BE (Chem) 1983
I wanted a Degree that gave me the most options…
My father passed away when I was very young, and my sister Renee and I were incredibly close. As siblings we encouraged each other and helped drive each other’s careers. During my Leaving Cert year, Renee, who is two years older than me and possessing full knowledge of my favourite subjects at school, kindly undertook some investigative work on my behalf. It soon became apparent to both of us that I was destined towards either science or engineering.
I had a leaning towards engineering and had a personal desire, very early on, to get into either a management or a leadership type of role. I wanted a degree that not only gave me the most options but was a strong degree, internationally recognised, and one that did not force me to follow a linear route. Chemical Engineering stood out to me as the degree that could give me those options. At that time, UCD was the only place offering Chemical Engineering and as there were only twenty-five spaces available, it was a very competitive course to get accepted into. I was lucky enough to secure my place and before enrolling, I travelled up to UCD and met with some of the lecturers. This really helped to me visualise what it would be like to study there.
The UCD Chemical Engineering Family
Coming up from Kilkenny to Dublin was a huge culture change for me, I really had the classic ‘coming up from the country’ experience as a first-year student.
Being a student in Ireland, in the early 1980’s was a tough time. I see the contrast even more so now, through the experience of my own children going to University. They are lucky enough to have the benefits of on-campus accommodation and that ‘living-in’ university experience. We did not have that, almost 50% of the Chemical Engineering students were Dublin based and were going home every night.
First year in college was tough, particularly for engineering students as it was a ‘general studies’ year as we had yet to begin to study a sole engineering discipline. We didn’t really have a home per se that year as we were dragged all over the city! Some days were spent out in Belfield, others in Merrion Street and then Earlsfort Terrace. We got lucky in 3rd and 4th year as we had our own lecture theatre and the lecturers came to us! We used to come in every morning, dump our bags down on our seats and spend our days together in that one lecture theatre- which I now believe is the Taoiseach’s Office! There was such a great spirit in the class and as there were only twenty-five of us, we got to know each other really well. Merrion Street at that time was synonymous with UCD Engineering and really began to feel like home for us. Many students join Societies during their time in UCD however, we in BE Chemical 1983 really didn’t need to join a society. In those days, we were our own society! If you ever went into our classroom at the breaks, or in the evenings, there would always be a great buzz in the room. I recall that in 1st Year, some of us joined the L&H Society and had a great time observing the great debates that took place!
We were lucky to have some really great lecturers, during our time in UCD. I remember Dermot Malone, Paddy O’Flynn and Frank McLoughlin as being particularly memorable. They were young lecturers, not too long out of College, and were coming into UCD at the same time as we were. They really had a good understanding of what we as students were going through, particularly in the early years of the course. There was a great relationship between the academics and the students, with the traditional ‘student/lecturer’ barrier practically non-existent. It was wonderful for us, as students, to feel that we could really speak to our lecturers, as people they weren’t in any way remote.
I recall that Prof. O’Donnell, who had been in the Department at that time, definitely had an aura about him, but he was equally very down to earth. I remember him as a kind and thoughtful person and like all of our lecturers, really wanted you to succeed. We all felt that from day one. They all wanted us to get through. It wasn’t a test for them as to what percentage of the class they could pass or fail. The mantra was ‘how do we get everyone through’ and I think that ethos really benefitted everyone in the Chemical Engineering Department.
Looking back now, I can see that Chemical Engineering didn’t teach you how to solve problems, it taught you how to go about solving the problems and how to engage other people to do that. We were taught to see that what we were studying wasn’t about getting the answer, it was about the journey you took to get there. This was before Google and internet searching- it was a very different approach to learning at the time!
Our lecturers felt that it was very important for us students to see and experience ‘engineering in action’ and they organised class trips, once a year for us. I distinctly remember trips to Cork and Italy as being particularly memorable. In my 3rd Year, one of my lecturers set up a programme, in his own time, where I was able to go to Finland and work in the ‘Rauma Paper Mill’! It was a wonderful experience and it really did have a huge impact on my desire to move overseas, post-graduation.
Life after UCD
What was it like being a UCD graduate in 1983, armed with an Engineering Degree?
Impossible! There were no jobs for Chemical Engineers in Ireland at that time. Some of my classmates went on to study for a Master’s Degree however, I decided to travel to South Africa. Even though it was difficult to find jobs at that time, I was lucky to have been armed with a UCD Engineering Degree which was well recognised and propelled me towards an international career.
Is there something very special about a UCD Engineering Graduate?
Yes! One of the things that I passionately believe in is that culture eats strategy for breakfast. I really think that what UCD Engineering graduates do is not just develop strategy but develop culture also. One of the things that you learn from very early on in Chemical Engineering is humility. To be a leader, you must be humble, and you have to have a deep understanding of other people. Leadership is not always about strategy and intellect, it is about building a culture of understanding, it’s about the EQ, the Emotional Quotient, the measure of Emotional Intelligence. Most companies focus heavily on the IQ, when they are recruiting and there is no doubt that this is important however, what really helps you to succeed is the development of your Emotional Intelligence.
