Thursday 22 March 2018

Giving back: business leaders can lead society forward

Irish business people can play a key role in making this country a better place to live and work, writes Anne O'Leary of Vodafone

Anne O'Leary
Anne O'Leary

As economic recovery in Ireland takes hold, we have the opportunity to be better than we were in the past, to avoid the mistakes of the Noughties, to gain a better understanding of what's enough and what is important.

Irish business has a particularly important role to play.

Not alone do we provide employment and the environment within which people spend eight-plus hours every day, but as leaders in Irish business we are in a unique position to influence the quality of the work environment we provide and to be a force for positive change across wider Irish society.

That's ultimately my idea; demonstrate the leadership our roles afford us.

And while lots of businesses are doing great things internally, those internal initiatives can and should be brought outside the office. Business leaders have the responsibility to lead, and not just within their own firms. It's up to us to not only run a business from a commercial perspective but to positively influence the rest of society.

On taking up the role of CEO, I thought about how Vodafone could make a difference in Ireland. We are very closely linked to the economy - we have been here for the good times and have weathered the bad, thanks to the loyal support of our customers, our employees and the communities in which we operate.

Our number one priority is to provide world-class connectivity for our customers, placing Ireland as a global and European leader in communications which will create a real edge in the global marketplace for all business, large and small.

A second priority is ensuring we create a supportive working environment that encourages diversity and inclusion.

The third key area is making sure that we give back directly to organisations that can make a real difference to local Irish communities.

The impact of connectivity on society

Modern communications technology has brought profound changes. They enable new ways of working and help with the creation of new industries, improving people's lives in previously unimaginable ways in areas such as education and access to information as well as in healthcare and assisted living.

My team continues to play our part in delivering transformative technology to people across the country.

Over the last two years, I'm proud to say that we've invested more than ever in making a real difference to people's lives in Ireland by bringing mobile data across the country, enabling friends, family and colleagues to share important moments.

Our recently announced partnership with the ESB to establish SIRO, the new company that will make Ireland the first country in Europe to use existing electricity infrastructure on a nationwide basis to bring fibre directly into homes and businesses, will facilitate that sharing like never before. That's bringing people and businesses closer together.

It will make home working a real option for more and more people, allowing greater choice with regard to where people live and provide real support, in particular, for young families.

It will also help with a key issue for the nation at the moment; ensuring there is balanced regional development as it will help SMEs and start-ups to set up business in more remote locations. Ireland will also gain the technical infrastructure to develop a true smart economy.

Ultimately, as a result of this, moderate-sized Irish towns will have the same economic opportunities as major global centres such as Hong Kong, Tokyo and San Francisco.

Workplaces that promote well-being

Workplaces are changing beyond recognition. Business leaders can use technology to support employees and give them the tools to enjoy their work and be the best they can be for themselves, their families and their employers.

We have taken a lead in this regard by removing offices and introducing hot desks which have improved collaboration, teamwork and created a more informal work environment. This is also facilitated through a wellness centre and gym.

I strongly believe that workplaces need to move away from being a static environment to something much more dynamic and flexible. The focus needs to be more about the physical, mental and emotional support for employees.

Businesses also need to be clear on where they stand on equality and diversity.

Everyone contributes to society and brings their own understanding and insights. All of these are valuable and help enrich the working environment and the services we provide for our customers.

Despite research repeatedly showing that a gender mix improves financial performance, Ireland recently ranked second lowest in Europe for gender diversity on boards, with women making up only 10pc of ISEQ board directors.

We have made great inroads in this area with our Women's Network in Vodafone. However, we continue to drive this agenda.

I believe other companies can also tackle this issue by requesting an equal number of male and female CVs when recruiting for a role, educating employees around unconscious bias and providing mentoring programmes for women.

I believe these small changes can have a huge impact on business and create a more equal society.

Contributing to the wider community

Leaders in business can become part of a virtual 'Team Ireland' by extending their in-house initiatives to outside communities. This can be in the company values, such as equality of opportunity, acceptance of diversity, promotion of education and social programmes.

We've been working hard in this area.

Over €8m has been donated to charitable causes since 2003. We've partnered with Young Social Innovators for the last three years who have created a whole ecosystem for teenagers to engage and do social innovation in their local communities.

Some projects they have developed include the introduction of new technologies that have helped in the search for missing persons, tackling obesity in schools and educating people around internet safety.

It is my firm belief that business leaders have a personal responsibility to give back to society and use their influence for the wider good. In business, I have tried to incorporate my personal passions and I hope that this will contribute to making a difference.

If we as business leaders committed to use what we have learned and some of the resources at our disposal, to make wider society a better place, the overall effect would be quite amazing.


Anne O'Leary is CEO of Vodafone Ireland

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