Anne O’Leary, CEO of Vodafone : 'Be bold, take risks, speak up, be confident'

Ahead of the Image Business Summit, in partnership with PwC, Anne O’Leary (CEO of Vodafone) shares her views on the current shape of Irish business.

Get tickets for the Image Business Summit, taking place Nov 18 & 19, to hear more from Anne O'Leary and speakers such as Gina Miller, entrepreneur and activist; Dr Anita Sands, Board Director, speaker, author, former Fulbright Scholar; and David McWilliams, Irish economist, writer and journalist. 


On women in business during Covid-19
We know that women are more vulnerable to Covid-19-related economic effects because of existing gender inequalities. Women, who have traditionally taken on primary caregiving duties, have been especially hard hit, with added daily responsibilities and new work/life challenges.
Recent research shows that seven out of 10 women who experienced negative shifts in their routine as a result of the pandemic, believe their career progression will slow down. This is worrying and something we need to look at as leaders and as a society. My advice to women is ensure that you have open and honest conversations with your line manager about any change in circumstance. I believe women can really take this time to shine, by investing in their network and by engaging virtually with their team, wider cross-functional team, mentors and external stakeholders. Visibility is still important, so step up to new opportunities. Be bold, take risks, speak up, be confident. Support each other.”

As leaders we need to be more empathetic and to make sure that we are listening to our people.

Advertisement

On lockdown adjustments
“I am lucky that I live near the sea and love swimming and I can do my job from home. I am focusing on the things I can control, how I feel, behave and respond to Covid, but also to other things going on in my life. My physical and mental wellbeing has always been important for me to be at my best, but it has never been so vital to work on both as it has been during the pandemic.
Professionally, like many others, I have adapted to our new remote reality. As a leader, that means ramping up virtual communication with my team, especially through video updates, to ensure everyone is connected and engaged. It is so important to be mindful of other people’s situations – a lot has changed. As leaders we need to be more empathetic and to make sure that we are listening to our people.”

Get tickets for the Image Business Summit here  

On attracting girls to STEM careers
Firstly, we need more women in leadership positions. The quote ‘You can’t be what you can’t see’ springs to mind. Unconscious biases and inherent structural inequalities need to be addressed, alongside behaviours, beliefs and the set-up of the workplace. We need to show young girls the opportunities available to them in STEM careers so they view it as an exciting and credible choice. Even if they are not engineers, there are plenty of roles available to them in tech companies – we take in graduates from all disciplines because diversity of opinion is crucial when servicing our diverse customer base.
We need to do more to educate young girls on the wide range of careers in STEM. They must also feel supported in a culture of equality to believe these careers are achievable. If girls see inequality early it significantly affects their ability to catch up and remain at pace with their male counterparts. It is therefore important that both the system and behaviours, through education and into the workplace, are supportive of equality of opportunity. Organisations like Balance for Better Business, the 30% Club and iWish are key to showcasing the opportunities and roles available.”

I am present when in the sea and it really gives me a boost for the entire day. Everyone should try it – it’s mind over matter when it comes to the cold!

On the importance of exercise
I really enjoy exercise and it will always be important for me to get out and be active throughout the week. It helps me to sleep better, eat better and remain calm and objective. These days, I enjoy a blend of different activities from cycling and running, to yoga and walking. I know that I am at my best when I stay on top of my training and fitness. I have always been a keen swimmer and with the pools closed, I am in the sea a lot. The benefits of cold water are well documented, but for me, it relaxes me, I am present when in the sea and it really gives me a boost for the entire day. Everyone should try it – it’s mind over matter when it comes to the cold!”

Get tickets for the Image Business Summit here  

On a location-independent workforce
Since March, many of us have embraced remote or smart working enabled by technology; it is the now, but it is the future as well, opening doors for people to work remotely and companies to attract talent from different parts of the country, and world. But what happens next? I think we will embrace a blended model of office and home working – both leaders and employees want it and it will help companies attract talent and foster a happier, more productive workforce. In Vodafone, we have fully embraced flexible working options for many years. We manage based on trust through output as opposed to presentism, so employees can work smartly: it is consistently cited as one of our most favoured policies.”

Advertisement

Culture is the character and personality of your organisation. It is what makes your business unique and is the sum of its values, behaviours, and attitudes. It is tricky to create, hard to sustain and easy to undermine.

On gender parity
“Something close to my heart, Vodafone Ireland is now almost 10 years into our diversity and inclusion journey and I am proud of how far we have come: we now have a 50/50 gender split across our total people manager community. Part of our purpose as a business is “Inclusion for all” and using our digital technology to create a more level playing field. We have looked at all aspects of our business and people and restructured how we work based on the employee journey from graduate right through to CEO. We have learned that there are some key ingredients to building an inclusive workplace culture. You need structures, policies and processes applied without bias to help drive fairness and equality.

I strongly believe we need to maintain a focus on workplace culture. Culture is the character and personality of your organisation. It is what makes your business unique and is the sum of its values, behaviours, and attitudes. It is tricky to create, hard to sustain and easy to undermine. When it comes to gender equality we can only create a truly inclusive culture by ensuring we have two things: behaviours that are free of bias and business structures, processes and policies that drive fairness.

Get tickets for the Image Business Summit here  

What is needed is a behavioural and structural focus on equality. Equality not only sits in the role-modelling we do as leaders but in the hard yards of embedding fairness in how you are talking to talent in the market, what your recruitment and on-boarding experience looks like, how you assess performance, how you reward and recognise your people. As leaders, we need to personally check and be confident that bias does not exist in the design or execution of these critical stages of the employee lifecycle. Unfortunately, you cannot bank progress when it comes to culture - the job is never done.

Positive results take time to surface and can be easily undone, so on the journey it is important to celebrate progress and be relentless in our desire for true equality. Also, change of this magnitude is hard. It is only with relentless action that businesses will see the steady pace of change within their organisation. It takes commitment and passion, time and investment right through an organisation. We also need to ensure the voice of men is heard in this conversation. Without their voice, their support, their ambition to drive this agenda forward – there cannot be real change in society.”

Advertisement

Related: A sneak preview of the panel talks we’re most excited about at the IMAGE Business Summit

Related: Meet the speakers for the inaugural IMAGE Business Summit

Related: Businesses: Here's an actionable toolkit to help you take back control

The image newsletter