What makes a chief executive? There is no school for CEOs; lawyers go to law school, finance directors undertake accountancy qualifications and heads of technology do computer degrees. But chief executives learn on the job, from the school of experience. Research from the Harvard Business Review suggests that there are just five approaches to leadership employed by chief executives, and the best approach should be determined not by the CEO’s personality, but be the one that best meets the needs of the organisation and the business situation at hand.
Here, five professionals who have recently taken up the top job in their respective organisations talk about their leadership style, their influences, and the advice they have for others hoping to ascend through the ranks.
RONAN HARRIS, CEO GOOGLE IRELAND
Ronan Harris is Google's CEO in Ireland, overseeing a workforce of 5,000. The electrical engineer took up the role in May 2015 and is now charged with running the Irish business, a "growth engine" for businesses across Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
Stepping up to head Google Ireland
The biggest challenge has been investing the time to get to know every aspect of the business and understand what everyone in the organisation is doing, well enough to be able to pull all the different interests into a cogent plan. I’ve been most surprised - in a good way - by the depth of talent and ideas across the business. We’re really fortunate to attract the brightest and the best [from 60 countries] to work in Dublin with Google.
Engineering as a route to the top
For me, engineering was the best possible route into management. Engineering provided me with a tremendous grounding in problem solving, mathematics, data and understanding trends in technology, all of which has absolutely helped me throughout my career in management. Google is an engineering and a technology company and everything we do is driven by that discipline so I’m still embedded in an engineering culture. We have a 400-strong engineering team in Dublin whose job it is to keep Google services around the world running smoothly for our millions of users. We’re constantly innovating to develop new and better products and processes for our advertisers and publishers to use Google to identify new markets and achieve greater sales. The training in problem solving and data analysis that comes from my engineering background is applied daily in my interactions with our customers.
The best advice he's been given? "Shut up and listen."
The advice he'd give his younger self?
Persevere. Stay true to your values and always keep an open mind because the best opportunity will come from the place you least expect it to. And don’t be afraid to take a risk and jump off your initial plan.
On Google’s infamous interview questions
The purpose of those questions was not to get a right or wrong answer, but to see the logic the interviewee applied in developing an answer. Google has streamlined its interview process so we don’t ask questions such as “How many golf balls can you fit in a school bus?” anymore. However, one of my favourites was: “Give me three reasons why you think you shouldn’t get this job and convince me they’re not an issue?”.
On creating a startup ecosystem
I think a CEO role has many different facets; while everybody has a plan and set of numbers to deliver, it’s also about building a future, it’s about nurturing and building talent and being restless about what comes next. For example, we are keen to help develop a healthy ecosystem in which Irish startups can grow and thrive. The Google Dublin site brings unique capabilities and local partnerships to the startup ecosystem here and we provide ongoing support through access to our startup programmes, such as Adopt a Startup and Google for Entrepreneurs.
On his medium-term goals
It’s early morning on the web. We are at the very beginning of the mobile revolution which is providing new ways for businesses and consumers to get online, access information and connect with others in the short to medium term; it’s about continuing to build our business as a core driver for Google in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. But in the medium and longer term, it’s about keeping that passion and drive for innovation in everything that we do running throughout the organisation.
Why Dublin is the “Googliest” part of Google
I have a pet project around the culture of Google’s organisation, specifically within Dublin. This is about helping our teams to understand and drive the great culture we have here. Dublin has a reputation for being the “Googliest” part of Google and by that I mean a great reputation for innovation and hard work but also for having fun along the way. That might mean doing some silly stuff or making time to listen to great leaders and innovators or engaging in a cultural event. It shouldn’t only be about hitting a target each quarter.
BRENDAN McATAMNEY, CEO, UDG HEALTHCARE
After 17 years with Abbott Laboratories in Sweden, France and Switzerland, Brendan McAtamney took over as chief executive of healthcare services provider UDG earlier this year, after Liam FitzGerald stood down after 15 years. UDG employs 7,000 people, with about 300 based in Ireland and, having divested its Irish pharmaceutical distribution businesses, which included United Drug, to McKesson, the company is now focusing on commercial services with Ashfield Commercial and Medical Services, and packaging with Sharp Packaging Services.
On becoming CEO and the company’s new strategy
I knew Liam FitzGerald from the client side for many years and we got talking in earnest when he was looking for a COO in 2013. After hearing UDG’s plans, I was happy to come home and latterly Liam had obviously decided to step back so I was happy to take over the reins in February of this year. Over the last few years we’ve done a number of M&A transactions, nearly all outside Ireland, and it became clear that the supply chain distribution was landlocked on the island of Ireland and we were never going to internationalise it. But it was very important to land our departing colleagues (from the distributions business) in a good home. And we believe we found it with McKesson.
On the transition from COO to CEO
It’s a step up. I’m dealing more with investors and with the board. Along with the senior executive team, we have the decision rights on where this company is going to go.
