Partnershipfor excellence in leadership

New academy offers business and commercial management skills aimed at different levels in ICON

Eimear Kenny (left), ICON’s HR vice-president, and Helen Brophy, director of executive education with the UCD Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School

Eimear Kenny (left), ICON’s HR vice-president, and Helen Brophy, director of executive education with the UCD Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School


Leading global contract research organisation ICON has teamed up with the UCD Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School to establish the ICON Business Academy with the objective of developing excellence in leadership capability right across the company.

ICON must be one of Ireland’s best-kept business success stories. From small beginnings in Dublin in 1990 the company has grown to be a global provider of outsourced development services to the pharmaceutical, biotechnology and medical device industries with over 10,000 employees worldwide and turnover of over $1 billion. “We are now one of the top five contract research organisations in the world but we have tended to keep a very low profile over the years,” explains HR vice-president Eimear Kenny. “The company was founded by Dr John Climax and Dr Ronan Lambe and grew very rapidly through organic growth and acquisitions. About 90 per cent of the world’s top 20 drugs have been developed with ICON’s help and we have strategic partnerships with leading companies such as Pfizer, Ely Lilly, Bristol-Myers Squibb, and Shire. ”

Such rapid growth brings its own challenges, however, not least of which is managing 79 offices in 37 countries. “Our people are all highly qualified and trained in their own fields but we need other skills if we are to fulfil our growth ambitions for the coming years,” says Kenny.

The company has ambitious growth plans for the future. “Ciaran Murray became chief executive in 2011 and he recognised that while we had great technical expertise we needed to do more on the management side. When you think about it we don’t sell anything, all we have is our people,” says Kenny.

This is where the partnership with the UCD Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School came in. “We had already collaborated with the school of medicine in UCD on a number of projects and Ciaran Murray wanted to extend this collaboration into the management side of things so he initiated contact with UCD dean of business, Prof Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh last year.”

That first meeting took place in July of last year and progress since then has been rapid to say the least. “That first meeting was really a brainstorm,” notes Helen Brophy, director of executive education with the UCD Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School. “We wanted to see what ICON was looking for and how UCD could help the company instil the business and leadership excellence it was seeking.”

Out of that meeting came a process which saw staff at the school work closely with ICON to design a bespoke programme which would meet the company’s specific needs. The ICON Business Academy is a structured framework that offers a number of programmes aimed at different levels within the organisation giving each participant the opportunity to receive business and commercial management skills development and action-centred learning in an international business context.

“The first module of Certificate in International Business Management took place in Blackrock this month and a follow on diploma programme is already in development,” says Kenny. “It’s very important to us that the ICON Business Academy offers accredited qualifications. This is more than just about training; it’s about opening up new career pathways for our people. We need to identify, recruit and retain the best people if we are to maintain our growth. Our people value the fact that this is a certified programme from an internationally recognised university like UCD. Partnering with UCD really shows that the company is serious about management development.”

The Smurfit school’s international status was just part of its attraction. “The diversity of our student population was very important as well,” Brophy points out. “The ICON Business Academy is not just for Irish people. The first module included participants from as far away as India and Korea. This fits in very well with the Smurfit school as almost half of our students now come from overseas and almost all of our new faculty appointments now come from outside Ireland. We also have a very active alumni association with chapters spread throughout the world.”

The experience of creating the ICON Business Academy has been a positive one for both parties. “It is great to have the opportunity to work with a company like ICON on the development of something which is aimed directly at improving performance,” says Brophy. “We work with businesses on customised programmes all the time but this was especially good to work on because of the scale of the programme and the company’s ambitions for the future.”

First graduates
This year over 140 international ICON business managers will complete the Certificate in International Business Management and there are plans for a similar number to take part in 2014 and beyond. And despite the very early stage of the programme benefits are already visible.

“ICON is very much a service-driven business and a lot of our people manage virtual teams across different locations,” Kenny notes. “In many cases they never get to meet the people who work for them. Bringing people together in the classroom really helps with this team working. The networking and ongoing collaboration from bringing people together is very powerful. Working with the UCD Smurfit school has been a very good experience. We are in the business of being a trusted partner to our clients around the world and the Smurfit school has become our trusted partner in the ICON Business Academy.”

To learn more about executive education programmes at the UCD Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School go to