‘We have seen how the pandemic is changing expectations in the workforce’
Lorna Conn has experienced first-hand how good intentions can sometimes inadvertently hold women back in the workplace.
Nine years ago, upon returning to work at renewable energy group NTR after the birth of her first child, there was an assumption among some colleagues that her appetite for challenging job opportunities might have waned. When a senior role in the US arose, Conn’s name wasn’t necessarily top of the list.
“I had just come back from maternity leave and I think the sense at the time was ‘Oh, Lorna. She won’t be interested, she’s just back from the first child, she’ll never go to the US.’
"But one of my senior colleagues stepped in and said ‘Look, you never know unless you ask.’,” says Conn, who was recently appointed deputy CEO of recruiter CPL.
“So I relocated to Texas at the age of 32, with my husband and a 10-month-old child.”
She understands that it is hard for employers to get the balance right with new mothers.
“I absolutely think you need to look after people when they’ve had such a big life change – but I don’t think you should look after them to such a degree that it’s a barrier, or it discourages them,” she says.
“You wouldn’t do it for a man.”
The move to the US put Conn at the centre of major transactions, such as the sale of NTR’s wind assets.
It was good experience for the past year, during which time her current workplace CPL was sold to Japanese group Outsourcing for almost €318m in an all-cash deal.
As chief financial officer at CPL, Conn worked closely alongside founder and chief executive Anne Heraty, as CPL thrashed out the deal which was announced last November.
“I had been involved in M&A transactions before, but never of a publicly listed company. So it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” she says. “It was very exciting.”
It allowed her to get an insight into the Outsourcing Group, and she was encouraged by what she saw.
“They were excellent to work with,” adds Conn. This made news of the sale of the business much easier to communicate with CPL’s 12,000 staff.
“While Japan clearly feels like it’s a world away from Ireland, the culture within that organisation is actually very similar to our own.”
The new owners have a presence in 35 countries across six continents, with 200 subsidiaries. Conn says this gives CPL a new world of opportunity.
“It opens up access to new geographies for us that we would never have had before. And it was a real opportunity for the CPL Group to take the next step in its internationalisation strategy.
“We can offer more to our clients in collaboration with Outsourcing, where they have a presence on the ground in countries we couldn’t have previously offered to our clients. And it’s already happening. We’re already having conversations with colleagues in Australia, Indonesia, Brazil, Germany.”
Born in Tallaght, Dublin, Lorna was one of four children. Her twin sister is a principal social worker.
“So she’s right on the frontline now,” says a proud Conn, who references the current problems being faced by the HSE due to the cyber attack.
After moving to Knocklyon at the age of 12, she attended St Louis High School in Rathmines to foster a love of singing.
“Even though I could have walked to the local primary school, we went there because I loved singing as a child – and my mam got me into St Louis because they were big into musicals.
"So I would have done Sandy in Grease. I was Little Mary in Little Mary Sunshine. It was a really special part of my life in school.”
But she was a practical child.
“I think I realised singing was probably never going to pay the bills. So I needed to focus on something that was a bit more practical.”
Her parents were strong believers in education, with her mother in particular establishing strong routines in the house.
“They were always very focused on us going to college and getting a third-level education.
“When free third-level education came in it was just such a gift for us – because they would have put us through college one way or another. But the fact that there was twins, and we were the eldest – it meant double the fees.”
She was set on becoming an accountant and did a BComm in UCD and a master’s degree in accountancy at the Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School. Conn then trained with accountancy firm Deloitte.
“I got to travel across the States with one client,” she says. “It gave me great exposure in the world of publicly listed companies.”
However, she made the choice to pursue a job in industry – with her “pivotal role” coming at NTR.
“They had investments in ethanol and solar and quite a large waste division. I would have been with roads for about three years – and that was about the time when the State was buying back the West-Link toll concession.
“We ultimately sold most of the roads division. I was really involved in that transaction, and it probably lasted for about 13/14 months.”
She went on to take up roles with the group in the US – as chief financial officer of Greenstar and commercial director of Wind Capital Group.
On returning to Ireland she had her second child, and joined Independent News & Media – the publisher of this newspaper, now called Mediahuis – as chief financial officer with its digital division, before joining facility services management company ISS Ireland.