I think this is something that is bred into you, both in UCD and in Chemical Engineering. It is a discipline which helps to develop your EQ side and that is a great thing to take with you throughout your career. UCD Engineers share an ethos, which is distilled in us during our years as a student. Chemical Engineering in UCD has a very unique culture and one that has clearly continued to develop. I think the success of their graduates, both what they have achieved for society and within their field, is incredibly important.
I had the privilege of meeting the late Peter Sutherland, a fellow UCD graduate, a number of times. He was Chair of BP at the time I was there and I remember, when I met him for the first time, we spent ages talking about rugby, Lansdowne Road and people that we both knew. Talking to him felt like speaking to an old friend, albeit an incredibly inspiring one!
You are never going to be ‘ready’ to be a leader
The 2 ½ years spent in South Africa gave me vital leadership experience. When I came back to the UK, I joined Unilever, and again, went into a leadership role there by taking up the role as Head of Operations across the UK. Then I moved to Burmah Castrol in 1991, and shortly after that they made me Chief Executive of their Car Care division.
What gravitated me towards leadership roles so early on was based on some of the best advice I was given; ‘The longer you wait to lead people, does not necessarily make you a better leader. You can’t build experience to lead people, without leading people’ If you want a leadership role, get into one as soon as possible. Don’t think that you will be a better leader at 35 than you are at 25. You won’t be!
You are never going to be ‘ready’ to be a leader. If you feel that you are ready, that actually means that you have waited too long and possibly will not be prepared to listen and learn as much! There can be a lot of luck needed in your career, sometimes it is about being in the right place at the right time.
My advice for aspiring leaders is;
* Have Confidence in yourself and enjoy you career in the moment rather than always wanting the next role
*Know what kind of leader you want to be- don’t imitate other leaders, learn for them instead
*Have perspective; balance family life, your career and the decisions you make
Finding leaders to inspire you is important. I was lucky to find John Gribble and Tim Stevenson, who were my bosses in Burmah Castrol. I have openly admitted this, but I probably wouldn’t have given myself the CEO job back in 1991! Tim, who was Chairman at the time, was willing to take a risk, give me that chance and support me throughout the process.
I can still remember the day I was made CEO. I went from being the youngest member of the board the day before, to heading the board the next day! One of the things I did straight away was go around to the team and say ‘Look, yes I am the CEO, but we have to do this together and find out how we can work together’. I was conscious of not appearing that I was coming in to ‘take-over’, but to lead and to recognise the value of the roles of the other members of the board. I realised that they had significant knowledge within their own areas of expertise and I valued that. My job as CEO was to make sure that they not only had the space to deliver, within their own areas, but to create the culture, both internally and upwards, for them to be able to do that. I really tried hard from day one to be clear on what value I was bringing to the business and to try to make sure that it did not override the value that they were bringing.
Success is not a lone journey
My last few jobs have typically been jobs where the strategy must be redefined, but the key measure of the success has been the need to change the culture within a business and drive the performance forward.
Working with ADNOC Distribution in Abu Dhabi has proven to be a fascinating and exciting challenge. We have just completed an IPO which is a first, not only for this company, but was also the first-time foreign investment was brought into the ADX through an IPO. My working life right now is focused on managing the international investors in New York and London, together with the local investors in the UAE. I am also working hard to try to redefine the culture within the business team. It is an incredibly fascinating and exciting time for me and I am working with some really great people here in Abu Dhabi. There is a huge pride in this country, in terms of how they do business, and a huge desire to be internationally recognised.
I still return to my time in UCD and the perspective and style I developed whilst studying there. My Chemical Engineering degree gave me confidence with humility, it told me that I can achieve whatever I put my mind to, but only with the help of other people. Success is not a lone journey.
Don’t think that it is going to be much more fun in 20 years’ time than it is in year one!
The best career advice I received was from Dr Malone, and I remember it very clearly, as I pass it on myself today ‘In your first two/three jobs, move positions and move companies. Don’t stay in the one place for too long’. I found this to be incredibly helpful advice as, in the first seven years of my career, I did move jobs two or three times! I find that you reset yourself, every time you move positions or companies. I would advise graduates not to get stuck in a job. You will gain huge experience, both culturally and from a business perspective, by moving jobs and ideally moving around the world. I have lived in many countries; the US for ten years, Africa, the UK and now in Abu Dhabi. That gives you a huge breath of experience, not only just in the engineering field, but in life. Don’t get stuck down one path. Try to develop a skill set that is broader than just engineering.
As a graduate, armed with a prestigious degree, you tend to be a little ‘over-confident’ as you set out into the working world for the first time. Know that you are going to make mistakes and know that it is perfectly OK, as long as you remember to learn and move on from those mistakes! Always remember, the learning process continues, even post-graduation!
I can’t overestimate that when people are joining a company, don’t just look at the company, look at the culture, look at the leadership and make sure that the people you are going into work for are people you respect and people you can build a relationship with. Don’t think that it is going to be much more fun in 20 years’ time than it is in year one! You need to enjoy every year. Don’t desire to be the CEO of a company because when you get there, you might find it is not as much fun as you thought it was going to be. You will have wasted your time getting there and not enjoyed your time leading up to that.
In the end, it is actually all very simple;
- Be yourself
- Know what kind of Engineer and leader you want to be
- Find the company and the role that fits that, rather than compromising your values to fit a company
- And enjoy!