Posted on Monday 21 January 2019 by Ulster Business

Boi 1

Ulster Business and Bank of Ireland UK gathered business bosses and thinkers together to examine what true leadership means and the challenges facing the next generation


Gillian Sadlier
(Senior business manager, Bank of Ireland UK)

Dr Joanne Murphy
(Interim director, QUB William J Clinton Leadership Institute)

Edel Doherty
(Managing director, Beyond Business Travel)

Jayne Brady
(Partner, Kernel Capital)

Bridgene McKeever
(Director of marketing, McKeever Hotel Group)

Elaine Smyth
(Acting director and head of programmes, Connect at Catalyst Inc)

Niamh Griffin
(Senior manager growth and development, Bank of Ireland UK)

John Mulgrew
(Editor, Ulster Business)


John Mulgrew: It’s a very general one, but what makes a leader in business?

Jayne Brady: It’s very easy to spot a leader, but it’s maybe harder to describe. For me and in my experience it’s about the vision, those who can see the big picture and landscape that. They are people who can inspire others within the business to be part of that vision. There’s an element of it not just being visionary, it’s actually about them putting that into the pragmatism of a plan to deliver and them being there supporting the team in bringing it through to reality.

Bridgene McKeever: I also think that there’s a massive element of somebody who’s really trustworthy. You cannot be a leader if people don’t trust you, you might be a manager or you might be a dictator in some ways but you are not a leader if the team below you doesn’t trust where you’re going, and your vision, and get behind that.

Elaine Smyth: I think at times you can notice people that have those leadership qualities within your organisation, but a leader is someone that not just appreciates that they have some of the raw characteristics of leadership but that they are willing to really develop those and to have the courage to take on responsibility to step forward and take the lead.

Edel Doherty: People refer to leaders as if they are the finished article however that is far from reality. Great leaders never stop learning and refining their skills they also are not afraid to show their vulnerability and that it’s OK to make a mistake, it’s just another way you learn. I would also say a leader is a dealer in hope, hope for the future.

Joanne Murphy: I think it’s possibly useful just to make a distinction between leaders and leadership. A lot of time when we talk about leaders we tend to think about individuals, and that’s a natural thing. We tend to also think about leaders being very closely associated with change. But a lot of thinking and the research around leadership has moved now to an idea of looking at leadership as something that occurs at all levels of an organisation.

Gillian Sadlier: I think it’s a really important point, Joanne. Particularly in larger organisations, each team within an organisation needs somebody to lead. There’s a lot of leading by example.

Niamh Griffin: And that leadership drives a culture in an organisation and particularly when there’s such high competition for talent and skills, leadership and culture is absolutely becoming more and more critical for businesses.

John Mulgrew: How do you encourage people who work for you to develop ideas and progress in their development?

Joanne Murphy: I think we would talk about people working with you, that what you’re trying to do is to build inclusive teams... people will take their cue from you. And that is a huge responsibility and it’s difficult to be self-aware all the time. But it’s very important.

Elaine Smyth: Sometimes it is letting them take on a bigger task. When I think back to when I was 27, I was given an opportunity, and to step up, maybe punch above my weight, a bit, in a particular job role – to me this just makes absolute sense.

Bridgene McKeever: Sometimes it’s letting them make mistakes. I have somebody who is paralysed about making decisions because of the fear of making a mistake. I was saying to them to make that mistake, I want you to go and make a mistake, I want you to make a blunder and get over that, because we all make it, we all make mistakes. We all do things and it’s about learning from it.

Gillian Sadlier: You need to re-emphasise their confidence, encourage them to come up with the solution, ask them, ‘what do you think?’. It’s important to recognise that we’re all different. Everybody has different strengths and weaknesses. Nobody is the finished article, nobody is perfect.

Jayne Brady: There’s a lovely example, where Norman Apsley, (former chief executive of Catalyst Inc) just retired, when one of his new recruits started he said ‘well I am the chief Executive of the Northern Ireland Science Park (Catalyst Inc), but actually, I’m the person that you are going to have to come to when you make that mistake, and the person who is going to help you sort it out, just so you know that’s my role here’.

John Mulgrew: Can you think of any big business decisions in your career which stand out?

Jayne Brady: It was probably when we were establishing the fund in Northern Ireland (the Bank of Ireland Kernel Capital Growth Fund NI). I had no experience of venture capital, other than raising finance. We were defining the investment strategy in Northern Ireland and I guess the usual thing would be to follow, and do the same as other funds had done but we decided to really look at it, be ambitious and take a different approach to differentiate us in the market.

Bridgene McKeever: For me it was probably the decision to come into the family business. I worked throughout different departments so I had colleagues as such and when I decided to go into the family business and follow that route, the dynamic shifted. And I can’t honestly tell you how the dynamic shifted but it did and people treated me slightly different – that was a really big challenge for me to overcome, becoming this leader of people that used to be colleagues.

Edel Doherty: For me it was investing in myself. When you run a small business, and you are in year two, every pound is a prisoner and I joined an organisation called Vistage, which is a chief executive peer-learning group – it was the best investment that I have ever made.

