Leadership is tough. That's true for anyone, but it can be particularly the case for women, who often battle prejudice to make it to the top.
With that in mind, the Business Post today launches a new podcast, released to coincide with the arrival of International Women's Day on Monday March 8. Entitled #HowIDidIt: the Business Post's Women in Leadership podcast, the series features interviews with women who have achieved success in their fields, and who want to share what they have learned with others.
Ahead of the release of all of the podcast episodes, which will arrive on a weekly basis every Tuesday, the Business Post is pleased to offer you a sneak-peek of extracts from the first three interviews in the series, with Hazel Chu, Anne O‘Leary and Catherine Martin.
From discussing their early beginnings through to their career peaks, these three leaders share their experiences in the hope that it will help to influence and guide others on their paths.
Hazel Chu, Lord Mayor of Dublin
Perhaps Hazel Chu's greatest strength is her openness. The Firhouse-raised Lord Mayor of Dublin is disarming in conversation. She’ll tell you about her more difficult experiences as a woman of colour, the better to have important conversations about society as a result.
Chu's first job was working part time in her mother's restaurants as a student; she studied at UCD, where she undertook a degree in politics and history, and she trained as a barrister with King’s Inns. Pre-public office, her roles included working as a production manager at Electric Picnic, and later becoming head of brand and corporate communications at Diageo.
A first-time candidate in 2019, standing for the Green Party in the Pembroke Ward of Dublin City Council, Chu topped the poll. In June, the councillor, whose parents came to Dublin from Hong Kong in the 1970s, became the ninth woman and the first person of colour to become Lord Mayor of Dublin.
Engaged to Green Party TD Patrick Costello (the pair hope to marry this summer, Covid-19-permitting), Chu has brought a dash of flair and spark to the role – she's as likely to be seen sporting red hi-top Reeboks as her mayoral chains of office.
Nadine O’Regan: How did you regard the subject of ambition when you were a young girl growing up in Dublin?
Hazel Chu: As a girl, when you're ambitious, people will tend to go, 'Oh, you shouldn't step out of line', or 'You shouldn't be too ambitious', or 'You should try to rein it back'. But I was lucky. I grew up in a household where my immigrant parents worked two jobs and strived to do as much as they could to get by and put me through education. There was a very hard-working ethos there.
On top of that, when my mom separated and divorced, she was the one supporting and minding us. For her, it was about how we can do better. It was grounded in the fact that she came here from Hong Kong during a recession to find a better life. When she had children, it was to find a better life for them. So success and ambition for me was being like my mom almost, as cheesy as it sounds. Because she came with nothing and built a life for herself. And she managed to build a string of businesses.
NO’R: Did you observe gender or diversity issues as you started off in your career?
HC: The only time, going into jobs, that I felt that gender or diversity wasn’t a barrier was in the music business. The music business was so cut-throat that it didn't matter where you came from: you were going to be landed in it. My years on the festival circuit taught me quite a bit.
When I went into multinationals, I discovered that the gender issue was a huge issue. I saw it at board level. When I went into a meeting, I was automatically presumed to be the person taking the notes, when I was the one there to lead the meeting. I’ve heard that from so many female colleagues in different industries. In politics, the Dáil is 21 per cent female; the Seanad is about 30 per cent and local authorities and councillors are 22 per cent female. That’s nothing when you look at the census which is that men and women are about 50/50.
NO’R: You decided to enter politics in 2017, when you became pregnant with your daughter Alex. Was that timing purely coincidental?
HC: People always advise you to not make decisions during [periods of] massive change. I obviously didn't listen to that! I had been watching Patrick, my partner, through the council [Patrick Costello, Green Party TD], doing his job. And I realised, there's a lot that I can contribute in terms of society. I spoke to some friends, and thought, ‘Do you know what? This is it.’ One of the reasons was also that I knew there’s not many people who looked like me. And I knew Alex would have fewer people to look up to that look like me in politics.
NO’R: What strategies would you give to women who want to succeed?
HC: A blunt phrase for that would be, ‘Spiky elbows go a long way’. There are times when I've wanted a job and come in second, I would then go back and ask people to give me honest feedback, because there's going to be the next job interview, there's going to be the one after that. I need to know what it is [that meant I didn’t get it]. With an honest answer, you can build to the next thing. Once I get the job, I've learned to get people on side and get them on side early. If you're willing to sacrifice the credit part as well, then people are more happy to move along with things. There’s a lot of managing people’s expectations in any role.