Is it lonely at the top?
No, it’s not lonely. But you have to pedal a little faster, you used to be a tandem (of CEO and COO) and now it’s just you. Of course I miss Liam but I am really excited and am getting on with it. I have the support of our chairman - a crucial relationship. We can talk about the really important stuff around the business. I came from the client side, and now I’m on the service side, so there is a learning curve there. Getting to know our people is very important to me; attracting and retaining talent is critical.
The biggest challenge?
Managing expectations. It’s very important to continue the strategic journey that we’re on. We have a very positive balance sheet with about €500-600m in M&A firepower. People ask “when are you going to do a deal?”. But finding those M&A targets is difficult.
Best advice he’s been given
“Innovate or die.” I’m a big supporter of driving innovation and thinking about solutions for our clients. It’s about creating a sense of urgency. Complacency can set in. I think there should always be a bit of urgency with senior leadership and a bit of tension. It’s like football: the game can change with two kicks of the ball.
Inspiration from elsewhere?
A great book, Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras, benchmarked the performance of very good companies and great companies. The difference came down to value-based decision making.
At UDG our work is underpinned by five company values. It makes things very simple. Instead of just pinning them to the wall, we talk about those values and keep them alive.
DEREK KEHOE, CEO, BNP PARIBAS
Derek Kehoe started his career with Standard Chartered Bank in Dublin and joined BNP Paribas in 2002. As CEO and head of country for BNP Paribas Ireland since last year, he oversees its Irish operation which employs over 500 people. It includes the bank, two funds servicing companies and a real estate operation.
Taking on the challenge
Moving from being head of a single business unit to being head of multiple businesses clearly presents a number of challenges. BNP Paribas has a large balance sheet in Ireland and a number of regulated entities. Joining, and in some cases, chairing the board of these subsidiaries presented a challenge for me in order to get up the curve in a relatively short period of time. Taking ultimate responsibility for all of our businesses in Ireland, including five separate regulated entities was the biggest challenge. I am very fortunate to be surrounded by a great team and have had great support from our independent directors. The biggest surprise has been how much I have enjoyed the transition. I had certain misgivings about leaving our global markets business after 14 immensely enjoyable years, but moving out of my comfort zone has been energising and rewarding to a surprising extent.
On the banking brand
Our industry is in a very challenging phase; investment banking is going through a tough time, and we’re no different in that regard. We’ve also been in a kind of a soft patch in the employment market for the last four years as there hasn’t been the same number flow through into finance degrees as there may have been seven or eight years ago. One of the challenges we face with recruitment is that the tech companies generally have very strong brand images. But banking is not a good brand, it’s really a toxic brand. So we need to spend time figuring out how we can reinvent the brand, and make it less toxic.
Management theories that matter
There is a quote ascribed to Richard Branson. “Clients don’t come first, people do. Look after your people and they will look after the clients.” I absolutely subscribe to that philosophy. People are the most valuable assets in an industry like banking. It’s not simply about monetary rewards, on the contrary, it’s about providing an exciting innovative environment where people enjoy coming to work. However, I think the clients do still come first. Without them we wouldn’t have a business.
The best advice he’s been given?
Never refuse additional responsibility, even if there is no immediate gain. If you do, then you have no right to complain when someone else takes over the role.
On admiring other CEOs
We should be very proud, coming from a small island, to have produced so many great business leaders over the years. I won’t mention individuals as there are too many, but any CEO who has vision, can articulate it and execute it has my admiration. It’s easier said than done.
On learning from the creativity of the tech sector
One could argue that the lack of creative thinking in financial services was what lead to the financial crisis in the first place. Absolutely there is not only room, but a desperate need. Our industry is in a hugely disruptive period. Increased regulation, structurally high cost bases, competition from non-traditional sources, digital technology and a fairly toxic brand image all necessitate an urgent need for creative thinking. We need to accept that banking may never quite be as pioneering as Silicon Valley, nonetheless, change is upon us. Predicting the shape of wholesale financial services in ten years’ time requires innovative thinking, flexibility and boldness.
On reaching your potential
Don’t listen to those who tell you what you cannot do. Never get into the negative spiral of naysayers. Don’t wait for things to change. Make it happen. Don’t be intimidated by any obstacles. But most importantly, do something you enjoy. If you’re not enjoying it, choose a different path.
LOUISE STIGANT, CEO, MONDELEZ IRELAND
Having worked in the food industry for 25 years, Louise Stigant took over as managing director of Cadbury owner Mondelez Ireland last year. Cadbury has a long tradition in Ireland, having built its first Irish factory in Dublin in 1933. Mondelez now employs 750 people across three sites in Ireland.
On managing change
Any change that impacts people is naturally a challenge for me as an individual. But I try to help them to understand the context of the changes we’re making. At those moments in time, from my personal perspective, it’s about being really clear on the changes happening and acknowledging to people that it is tough. Giving people the time and space to ask questions is so important. This process is underpinned by building a sense of trust with the people you work with.