Elaine Smyth: For me, it was joining an early stage software company in the late 1990s. It grew to over 200 staff. We grew the business from the consultancy services work and in 1999 we sold the product end of the business for $250m. On the management team we were young, all in our 20s and 30s, we thought, this is dead easy we’re just going to do it, we spun off the consultancy bit of the company… and then in 2000 the bottom fell out of the market and we had to reduce our staff quite dramatically. Then we had to decide what are we going to do, are we going to take in external investment and just grow the product side of the business and totally reorganise the whole business and that was really, really tough.

John Mulgrew: Are their any barriers facing younger people in business who are trying to progress their career?

Gillian Sadlier: I think it’s hugely competitive. You look at young people coming out of school now and moving onto further education – they’re being encouraged to do so much, to develop a personal statement that’s going to get them offers for university, they’re expected to have their work experience, played sport or music, completed voluntary work. You’ve got these very well-educated people, with great experience, but along with that there can sometimes come some naivety in terms of theory versus the real world and the hard work required.

Joanne Murphy: I think there is a big issue – which we see with students – about resilience.  They can sometimes, although not always, appear very confident on the surface. But a lot of the time there is an issue that people have not failed before, so when they fail they hit ground very hard and that’s very difficult for them, and they’re not particularly resilient. I think that’s one of the big changes.

Niamh Griffin: With the likes of social media and technology, it appears that 99.9% of everything posted shows the best of stories from people’s lives, setting an expectation that everything needs to be perfect or is always perfect, it adds fuel to what you’re saying Joanne in terms of that first fall, how hard they hit. Leaders need to support them, tell them it’s OK, let them fail and to learn from that experience.

Edel Doherty: I have a different view, I don’t think it’s that difficult to stand out and progress your career in the private sector. My advice is work smart, continually learn and develop your emotional intelligence. As leaders part of our role is to set example, create the environment to help our young people reach their potential.

John Mulgrew: Are there particular mistakes people make when they get to a position of leadership?

Gillian Sadlier: I think sometimes people forget to, or chose not to listen to other people. One of the things that we would see in banking, or professional services is people focussing too much on top line, on growing the business, reaching the turnover target without looking at the whole picture. They need others around them to say, hold on a second, think about this, is it profitable, do we have the funding, do we have the capacity?

Joanne Murphy: I think it’s very important that people retain their authenticity. You know people should get the positions because they’re good at what they do, most of the time. And sometimes I think because they suddenly have the label of leadership within an organisation, it changes their behaviour or changes how they operate, and this is concerning and a little bit dangerous.

Elaine Smyth: And also, it’s the recognition that a leader isn’t there to make all the decisions. They’re there to make sure the best decisions are made.

Bridgene McKeever: Surround yourself with critical friends instead of yes people. People who are actually going to tell you the truth, for the best direction of the company and for the best strategy, and so on and so forth, instead of people that sit round you and just say ‘yes’.

John Mulgrew: And throughout that progress do you have to continue to grow and develop as a leader?

Gillian Sadlier: You never stop learning. As the saying goes, ‘every day is a school day’.  Personally, I am very goal driven and take time at the start of the year to reflect on my goals for the year ahead.

Jayne Brady: I guess invest in yourself. A couple of years ago I went on the IoD (Institute of Directors) certificate and diploma in company direction, and as part of it, there was a leadership module where you worked with a group of your peers – I found that tremendously valuable.

Edel Doherty: From my Vistage group, we would meet every Monday morning at 7.30am and what we would do is a five minute run down on our businesses and our goals. We set goals – not just business goals – and they have to be about things like your health and your family.

John Mulgrew: Is there any one particular individual you have taken strong inspiration from?

Elaine Smyth: My managing director in Apion, Denis Murphy. Denis used to walk the corridors of Apion and, despite having 200 staff, he just made everyone feel that he knew them and he knew what was going on with them.

Joanne Murphy: The one that comes to mind for me is Dame Stephanie Shirley. I just find her absolutely inspirational. She is someone that came to the UK, a country that she didn’t know, with people speaking a language that she didn’t know, and she developed an extraordinary life for herself in the early days of technological innovation as a woman, as a pioneering woman in that field.  

John Mulgrew: Putting Brexit to one side, what’s around the corner for business in the next 12 months?

Joanne Murphy: I think there is a general kind of theme emerging outside Brexit, where there is an increasing need for people to be able to lead effectively within volatile environments.

Edel Doherty: And I know for the business travel industry there’s even more disruption in how airlines are distributing their content. So our guys are sitting there with Brexit coming in from one side, while all of this new distribution is coming in, with new technology.

Gillian Sadlier: I think the uncertainty is huge. In Northern Ireland we have proved ourselves to be very resilient over the years; we’ve always faced a lot of difficulty. What we’re seeing with our clients is that they’re using the uncertainty around Brexit as the spur to look at their core business and to make sure that they are fit for purpose.

Bridgene McKeever: I think since the recession people really looked at their businesses. So I think business in Northern Ireland has become more agile, quicker to move and very aware that if challenges appear there’s also opportunities. It’s about finding those opportunities within that.


Follow us

Subscribe to Ulster Business Magazine

View Our Digital Library

A L Top 100 2019 button