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‘In leadership roles you are always visible, even when you think you are not’

UCD Smurfit’s senior leadership programme provides unrivalled access to peer-led learning for a global stage, says John Carroll of Investec

Participating in UCD’s Smurfit senior leadership programme has provided John Carroll of Investec with invaluable insights that are of benefit, not just to him but also to his organisation.

As chief operating officer at Investec Ireland the senior C-suite executive has a wide range of responsibilities; including everything from operational services and client on-boarding to transaction processing, settlements and reconciliations, as well as IT.

Carroll has been with the South African-headquartered bank for 11 years, prior to which he worked with Merrill Lynch in London and Dublin.

[To find out more about how the UCD Smurfit Senior Leadership Programme can help you and your organisation see www.smurfitschool.ie/slp]

An economics graduate with a master’s degree in economic science, he has continuously undertaken professional development throughout his career. What appealed to him about the Smurfit senior leadership programme however is that it gave him an opportunity “to do something a bit different”.

The innovative programme, currently taking applications for its second ever intake, is run by UCD Smurfit executive development and is Ireland’s only top 50 FT-ranked provider of executive education.

It is the first programme of its kind in Ireland and is run in collaboration with the world-renowned University of Virginia’s Darden executive education.The fully immersive two-week residential experience is designed to meet the needs of both international businesses with operations in Ireland and Irish-owned enterprises operating globally. The first week takes place in the Smurfit executive development centre in Dublin, while the second takes place at the Darden School of Business facility in the Washington DC region.

This was an opportunity to learn from peers in other industries, as well as from subject matter experts, creating the right conditions to really cross-pollinate ideas

For Carroll it was an opportunity to apply fresh thinking to ongoing industry challenges. “With any organisation the risk is that you can become susceptible to ‘group think’. For me, this was an opportunity to learn from peers in other industries, as well as from subject matter experts, creating the right conditions to really cross-pollinate ideas.”

The fact that his fellow participants came from a diverse range of sectors proved invaluable. “In business we all face similar challenges but in different sectors and industries, people come at solutions from different perspectives,” he said. That ensured he emerged with fresh thinking for his own organisation.

The programme has a strong peer-learning element, with each participant “shadowing” another in their place of work, providing unrivalled access to different methodologies, while the fully immersive residential element helped forge fruitful working relationships.

“As well as a chance to broaden your network, a key part of its value is the peer learning and peer coaching element,” says Carroll. This is particularly valuable at senior executive level.

“Roles of a certain level of responsibility can be isolating. Here we were all in similar positions, making it much easier to explore challenges and find ways to solve them.”

The programme’s theme is “Building the Growth Enterprise”, with expert tuition from staff at both UCD and Darden, plus an indepth analysis of pertinent case studies.

For Carroll, it afforded a deep dive into topics such as business growth models and strategy. “Getting input from around the table gives you a range of learning about the same issues.”

Being a residential course turbo-charges the pace also. “You are wholly consumed by it. Each evening we’d still be working through case studies and reading – it’s pretty intensive. But the power of the residential element is that you are also continuing to build a bond with the other participants, as well as gaining access to some of the best minds at UCD and Darden.”

The peer support it offered is still benefitting him today. “We’ve kept in touch as a group on a monthly basis and I’m in touch more often with some individuals. It’s like professional coaching in that you are leveraging other people’s experience and getting access to people who have no vested interest in the relationship other than to support you.”

From your confidence levels to the smile – or otherwise – on your face, it all shapes the environment around you

His view of leadership changed as a result of the experience. “In particular it was the realisation that in leadership you are always visible, even when you think you are not. How you approach things is reflected outwards. From your confidence levels to the smile – or otherwise – on your face, it all shapes the environment around you. If you are not approachable, for example, that will shape your team.”

He found that his biggest learning growth dealt with the role of communications. “For me it has been about understanding the value of communications and the important role it plays in making sure everybody understands the key contribution they make.”

That learning included the importance of casual communication. “It’s making sure you have that informal sit-by-the-desk chat, which helps you gauge the mood. You can gain enormous understanding from those water-cooler conversations, yet you can spend hours in meetings everyday and miss out on the opportunity to really understand what’s happening in your organisation.”

Senior executives are under pressure on a number of fronts, from Brexit to trade wars, through to regulations and technological disruption.

For Carroll other key takeaways were the need for endless “horizon scanning”, adaptability and the need to build resilience into organisations. “The only constant is change. A key part of coping with that is making sure people are kept informed about what is happening because the more informed people are, the easier it is for an organisation to be nimble. It’s when teams operate in silos that you get real problems,” says Carroll.

“Another major challenge is where staff don’t feel their voices are heard. Good communication goes in both directions; from what’s going on at shop floor level all the way up to the top, and ensuring everybody understands strategy from the top down.”

Culture may eat strategy for breakfast but both depend on good communication, he learnt. “Through the case studies we could see examples where companies set the same strategy twice and failed, only to succeed with it a third time simply because the communications around it was better.”

A mere four months on from completing the course, both Carroll and Investec Ireland are reaping the benefits. However, one thing neither will be is complacent – another key lesson from the programme. “Typically when you get momentum into an organisation it will thrive, driving fantastic growth. The worst thing you can do then is to think you have cracked it.”

To find out more about how the UCD Smurfit Senior Leadership Programme can help you and your organisation see www.smurfitschool.ie/slp