In 2017 she joined CPL – but not before an anxious wait during the two-and-a-half-month recruitment process. She badly wanted the job.
“I had been in PLCs most of my career, but now it was the opportunity to be the chief financial officer of a publicly listed company. It was a brand that was well known to me, and I knew it had a really excellent founder, with a strong leadership team there.
“When I went through the recruitment process I got to meet different people – and it just struck me that there was something very special about CPL. I felt that there was a strong cultural fit, almost from day one.”
What were the characteristics of the company which appealed to her?
“First of all it’s a very empowering environment. We’re quite autonomous in terms of how we treat our people.
"We would give them the flexibility and the space to make decisions, and to come to us with new ideas and new innovations. So it’s very entrepreneurial in spirit.
“I think myself and Anne would be quite similar in our leadership style, in that we would lead with warmth and compassion. It’s a very people-oriented, people-focused environment. And that works really well for me.”
CPL, like all businesses, had to adjust quickly to the pandemic.
The company’s division which focused on permanent job roles saw the deepest impact.
“Because obviously companies were delaying key talent decisions, as they were trying to see how Covid would unfold.
“Our temporary and contract businesses held up remarkably well, all things considered. And we saw other opportunities emerge, particularly in the contracting space. Around 73pc of the business is flexible talent and 27pc permanent recruitment.
“For us, it was about having a diverse mix of business – and this was a classic example of when you have a sharp economic shock. Your business model is really put under scrutiny, and I think the diversified base of our business mix was what really held us in good stead.”
One division which should help companies understand the lasting legacy of the pandemic is CPL’s Future of Work Institute.
“That’s our consultancy division, and that’s where we provide thought leadership and facilitative workshops and workplace solution planning for our clients,” says Conn.
“It’s an area that is performing very well within the CPL Group.”
She says that the Future of Work Institute is likely to be an area of growth for the Outsourcing Group.
Conn can already see the pandemic is changing expectations in the workforce.
“We would feel that it’ll be a hybrid working model that companies in the main will return to once they do open their office infrastructure. And certainly, in terms of candidates that we’re placing, we are seeing them taking flexibility as a given.”
She adds that retention of staff is now a necessity for many employers.
“I think candidate shortage right now is a feature of our business. We’re seeing it a lot, particularly in the tech sector.”
With Heraty now on the board of Outsourcing, Conn has stepped up to the role of deputy chief executive – and seems to be the heir-apparent for when the time comes to succeed one of the most prominent women in Irish business. She says she sees herself in a CEO role at some point.
“But the focus for me right now is on the deputy CEO role, and supporting Anne and the executive team as they drive our next chapter of growth, together with the Outsourcing Group.”
Conn adds that CPL will continue to be very much grounded in its roots, even under new ownership.
“The Outsourcing Group recognises that we have something very special in CPL, and they’re here really to support us and facilitate strong growth post-acquisition. But they’re not in any way trying to make our company any less Irish.
“We’re really keen to exploit every opportunity for collaboration that might exist, to allow us to do more for our clients – and offer more for them beyond Ireland, the UK and the handful of countries that we are already in across Europe.”
Name: Lorna Conn
Position: Deputy CEO of CPL
Lives: Rathfarnham, Dublin
Education: St Louis High School, Rathmines, Dublin. Commerce degree from UCD and a master’s in accounting from the Michael Smurfit Business School
Experience: Chief financial officer at CPL; finance director with ISS Ireland Limited; digital CFO at Independent News & Media; and various senior finance roles at NTR
Family: Married to Geoff with three children – Ollie (9), Lucy (7) and Louis (4)
Favourite book: In terms of fiction, anything by Maeve Binchy or Marian Keyes (Rachel’s Holiday is my all-time favourite). And then I love US politics, so I loved Barack Obama’s and James Comey’s autobiographies
Favourite boxset: The Crown
What is the best piece of leadership advice you could give?
I suppose the greatest advice I would give anybody – and it sounds almost clichéd – but it’s to be yourself and to lead authentically, and with warmth and compassion.
I think the old leadership styles of command and control aren’t a fit for modern workplaces and employees, particularly new employees, are looking for more collaborative, more engaging workplaces.
What advice would you have for employers trying to retain staff?
I think they should be investing in their employees in terms of offering them opportunities to upskill or to reskill, continuous training, and learning and development.