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Boss woman

'Dragon's Den' star Norah Casey tells Ailin Quinlan why she nurtures female entrepreneurs

If Norah Casey was ever asked to compile a business bible for the female executive, one tip would automatically shoot straight to the top of the list.

"It took me a while to figure it out," admits the 51-year-old publishing entrepreneur, owner and CEO of Harmonia, Ireland's largest magazine publishing company.

When the penny dropped, the former nurse was the thirty-something CEO of a successful publishing firm in London.

Although she was often the last person to leave the office, she recalls, her boss didn't seem to be aware that she was working so hard. Then came the revelation.

"I noticed that the very competent male CEOs were very good at telling the boss about their achievements and successes."

Norah also noticed these similarly hard-working executives made a point of allocating about 10pc of their time to telling the boss how hard they were working and highlighting their latest achievements.

That, she says now, was when her corporate mindset changed forever. "Too often, women put 110pc into their work and no per cent into talking about what they've done -- they just hope someone will notice that they're working so hard.

"I did that at the beginning, too," says Norah, whose company annually prints more than four million magazines for the Irish, British and US markets.

"I made a conscious decision to set aside time from 4pm onwards, say on a Friday, to let my boss know, by email, how I was doing and how the business had gone that week."

Norah, who tomorrow returns to our screens in the fourth series of RTE One's 'Dragon's Den', explains that what a lot of women don't realise -- or, if they do, what they fail to sufficiently acknowledge -- is that, in the big corporate world, a lot of time is spent reporting up.

"Women struggle to see the value of that. Women are very practical. They can see meetings and teleconferences as a distraction from the work, but men don't."

Women executives can make the mistake of perceiving the boss's catch-up phone call or a visit from someone flying in from company headquarters as an unwelcome distraction, she warns.

"I'm always trying to impress upon women the need to work within the global framework of their business -- they need to manage their boss and they need to shine by showing their boss that they're very good at what they do."

She says that in the corporate structure, the most important thing to understand is how to get to the next level.

"You're always working towards your next job. However, women tend to forget that bit and they can be in danger of just becoming good at what they do, rather than seeing it as a journey towards where they want to be. It's a balance."

A crucial part of that journey, she adds, is to never underestimate the power of learning something new.

Norah first went into management at the age of 27, when she landed the job of editor of a weekly magazine, and it wasn't always a bed of roses.

"The trick to managing people I found more difficult than expected. You assume that if you're good at something you'll be good at managing the people who do it."

But as she discovered, that isn't always the way it happens.

"I look back and I see I wasn't as well prepared as I could have been for some of the main challenges I faced in the first year or two.

"Between the ages of 27 and 30 I was moving towards the job of editorial director. I became CEO of Scutari at the age of 31.

"I've always found management theory has worked and I'm a passionate learner, I've never stopped learning," says Norah, who, as she proceeded through each stage of her career, took courses on everything you can think of.

"Interpersonal skills are tremendously important for women, and you can learn them. I learned them in my early 20s -- I did programmes on everything from presentations to negotiation skills to managing your boss to how to behave at interviews.

"As a boss, it stood to me," says the popular Dragon, who is currently completing her PhD on the Power of the Written Word.

"It's what I call the polish that's required to get on in business. You need to know how to navigate. It's about how to speak and interact with your colleagues, and it's very important for women," she adds.

While men are usually very comfortable about speaking up in meetings, Norah says women don't always know how to use the politics of a meeting to get what they want.

"Women can be afraid to interject and if challenged will back down immediately, whereas men will rise to the bait even more."

She believes you can improve your ability to manage such scenarios, partly through learning and partly through gaining confidence and getting on-the-job experience.

"There's a whole learning exercise in how to get your own way at meetings, and women would be well advised to get out there and do the work on that. If you don't, before you know it, you're sandbagged!"

Norah is looking forward to her second series of 'Dragon's Den': "I enjoy it. I went on to 'Dragon's Den' because I was keen to invest in other areas. It was a fantastic way of sitting back and getting people to pitch new ideas."

An unexpected spin-off from the programme is the voluntary business clinic Norah now runs once a month. Seven out of 10 people seeking her counsel are female.

"I do this myself because there were so many people writing to me asking for help," Norah explains. "You want to help people, so I set up a business advice clinic once every three weeks or so and I see people at our offices in Dundrum. I prefer to be in that zone for the whole day."

It's primarily an advice clinic -- Norah sets aside her investment money for 'Dragon's Den' -- but as well as guiding fledgling entrepreneurs she also counsels established companies which have been blind-sided by the economic downturn.

Norah admits that she has a thing about helping female entrepreneurs: "I think women need some extra help. We find in 'Dragon's Den' that we get fewer women coming in to the den than men, but that, proportionately, more women than men get investment."

That, she explains, is because the dragons find female entrepreneurs generally arrive in the den better prepared, with their homework done and their research properly completed.

Sponsored by Bank of Ireland and presented by Richard Curran, the new series brings a fresh face.

Stepping into the den is Sean O'Sullivan, who has been building successful technology companies in the US since the beginning of the internet in the 1990s and who is expected to bring a strong flavour of Silicon Valley to the programme.

Norah, meanwhile, goes out of her way to give committed female entrepreneurs a much-needed helping hand -- she makes a point, for instance, of giving female start-ups a free advertisement in the 'Irish Tatler'.

"They get phenomenal feedback from this and I have a big waiting list for that sector," she explains.

However, women's tendency to invest deeply in an idea can have its drawbacks, she says. "I talk to women in my mentor group about moving fast on failure. I always remember my old chairman used to say if you are going to fail, fail fast. If you realise that you've made a mistake, move on."

Business people tend to cling stubbornly to what they see as their babies for far too long, she says, and this seems to be a major pitfall for women, possibly because of the depth of their investment in an idea.

"I'm often the first person to tell them that they're flogging a dead horse. I've probably seen more women do this than men, probably because they've invested more in it."

A woman, for example, will do all the work and research needed to back up an idea for a cupcake business, but then find nobody is interested in investing.

"Others believe the time for a cupcake business has gone, but she keeps harping on about it," says Norah, "whereas a guy who has an idea that didn't work out will quite likely come back to me six months later with a new idea. They seem to move on quicker."

That hypothetical Norah business bible also has some advice for navigating that pesky male-domination thing we hear so much about.

Sure, it can be hard to carve out a niche in a company or market sector when you're surrounded by men who know each other and have similar backgrounds and social outlets, she acknowledges.

But, she says bluntly, you have a choice: sit on the sidelines and whinge or get out there and forge connections.

Meet male colleagues or bosses for quick coffees, she advises, pointing out that building relationships is not about getting through 500 emails a day.

"You can make your own connections in the workplace in simple ways -- have coffee with an employer rather than sending an email."

Last but not least, says Norah, who has overseen the closure of five magazines, expect to learn from your failures, not your successes.

"You never learn from your successes because sometimes they're a bit of a fluke, but you will learn from your failures. I've learned far more from my failures than I ever did from my successes."

Series four of RTÉ's 'Dragon's Den' returns to TV screens tomorrow at 9.30pm on RTÉ One

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