The successful habits of Ireland’s most successful business leaders
Winners of The Irish Times Business Person of the Month Award, on what leadership is, who they are influenced by, and what alternative career they might have pursued
‘Looking back on my younger self, I would probably focus even more on learning from both successes and failures and not sweat the small stuff!’ Siobhan Talbot, managing director, Glanbia
‘Don’t sweat the small stuff’
Siobhan Talbot, managing director, Glanbia
To me, leadership is about creating an open, engaging environment where people have a real opportunity to realise their full potential in pursuit of the organisation’s purpose and goals, while having some fun along the way! It is about shaping a vision and roadmap for the future, winning buy-in, galvanising performance and ultimately removing as many roadblocks to success as possible. Good leadership also sets the tone for the organisation in terms of living the values and, in our case, promoting a culture of respect, can-do and commitment tosucceeding.
As in all aspects of life, I think leaders grow over time and quite frankly, it is a continual learning experience. Most often that journey starts with a commitment to do our job well and deliver and grow functionally, whether in finance, operations, commercial, research. Then comes the day we are given some people responsibility and realise, almost like parenthood, that we have nodefined playbook. From there, it is a journey of learning and adapting. I’ve learnt the importance of taking time to engage and listen to the team, hear their perspectives, experiences, issues, challenges – and then execute.
Communication is vital and I think it is hard to overestimate the importance of keeping in touch with all stakeholders, staff, customers and investors. One of the most enjoyable aspects of my role is the time I get to visit various parts of the business, to physically meet our teams on the ground, reinforce our vision and strategy and learn from them about our markets, customers, innovations. I also think that adaptability is hugely important in today’s business world – change and disruption are constant and we’re all expected to be more creative and flexible in coming up with ways to overcome unexpected challenges. Adaptability is something that is gained through experience. Whether in the field of business, politics, sport or life in general, I admire leaders who are authentic, grounded and inclusive.
I think having a clear vision and communicating it to your team is hugely valuable. Take time to describe what the future looks like and feels like and then share that vision with your teams. It is also important to recognise and anticipate the challenges and to build team resilience. A compelling vision that gets your people excited and aligned will create huge energy and focus.
An alternative career would probably have been teaching! My mother was a teacher and when I started the BComm at UCD it was really with secondary school teaching in mind as a career option. College of course gives you a broad sense of available options and I became interested in accounting. After graduating, I joined what was then Craig Gardner, now PwC, and trained and qualified with them, and the rest is history!
My leadership habit: “Don’t sweat the small stuff” Looking back on my younger self, I would probably focus even more on learning from both successes and failures and not sweat the small stuff!
My leadership “bible”: Why Should Anyone Be Led by You? by Professor Gareth Jones and Robert Goffee. The book challenges the reader to focus on knowing your personal values and purpose and it emphasises the importance of being authentic and true to yourself in your leadership style. It resonated with me, as I think we all connect more readily with real, grounded people living real lives, rather than some manicured career narrative. Be yourself but be your best self.
‘I might have been a DJ. Music of all sorts is a great source of release for me’
Bernard Byrne, chief executive, AIB
A leader’s key role is to help everyone in the organisation align on the vision of the future and understand and accept the many difficult and challenging things that inevitably need to be done to bring that vision about. Leadership is not about being popular but it is about being credible, engaging, authentic and fully committed. It is about having a purpose. AIB’s purpose is to back our customers to achieve their dreams and ambitions.
Great leaders have the ability to unite people and inspire them to do difficult things. I have realised that leadership is not about doing more things or better things than other individuals. It is about creating the environment where everyone can do more by working collaboratively to achieve common goals. Knowing how to help others do more is key.
Nowadays, for me, that means stepping back (and that can be hard!) from doing things and realising that the 10,000 other people in AIB have a much better chance of being successful if I can let them operate, both individually and collectively, in a focused way, on achieving key objectives. To quote Steve Jobs: “You have to be burning with an idea, or a problem, or a wrong that you want to right. If you’re not passionate from the start you’ll never stick it out.” Leaders like Mother Theresa, Ghandi, FW de Klerk and Martin Luther King all showed that in spades. For the rest of us, that clarity of purpose and the passion and resilience to achieve it are key differentiations of leadership.
The importance of surrounding yourself with a strong team and listening to them is a leadership tip I have learned along the way. By having best in class people around you and being informed by them, challenged by them, but also supported by them, you have the best possible base for decision making.
If I hadn’t followed my current career path, I might have been a DJ. Music of all sorts is a great source of release for me.
My leadership habit: “Listen and Learn” As people become more senior, they can sometimes forget to listen. It’s crucial, in my opinion, to spend more and more time really listening and then make sure you learn. Always keep learning from others. The ability to adapt your skills to the changing needs of the workplace is critical. Lifelong learning is important and can lead to great success.
My leadership “bible”: Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahenman; Nudge, by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler; The Drunkard’s Walk, by Leonard Mlodinow. The business books I like focus on how we think. They are all quite humbling about the way we all think and try to rationalise what we do!