NO’R: As Lord Mayor of Dublin, your visibility as a woman of colour is an important part of effecting change in Irish society – do you have a sense of how meaningful that is for other people?
HC: That brings a tear to my eye: it's lovely, thank you. I've had people say how great it is and people sending cards. I’ve equally had lots of people who don't like it. As you said, the role is normally quite ceremonial. I'm lucky that managers in the council have worked with me to do more in terms of the policy space, but I've also been lucky in that the media has been interested in having that conversation about gender and diversity, and let me have that airtime.
NO’R: What’s coming next for you?
HC: I want to be in the Dáil. From [the experience of] the last year, with being in contact with communities, I think there needs to be more people in the Dáil that represent the rest of society and I want to be one of those people. So I'm going to be running, preferably for my party, but I'm going to be running one way or another. That’s what I plan to do.
Anne O’Leary, chief executive, Vodafone Ireland
A spirited and enthusiastic talker, brimful of insight, O’Leary is a natural leader and has become one of Ireland’s best known faces in business.
Raised in the Blackrock suburb of Cork city, O’Leary began her career as an office manager in Nixdorf Computer, while studying marketing at night. A quick move to London later, with her accountant boyfriend, now her husband, and O’Leary found a marketing role with Reuters news agency.
When they returned to Ireland, O’Leary worked for four years at a pre-internet age Golden Pages, before moving to Esat Telecom, where she became regional director. When, in 2000, the company was bought by British Telecom, O’Leary stayed at BT as managing director, although it meant moving to Dublin, a tough accommodation for the Corkwoman, who retains a home in west Cork. In 2008, O’Leary was headhunted by Vodafone, where, in 2013, she became chief executive.
Nadine O’Regan: You became chief executive of Vodafone Ireland in 2013, having been a senior player in the company for five years as the business and enterprise director. How did you feel when you got the job?
Anne O’Leary: When I got the phone call to say I got the job, I remember looking in the mirror going, ‘Oh my God, I'm going to be found out, I’m a fake’. I wasn’t the first woman, but I was the first Irish person in the role. From a Vodafone perspective, a lot of the CEOs had come to Ireland from abroad. It probably took me two or three years in the role, successfully in it, hitting all my KPIs and metrics, to realise, ‘No, you're not faking it anymore. You're doing it’.
At the time, a lot of people said to me, ‘Are you mad? Why would you take the job? Are you not successful enough?’ It's what we call benevolent bias. It's when people that care about you hold you back. Parents can do that with children. They think they're minding them, but they're actually limiting their ambitions. Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In was the first book I read that I connected with, and it was about what you could do and how you need to seize opportunities. I remember sitting up in bed one night, and I said, ‘Anne, you're 100 metres from the finish line, you've trained for the marathon. I'm going for it and I’m going to go all in.’ And I went all in.
NO’R: What does the concept of leadership mean to you?
AO’L: It's a complex area. But leadership, to me, ultimately, is about creating followership. And it's very hard to do. Leadership is when you create an environment where you can attract amazing, talented people, you can empower them, and you trust them; for them to be their best or for them to reach their full potential. And you're creating psychological safety for them to give their opinions and environments of learning.
I say all these words, but the depth of what they mean is huge. Having everyone's opinions and input on the decisions we make is absolutely key. Whether that's male, female, young, old, introvert, extrovert, a legal opinion or an engineering one. Leadership is ongoing, you have to constantly work and get 360 degree feedback.
NO’R: You’ve experienced setbacks too. Could you take me back to a time of that and what you did to move on and get over it?
AO’L: Like everyone, I've had setbacks and things have not worked out for me. People have different ways of looking and dealing with setbacks. Some people get really set back by them, and it lives with them, and they can find it hard to get over them. I move on quickly. And I actually often forget about them. Sometimes people would remind me of things. ‘Do you remember in that meeting when you cried?’ And I'm looking at them going: ‘No’. Something about my optimism or positivity in my character has helped me.
There have been other times, in organisations, where I've felt I was the best person for the role. And I haven't got it and I still feel I probably was the best person for the role, but there were other biases like proximity bias, which is when people put people they’re more comfortable with [in the role]. Usually that’s male appointing male.
NO’R: What strategies would you adopt in that circumstance?
