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‘Communication of ideas helps people see the need for and the logic of a change’

Richard Warner was motivated to do the Smurfit Executive Development diplomas to examine the strategies for effectively managing organisational change

Richard Warner will shortly commence the Smurfit Executive Development’s Diploma in Leadership Development, the final step on his pathway to the MSc in Business (Leadership & Management Practice).

Richard, who is head of strategy and performance Ireland & Europe at John Sisk & Son, successfully completed the Diploma in Organisational Change & Transformation in November 2021 having previously completed the Diploma in Strategy Development & Innovation in December 2020.

The decision to embark on the MSc in Business pathway was directly related by his role with Sisk. “I got promoted from my previous role as performance manager back in 2019,” he explains. “My background is that I am a civil engineer by profession and have been in construction since 1995. Over the years I progressed from engineering / technical roles into project management, and I now work with the business unit managing directors and chief operating officer for Ireland and Europe. I help them and their teams formulate the annual strategy and then execute it. By its nature, this also takes me into the change management arena. The past three to four years has seen me move away from my traditional role in the operations and engineering side of the business.”

He found the change in roles required new skills. “I am dealing with a more diverse group of people than before. I felt I needed to be able to advise and guide these people strategically in an effective way. I needed the skills and capacity to give the right advice, coaching and mentoring and so on.”


A recommendation from a work colleague pointed him in the direction of Smurfit Executive Development. “A member of the IT team who had done the MSc through the pathway programme told me about it. He chose different diploma programmes than I did, but he spoke very highly of it. Also, Smurfit has a great reputation.”

The MSc in Business (Leadership & Management Practice) is based around a framework of selected diploma programmes with participants successfully completing any three of them within a five-year timeframe to earn the qualification.

He began with the Diploma in Strategy Development and Innovation. “I was starting in a role as head of strategy so that was an obvious one. Change and Transformation was the natural next step as that helps me to deal with the challenges of actually implementing strategy and the change that it often brings. I didn’t really have any formal knowledge or background in it. I had been part of various change initiatives in the past but that’s different to strategy. The timing of the courses was perfect.”

It was also an opportunity for a traditionally conservative industry undergoing quite rapid change. “Construction is picking up the pace in embracing change,” he points out. “Increased productivity, better work planning, upskilling people, embracing digital technology, the value of data, modern methods of construction and process improvement – they all require change management. Construction has traditionally been seen as being a slow innovator in comparison to other sectors, but that is changing.”

The other participants were from very diverse backgrounds and industries

He regards himself as a natural change agent but described himself as being an “enthusiastic amateur” in many respects prior to engaging on the MSc Programme. “I lacked many of the skills, knowledge and tools required to assist people going about strategy as well as change and transformation. I have always been hard-wired into continuous improvement but implementing significant change successfully is a completely different thing. The Leadership diploma is an obvious follow-on to the Diploma in Organisational Change & Transformation and the Diploma in Strategy Development & Innovation. I picked the three that fit together best for me and my role following advice from the faculty. My belief is that they will make me better at helping others achieve their goals.”

They will also build on his existing already broad skillset. “I have competence in other areas like commercial management, project management, contract law and lean six sigma in addition to my core engineering competences,” he adds. “Running a €100 million job over two years is effectively the same as running a €50 million a year business and you can’t get by with the engineering competences alone. I have gained a lot of experience over the years of working within a team, offering, and receiving expert advice from team members, consultants and stakeholders and then making decisions based on it.”

The Organisational Change & Transformation programme met all his expectations. “I expected it to be difficult,” he notes. “I had very little knowledge of the subject if I’m completely honest. It was a lot of hard work, even more hard work than the Strategy diploma. I knew what I was going to get out of it having researched the course. The challenge was to get through it with a distinction. I expected it to be challenging and it wasn’t found wanting. It was both challenging and interesting.”

The knowledge and insights gained were very valuable. “I can now understand the area much better. You can read a lot, but you need lecturers and the experience and diversity of your classmates in classroom environment to bring it to life.”

And that classroom environment was very important. “The other participants were from very diverse backgrounds and industries. I was the only participant from the construction sector in either of the courses to date. It was great to interact with people from other industries and get insights into their problems and solutions. It gives you fresh insights into how to approach similar problems. The last thing I wanted to do was buddy up with another person from construction and risk staying in my comfort zone.”

Those insights and learnings have already had an impact. “My approach to helping people navigate change is now completely different to what it was 12 months ago,” he says. “I have a much different view of the impact of change on people as individuals as well as teams consisting of many people. The challenges they must contend with in the face of change and the tools and approaches to use to help them depending on whether it’s an urgent or strategic change. You have to understand how change will impact people, individually and collectively.”

I have already recommended the programmes to a colleague

Looking at the changes coming about now following the last two years of tumult, he believes he is now much better prepared to manage them. “Knowing what I know now I would not have been capable of doing it 12 months ago. I openly admit that I didn’t know what I didn’t know. It has probably given me more credibility for the role I’m in and has helped to bring meaningful, ‘good’ change to the business. I have no ambitions to be a CEO, I want to focus on the job I enjoy, and change, transformation and continuous improvement is what I enjoy. Helping people and organisations to do better is where I see myself. That’s where my value to the organisation lies and that’s where the course will help.”

He advises others considering the diploma to be prepared to participate actively in classroom discussions and projects if they want to extract full value from it. “If you are a shrinking violet, it may not be for you,” he says. “You need to contribute openly in class. It’s expected of you. You will get a lot more out of it if you are enthusiastic about participating in the group. And don’t underestimate the amount of work you have to put in to get a really good grade.”

Interestingly, the enforced shift to remote learning during the pandemic actually brought the class closer together. “There were not a lot of benefits from Covid but one of them was Zoom. Smurfit did a great job on the online learning. It meant I got to know everyone in the class. If I was in a classroom, I might have ended up sitting in the same seat beside the same people every module. The final module was the only one on campus. It was like meeting old friends in many respects and it was really great after a lockdown. We have made really strong connections and I feel I will be able to ask advice of those people in the future. It’s great to get insights from different industries and different sizes of company.”

He has no hesitation in recommending the diplomas he has taken to other. “I have already recommended the programmes to a colleague in Sisk in Ireland and have done so with another colleague in the UK as well, even though they would have to travel six times in the term. I can’t give a higher recommendation than that. I wouldn’t have gone back for the second or third programme if didn’t think it was first rate. I believe it’s very good value.”

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