Leadership is something 'you can learn', Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce Leadership Live series hears

NI Chamber of CommerceNI Chamber of Commerce
Values-based leadership and its ability to drive organisational success
, along with being comfortable in a crisis to propel positive change, were two of the many takeaways from the latest edition of the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce Leadership Live series, which heard from two exemplars of industry leadership.

Mairead Mackle MBE, Founder & CEO, Tarasis Enterprises and Catherine Toolan, Managing Director, Diageo Irish Brand Homes spoke at the event which was delivered in partnership with Electric Ireland.

The relaxed format, with journalist Mark Simpson holding a conversation with the two speakers, provided the opportunity to mine insights that had the audience rapt and ready to participate in a lively Q&A session.

A recurring theme of the conversations was whether leadership qualities are innate or learned, and while differing views were expressed, the general consensus was that everyone has the potential to be a leader. We are not simply born leaders rather, leadership according to Mairead Mackle, “is something you learn.” 

Throughout the session, both guests talked of how they go about growing leadership in others. For Mairead Mackle, this entails employing people whose values align with those of your company and then empowering them and giving them the opportunity to grow by placing trust in them and “letting them fly”. Catherine Toolan, in answering a question on this topic, said that giving people room to fail will give them space to grow.

Another key point of discussion was around how leaders recognise and adapt to the changing business environment, particularly at present when inflation, access to funding, and the threat of skills shortages are all present challenges to businesses in every sector. At such times as Catherine Toolan put it, business leaders need to be able to “work at pace”.  That’s something that Ms Toolan is particularly adept at, having taken on her present role in March 2020 when the Covid-19 pandemic hit and decimated the tourism upon which the Guinness Storehouse relied, with 93% of its pre-pandemic 1.7m annual visitors drawn from overseas. Toolan’s recounting of how she used this problem to completely rethink Diageo’s visitor experience business model showed not just her leadership metal but epitomised her earlier assertion that she is “comfortable in a crisis”; she is someone who is hardwired to see the opportunities in a “burning platform”.

As well as changing business environment the change in the workforce was discussed with both business leaders speaking of the need to understand the people you manage. Mairead Mackle said “people do not just want to go to work anymore” instead they want to belong to communities and to work for organisations that have a clear purpose. Catherine Toolan agreed saying that purpose is often more important than financial reward to young people. It was noted too that younger workers are much more into work life balance than their predecessors and that, if businesses are to succeed, leaders must recognise that and allow employees to work when they are at their most productive.

Both speakers spoke about how the experience of home can be utilised in the workplace with Ms Mackle asserting that mothers make great leaders because they are already great multi-taskers, innovators and negotiators while Ms Toolan agreed that her role as the eldest of eight siblings helped her develop leadership qualities. 

On the subject of diversity, Ms Toolan spoke of it representing “a huge dichotomy of words” saying that it is important that people see themselves represented in society and it was important therefore that it is set in business strategy; in Diageo’s case through ‘progressive portrayal’ which is currently spotlighting gender inequality in advertising. A question from an audience member certainly highlighted the inequality in funding for female leaders of start-ups when she told the room female founders secure only 1% of Venture Capital in Northern Ireland; an astonishingly low figure which is indicative of the road still to be travelled towards equality.  Catherine Toolan said “it is on all of us to create pathways” for women and referencing the example of Electric Ireland Game Changers female football programme which has inspired girls and women across Northern Ireland to participate in the sport.

Time dictated that Mark Simpson bring the event to a close although with a fully engaged audience and lively discussion, it could easily have gone on for much longer. Instead, we will look forward with anticipation to the next Leadership Live event and to hearing the new perspectives and points of view of future contributors.