‘Make sure everybody is pulling in the same direction’
Harry Hughes, chief executive, Portwest
Leadership is vision, competence and performance, backed up by hard work, perseverance, a “do-it-now” attitude and most of all, leading by example. As the company grows you must develop and evolve your leadership style. I employ good managers and let them get on with their job. Looking back, I should have delegated more responsibility to other managers.
I have been most influenced by Denis Brosnan (founder of Kerry Group). His leadership style is a clear vision, competence and performance. My leadership tip is to communicate the company plan to the team. Make sure everybody is pulling in the same direction and focused on excellence and company targets.
Many years ago , I studied garment and textile technology at Hollings College, Manchester. I am so content in my career that I have never thought about the alternatives. Thinking on the spot, I would have probably chosen another form of engineering.
My leadership habit: “Plan” Have a plan and stick with it. Without a plan you have no roadmap or direction in the company. We set clear targets and regularly review them.
My leadership “bible”: Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap ... and Others Don’t, by Jim C. Collins. This book discusses the main differences between good companies versus great companies and which leadership style works best.
‘Sometimes the woman who gets to the top can be slow to send the lift back down
Linda Kiely, co-founder, Voxpro
Leadership is about knowing that your team mates are more important than you. A great leader will put their teams first, because they know that without them, there is no company. Voxpro is a great success story today, but there have been some very testing times along the way.
Leadership is also about using your position to campaign on behalf of yourteams. For example, the shortage of properties to rent is a huge issue for my colleagues in Cork and Dublin, particularly those from other countries. I use the platform I have as often as possible to highlight the issue, and hopefully bring about some change.
As a woman, you often have to kick that door twice as hard as a man to get the top job. It can be hard to keep going but I’ve learned that a “never give up” attitude wins out every time. And sometimes the woman who gets to the top can be slow to send the lift back down – I would hope good leadership is also about bringing balance to areas where it is badly needed.
I have probably become a lot more willing to look for help from experts who arestrong in areas that I am not. In the very early days of the company, I thought wecouldn’t afford to spend money on professional consultancy in key areas, but itturned out we couldn’t afford not to. Ultimately it can be the best moneyyou’ll spend.
In the past, the tech world was always known as a man’s world but thankfully that’s no longer the case. Someone I greatly admire is YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki. She has an incredible vision for the company and seems determined that such a powerful platform is used as a force for good, at a time when some people are trying to use it otherwise. She has also been very outspoken about the gender gap in Silicon Valley, and has been actively increasing the number of female employees at YouTube since becoming CEO in 2014.
The founder of Y-Combinator, Paul Graham, has a wonderful saying: “Do things that don’t scale.” These are very powerful words. When you’re starting your company you’ve got to do the small things really, really well, and that will form the best foundation for future growth.
What would I have done if I hadn’t followed my current career path? I have had a number of entrepreneurial journeys in the world of hospitality and retail. I also modelled many moons ago. I’d like to believe there’s a really interesting book in me and hopefully I’ll find the time to write it.
My leadership habit: “Evolve or die” You have to anticipate where your market or industry is going rather than where it is now, or you won’t have a business in five or ten years’ time. My husband and co-founder Dan makes the point that it’s easy to sit back and say: “We’re doing great, why change?” Change when you’re actually doing something really well is quite difficult. I like to think I have made a habit of anticipation and reinvention.
My leadership “bible”: Earning It: Hard-won lessons from Trailblazing Women at the Top of the Business World, by Joann S. Lublin. Dozens of high-powered women - including sitting CEOs Mary Barra (GM), Ginni Rometty (IBM) and Denise Morrison (Campbell Soup) – deliver lessons in how rocky the road to success can be and how important it is to have a “never give up” attitude.
‘It is easy to be successful in a bull market’
Deirdre Somers, chief executive, Euronext (Irish Stock Exchange)
To me, leadership is controlled, inclusive and enabling to a team but passionate, uncompromising and clear about the objective.
In terms of how my leadership style has evolved, I trained as an accountant. I had to temper the obsession with absolute precision (I still struggle sometimes) and understand the value of diversity in a team.
The leaders I am most influenced by are those that lead successfully through crisis. It is easy to be successful in a bull market. One tip I’ve learned along the way is people don’t follow what you do, they follow why you do it.
If I hadn’t pursued my current career path? I missed dentistry by one point in my Leaving. I think someone up there was looking out for me. I would have made a very bad dentist!
My leadership habit: “Communicate” I have been told I am a good, authentic communicator.
‘Leadership has been a natural progression’
Sandra Whelan, chief operating officer, Immersive VR Education
When David Whelan and I started the company, leadership was not something that I gave any thought to. It wasn’t on my radar. My focus was on building a company and building a team. The leadership aspect was something that happened naturally. I am still learning and adapting as our team continues to grow.
I like to think of myself as one helm of our company ship, there to support the team and offer guidance. I think as a leader it’s important to lead by example. My office door is always left open so I can chat to the team every day as they buzz around the office. I have always thought that the more open you are with people
the more they give in return and I strive to create a comfortable working environment for everyone. For me, leadership has been a natural progression. Although in previous workplaces I held roles where by title I would have been considered a leader, I never felt that way. I always felt very much part of a team and that has transferred into my current COO role. I wouldn’t change anything because my leadership approach has always served me well and if it’s not broke ... as the saying goes!