AO’L: I definitely had an experience where I hadn’t got a role and I felt that I should have, and also that many appointments were being made where there was a gender bias and proximity bias. And I made it very clear that I believed that was going on, in a very professional way, backed with data. It was hard for people not to agree with my point of view, because the facts were there. I said, ‘Are you sure that you've looked at all the options there? Are there biases inherent in your decision-making? Were you willing to take the same risks on me, as a woman, as the man? Did I have to have every bit of the criteria, while the other candidate didn't? Have you been open in how you should have looked at this and really fair?’
You do need to stand your ground. You need to think about how you go about it and how you are saying things. I feel an onus to do not just right for me, but for the next wave of women that are coming along.
NO’R: Do you believe in quotas to correct subconscious bias?
AO’L: Yes. And the reason is, if it's not happening naturally or organically, there is a problem. A lot of people, when it comes to gender, they don't think it's a problem, because they've never had any biases against them. But the fact is: if boards or organisations at this stage don't have 30 per cent women, there's something wrong because 50 per cent of the population is out there. If they haven't reached it, they need a target. They need a quota. If you have a metric, sometimes that's what motivates people.
Some people, until they do it, don't understand that it’s right. Some men have said to me: ‘This diversity and inclusion thing, I didn't understand it until I had a diverse management team’. How we dealt with problems, how we dealt in crisis, the quality of the discussion: they didn’t know what they were missing. I understand that people aren't often intentional in it, but in this day and age, it’s 54 per cent female in my leadership team at Vodafone, and that's because I've been working on it since I joined the company 12 years ago. This isn't something that's a short-term thing, it is a systemic thing that you need to be watching, just like you look at profitability or revenue growth.
NO’R: Women sometimes find it difficult to get ahead, whether asking for promotion or improved salaries or simply to be heard at a Zoom meeting. What advice would you give?
AO’L: In relation to salary, I would encourage women to reflect on the work they do, the role they do, and ensure that they are questioning it and ask nicely, ‘Where do I fit?’ It's a fair question. In meetings, I think the first thing is to ask the people. ‘Can I ask you: what am I like in a meeting? When I speak, what do you hear?’ Often we don’t ask people how they perceive us. People might say: ‘You speak too fast. You make five points instead of one.’ And then if they say things like, ‘No, I think you make great points’, you can say, ‘Well, the next time in a meeting, would you acknowledge my points and and say, ‘That was a very good point’ because it would be good for my confidence? Can you help me?’ And it changes the whole dynamic of the meeting. It works wonderfully.
NO’R: You’re well known as a keen fan of sports, from running to swimming to biking – why is exercise so important to you?
AO’L: For me, it's about my mental and physical wellbeing. I'm in much better form when I do some exercise. In lockdown, every second day, I run 6km. I can get up at half seven, run for 35 minutes, come back, jump in the shower. And I'm at my Zoom all day. And I feel great. It's just to get outdoors, to get those endorphins going. And just to feel good because I lead a huge company and I don't know what I could be hit with every day. You have people that might need help or support. You have issues in the business and I need to be at my best.
Some people like to clean the house on a Saturday from nine to five. My house could fall down; I don't care. I eat anything my husband has to cook because I don't care. I love food, but I'm not going to be cooking all night. I've made those decisions about what makes me work better.
NO’R: What’s next for you?
AO’L: Well, at the moment, I've just gone on the Greencore board. So that's exciting and that's a Ftse company. I've also been put on the Vodacom board; that’s South Africa and I'm also going to start a coaching course in UCD, in March, so I'm looking forward to that. I'm going to do that and hopefully get a qualification, which I think would help me to be more structured in my leadership, whether from a board perspective or a CEO perspective. I want to continue to learn and develop. I'm open to different opportunities that come my way.
Catherine Martin, Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media
Catherine Martin has a ministerial brief so extensive you’d fear for the designers of her business cards. Deputy Leader of the Green Party since 2011, Martin is Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media. Growing up in Carrickmacross in Monaghan, Martin was drawn to the stage from an early age – as a classically trained singer, she performed around the country; later, as a secondary school teacher of English and music, she served her public on a different platform.
