up the mindset of these senior leaders and allowed them to think strategically, see what is expected of them, change behaviours and act upon shared goals.”

To talk to IMI’s Customised Solutions Team about creating your own leadership development programme, visit or contact the team at .