Purely because I agree with certain aspects of his management style I would say Richard Branson has influenced me the most. I am not comparing myself in any way to an entrepreneur of his calibre but I do like his less formal approach. I like his “no tie” policy, unless the occasion calls for it of course. If anyone was to walk into our company office in Waterford on any given day they couldn’t differentiate between management and the rest of the team, and why should they? Why is this important? To me it isn’t.
We all work equally as hard in our different areas, we all contribute to the company every day in our own way. Whether I am doing that in a full business suit or my jeans and boots no one should care as long as we are getting the job done.
Within the last decade I had considered going to college to study midwifery. As a child, and all through my teenage years, it’s what I wanted to be when I grew up. I am a mum to three daughters now, but even back then I couldn’t think of anything better than supporting another woman through one of themost wonderful and scariest journeys there is. I am very patient and calm in most situations. Not a lot fazes me, so I think I would have lent myself very well to the role, and the fact that I love children would have been a bonus!
My leadership habit: “Brutal honesty” Brutal honesty and not being afraid to admit you don’t have the answers. I recall many meetings over the years in various roles where a simple “I don’t know that but I will check and get back to you”
would have saved everyone a lot of time The important thing is to find out the answer, so you know it for the future.
‘Let others manage the day-to-day and focus on longer-term strategy and vision
As with most start-ups , in the early years there was no senior leadership team – just a couple of managers and some do-ers. As CEO I directly managed multiple functions. At that time, my leadership style was very hands-on and quite directive, as I was managing junior people.
As the company grew, we were able to put in place experienced senior managers for all functions. As leader of a senior management team, my style needed to change to become less hands-on and more strategic. My focus became setting the correct goals for my team, ensuring the team worked well together and coaching when required.
I think one of the big challenges for a founder-CEO is to make this change in leadership style as the company grows, to let others manage the day-to-day and focus on longer-term strategy and vision. Change is difficult because the founder has deep knowledge of the business so there is a temptation to get hands-on when problems occur.
Since the acquisition, there is a new dimension to my role, that of advocate for Clavis across the other Ascential businesses, to help leverage the skills, relationships and customer reach of these businesses.
As a founder-CEO, I am most influenced by highly successful founder-CEOs, who have built their businesses to levels far beyond what we have achieved: founders like Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Bill Gates (Microsoft), Marc Benioff (Salesforce) who started businesses and continued to lead them as they grew into multi-billion dollar businesses, the largest companies in the world. These people had to succeed in multiple types of CEO role as their companies grew. They had to re-learn the CEO role multiple times and get it right quickly every time.The most important thing they got right was hiring very strong people tocompl ement their strengths and compensate for their weaknesses.
While it’s very satisfying to build businesses, I think I would also have enjoyed building great physical structures – bridges, tunnels or skyscrapers. I also like to be outdoors. So I would have enjoyed being a civil engineer. Though in comparison with the speed of software development, I would probably have struggled with the timescales!
My leadership habit: “Dogged persistence” While building Clavis or my previous start-up, Similarity Systems, there were many times when we seemed to be approaching a dead-end. But persistence generally pays off in the end, especially when combined with essential leadership skills and an essential culture to build within an organisation. All successful people (who are truly honest) will also admit that luck played a big part in their success. The great thing about persistence is that it gives you more time to be lucky!”
My leadership “bible”: Endurance, Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, byAlfred Lansing. Fantastic inspiration for any team dealing with adversity. I also learned a lot about leading a team from Patrick Lencioni’s book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.
‘The leaders I admire most are the Irish ones who have given our country a global reputation for commerce’
Michael Stanley, Chief executive, Cairn Homes
In terms of leadership style, I think I have learned to be a better listener, something I wish I had been better at when I was younger. I am also less easily distracted by potentially fruitless diversifi cation now and fi nd it easier to focus on the important strategies that keep our business aligned with our core strengths.
I am not particularly influenced by any individual leaders, but I think you can pick up brilliant tips from many leaders by reading their autobiographies.
The leaders I admire most are the Irish ones who over the last 40 to 50 years have given our country a global reputation for commerce. When I was meeting potential foreign investors, particularly in the US,pre Cairn’s IPO, it was very apparent that Irish companies and their management were very well regarded. Companies like Kerry Group, CRH, Smurfi t, Ryanair, Paddy Power and so on, have made it easier for new Irish businesses to attract investment. Often the scale and importance of what they have achieved is under-appreciated.
My leadership habit: Impatience. It’s often seen as a fault but being too patient doesn’t produce results. The other thing that has helped me is the variety of jobs and industries I have worked in, and my experiences growing up. While homebuilding is part of my family background, I have spent the majority of my career in other sectors.
My leadership “bible”: The Outsiders by William N Thorndike. It profi les unconventional CEOs and is a great read.
My leadership tip: Finding and adding talent. Find people to join your business who have the magic combination – people who are driven, innovative and can think commercially. Know your industries, competitors and your own numbers inside out (all the key numbers and indicators across every aspect of your operations and market).