You have to be comfortable in your own decisions and trust your sense of what’s right. I’m inspired by lots of different things, including a great TED talk by Drew Dudley on “lollipop moments” - moments where someone said something or did something that you feel fundamentally made your life better. There is a huge burden we place on people when we talk about leadership, suggesting that if someone is a leader it puts them in the framework of JFK or Nelson Mandela. But really, we lead by every small thing we do every day. What we do makes an impact on people, on every member of the team, and that for me is something that resonates.
Planning a career
I’d love to say I had a big plan, but in all honesty as I set out my ambitions, I wanted to do something that I felt valued in, and feel pride in the business. That was the driver for me - feeling valued and valuing the company.
The biggest change I've experienced was the Cadbury acquisition, because Kraft had been relatively small up till then in the UK. [In 2012, owners US food giant Kraft split in two, with the Cadbury brand going under the Mondalez business umbrella].
On the consumer
The affection of our customers for the Cadbury brands is very important. I have absolutely no doubt that without the love of our consumers we wouldn’t really have much to base our business on. We must put that consumer at the heart of what we do - that brings with it a responsibility.
It’s just really about being yourself and learning to trust in your sense of what’s needed at any point in time. I was reading a book recently - I’m from a family of rugby lovers - called Legacy, by James Kerr, about the success of the All Blacks and how it was translated it into a business environment. It’s about being a great ancestor - I too want to leave the brand in a better place. I also like this quote (from Mary Parker Follett, an early 20th-century American management writer): “Leadership is not defined by the exercise of power but by the capacity to increase the sense of power among those led”. In other words, leadership is about helping people.
On future goals
Here in Ireland we’d love this business to continue to make great chocolate and to be continued to be loved by consumers. For me, this role is a fabulous one. My predecessor (Justin Cook) told me that and it turns out he’s absolutely right. In time, I’ll think about other experiences that will stretch me.
Finally ... on chocolate
I’m partial to Dairy Milk - the eight-square one we make in Coolock. Made using Irish milk, it has a different taste to other Dairy Milk products. Delicious!
TONY O’MALLEY, CEO, FUJITSU
Tony O’Malley left a career in the Irish Defence Forces to join Japanese tech firm Fujitsu. He has risen steadily through the ranks, working across all aspects of the business, from project management to sales and strategy, assuming the role of CEO last June.
The army as a training ground
The situational awareness skills I acquired went a long way in giving me an edge in understanding the market and pace of change in our sector. Other elements, such as punctuality and processes, can also help with a career in the private sector. But having spent time in Lebanon, I can see that the challenges and opportunities and rewards are slightly different. It’s equally challenging but it isn’t life and death, and the consequences - while I understand the gravity and seriousness of what we do - aren’t as grave. I also needed to understand the differences [between the army and private sector], in particular going from a command and control structure to one where people are motivated by different things. Just because you tell someone to do something doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll do it.
Getting the work/life balance right
A surprising element of the job is that I’m working harder than I previously did. The role is very, very demanding, and achieving a balance in life is more challenging than in my previous role. I have three young boys and live in the west of Ireland, so I commute to Dublin. I travel to Europe every twothree weeks and to Japan on a regular basis. It’s something that’s difficult. I don’t think anyone has perfected the art of it. Technology is a great enabler, it promotes mobility and working from home, and enables me to keep in contact with the leadership team and keep in contact with the market place. It’s a huge aid but then you’re “always on”. In our sector in particular, the pace of change is unprecedented, and the challenges faced by our customer presents a threat to traditional business models. Customers are also always on.
One thing I’ve learned over time, is about being a perfectionist. Ultimately what I’ve realised is that the fear of failure and constant striving to avoid failure is going to hold you back. But I have no regrets. I’m very happy with all the decisions I’ve made. You have to trust your instinct. It’s invariably never wrong, and doesn’t betray your true values. It has stood me in good stead.
Planning to be a CEO
As a 17-year-old in west Clare, I didn’t set out to be a CEO. I joined the army as a cadet, and did a technical degree through the army. Once I joined the organisation I did plan my career, and set myself goals, and had a three-year plan. I saw that my strengths lay in general management and I ultimately knew then that I would like to be CEO/GM. So I worked in all of the main functions - it was very much a conscious decision. If you’ve made up your mind, it’s a great start, to plan and work back from that.
On the Japanese corporate culture
Fujitsu is a company that’s been around more than 80 years. It’s fantastic that it’s grown and thrived in the tech sector. Its values are drawn from eastern culture and these are embedded in the fabric and DNA of the corporate values, such as taking a long-term view of relationships and suppliers; having honesty and integrity. The the art of listening is important, as is not prescribing something to customers, but having the ability to adapt.