Martin was elected a councillor in 2014 and won a Dáil seat in 2016. Married to Francis Noel Duffy, also a Green Party TD, the couple have three children together. Martin has long described herself as a collaborator and a team player; in 2017, she founded the Irish Women’s Parliamentary Caucus in the Oireachtas, a cross-party forum for Irish female parliamentarians, and also pressed for anti-bullying measures in the Leinster House campus. In interviews, she has a combination of smiliness and steeliness that serves her well.
Nadine O’Regan: You entered public life in 2014. What advice would you give to your younger self, knowing what you know now?
Catherine Martin: Mine was a very unpredictable path. I think anyone who went to university with me would have fainted when they saw me being elected in 2016. At university, I was only in the music societies. And yet, everything you experience in life stands to you. I would say: don’t be afraid of participating in anything, because you never know what skills will help you. At school I loved to debate – that stands to me in a career in politics.
I taught in a Deis school, in St Tiernan’s in Dundrum, and that taught me about inequalities and how I wanted to fight to give everyone a fair chance. Don't be afraid of challenging people. Asking questions is a sign of strength not weakness, so don't be afraid to put the hand up and ask that question. Sometimes lowering your voice strengthens your argument. Sometimes the greatest points are made in a quieter voice.
NO’R: Did you have a mentor who was very important for you?
CM: If I was to look to a mentor in my life, it would actually be my parents. They're both deceased now. And unfortunately, when I was elected in 2016, they weren't alive to see it. And my first reaction when I got elected, was to burst out crying because I missed them there. And because I realised what they had done for me. And it was that equal partnership that they had, and that sense of equality they instilled in us, with two boys and two girls in our family. There was never a question of gender. It was like you can be whatever you aim to be. My mother in particular, advised me and encouraged me to never let failure act as a debilitating experience; to never let failure be a reason not to try.
NO’R: Women in politics are often criticised harshly for their appearances on radio and television on social media. How do you deal with that?
CM: You always have to be prepared. And that moment that you described [of being criticised] can happen to anyone at any time. You have to be conscious of it, never to criticise anyone else, because it can happen to you. There will be hurtful comments. And it will be tough. That's where the support network is important. I would say, if you see that happen to someone else, reach out to them and give them support, because that's what I would seek.
I have my husband, my family and my very close friends who support me. If there's negativity, I turn to that support, who will ground me and remind me of my strengths, as well as everything else. And you have to be prepared to fail. You have to be prepared to learn from failure as well. And you have to dust yourself down very quickly and get on with it. Because it's a job of work to do.
NO’R: There's a tendency by women to think that they should pull the ladder up once they have succeeded, because there’s a sense of an invisible quota – how do you react to that?
CM: Yes, and we can never do that. If a woman achieves success, the last thing that a woman should do is pull the ladder up behind her. The job is to reach out and to encourage more women to join her. So, for example, in Leinster House on my first day in the Dáil in March 2016, there was a lot of jubilation at the time. So many women have been elected, it was the most women ever in the history of general elections.
But when I sat in the Dáil that day, I looked around me and I was drowning in a sea of suits. I believe in bringing women together. That's why I founded the Women's Caucus [in 2017], so that you'd have women from all political parties and none working together; to be seen. Our role is to reach out and encourage each other and support each other. The more we’re seen, the more young girls will enter that world.
NO’R: What are the most pressing issues for you in relation to gender in Irish society?
CM: Equal pay: the average Irish woman earns 14.4 per cent less than her male counterparts. We need more diversity: women need to be at the decision-making table. Diversity and representation are crucial to introducing policies and creating a more inclusive workforce. We need more flexible working hours. In politics, voting is still in the evenings. Who makes that decision? You look at the business committee in the Dáil who meet every week. They’re all male. It’s astounding. It's not family friendly. I'm committed to empowering women to bring up the visibility of women across the board.
NO’R: Can you recommend some strategies to women to help them move forward in their chosen careers?
CM: If you're considering stepping up to do something, then do it. Don't question yourself. There are great organisations there you can reach out to, for encouragement, for example, in the world of politics, Women for Election do fantastic training workshops. Get involved in other ways, in community groups. I always say to women: ‘Come canvas with me. See what it’s like.’ Find that support network. It's about finding those networks, and not being afraid, but believing in yourself.
Episode One of #HowIDidIt: the Business Post’s Women in Leadership podcast series with Nadine O’Regan, featuring Anne O‘Leary, is available now on podcast platforms including Apple Podcasts, Spotify and Google Podcasts. New episodes from the series will be released weekly in March and April