‘The challenge for us is reducing the fear associated with digital change’

14 Apr 2020

Brendan Kavanagh. Image: Olive Group

Olive Group’s Brendan Kavanagh discusses the online education business, keeping on top of new tech, and morning meditation sessions.

Brendan Kavanagh is the CEO of Olive Group, an e-learning company that provides education products to businesses and recruitment agencies. The company creates training courses for induction, onboarding, customers services, sales, product knowledge and more, using tech such as AR, VR and gamification.

Kavanagh founded the business in 2006, coming from a background in the oil and gas sector and retail IT. Olive Group now employs 350 people in 12 countries, including a team of 30 in Dublin.

Future Human

Last month, the company launched a new €5m online training platform, My Virtual Tutor, which allows for remote learning, upskilling and regulatory compliance. The platform was rolled out earlier than planned to help organisations train staff during the Covid-19 crisis.

‘It’s vital to know what the latest technologies are and how we can implement them in our courses’

Describe your role and what you do.

I am the founder and CEO of Olive Group and my primary role is to empower my board and management team, while at the same time increasing shareholder value.

They say the best managers are the best delegators, something that I have thankfully been accused of in the past!

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

My day starts with a bit of mindfulness meditation at 5.30am, which helps me keep a clear mind for the rest of the day. It’s an early start because I have daily video conferences with our CEOs in Australia, India, Germany, London and Dublin.

It gives me a chance to agree priorities with the leadership team and give the support they need from me. It also helps me to organise my own day and ensure that I have time to focus on the US, which is our fastest growing market.

What are the biggest challenges facing your sector and how are you tackling them?

One of the biggest challenges facing any technology company is the fact that around 70pc of today’s business leaders were born in a pre-digital age. There is a certain level of trepidation around adopting new technologies, so the challenge for us is to structure a message which will encourage CEOs and decision makers to embrace the fourth industrial revolution and find the right medium to reduce the fear associated with digital change.

In our sector – the education sector – e-learning has been shown to drastically improve key message retention. At Olive Group, we have developed an SaaS e-learning platform using various high-end technologies – such as virtual reality and extended reality – to suit differing learning styles and increase knowledge retention. By eliminating classroom delivery, we are showing the value of technology by cutting costs for businesses by up to 85pc.

What set you on the road to where you are now?

My background is in the oil and gas industry. I was responsible for extremely large workforces, which are both highly regulated and very transient. So from early on in my career, I developed a passion for using education to reduce employee turnover and, through pain rather than virtue, I saw the massive benefit in having high training standards in relation to health, safety and compliance.

At Olive Group, what we have managed to do is develop a low-cost, easily accessible and flexible technology solution that helps organisations to upskill employees and meet their regulatory requirements. By reducing costs, we have also found that we can break down financial barriers and help more people to access education.

What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?

I purchased a taxi plate about two weeks before Mary Harney deregulated the taxi industry! I bought it for £85,000 at the time and two weeks later it was worth £5,000. I had planned to subcontract it for my retirement fund.

I learned that all that glitters is not gold and to stick to what you know!

How do you get the best out of your team?

I am a big believer in mindful leadership and the idea that ‘wherever you go, there you are’ – and that’s a good place to be. We all face difficulties in life, so I encourage our leadership teams to be mindful of each other as human beings and to try to watch out for each other and carry each other when needed.

Once a week, we have a mindful leadership meeting and people are invited to come and say how they are getting on, whether everything is going well or if they need a helping hand. It’s important to be conscious of each other’s lives – not just from a work perspective. We have found that this approach really works.

Have you noticed a diversity problem in your sector?

Thankfully education, unlike other private sectors, is more advanced in terms of diversity. Diversity in education is something that is a common and ongoing discussion.

But greater diversity doesn’t eliminate unconscious bias. This is something everyone should take a course in and understand. There are plenty of resources available and people should educate themselves.

We are a global organisation and our focus is to foster social equality by getting people on their desired career pathway. We have many genders and ethnicities and I am proud to say that appointments in Olive Group are based on the person’s genius rather than their sex or orientation.

Did you ever have a mentor or someone who was pivotal in your career?

My Dad. I started my career working with him in the oil and gas sector for a company which he had worked in for 30 years. I was part of a management buyout of the company, which was equally to his horror and his pride!

I carry his advice with me, which was always to remember that your integrity is everything. He also said that if you believe that what you’re doing is valuable, the risk is worth it.

What books have you read that you would recommend?

Full Catastrophe Living by Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn. It taught me everything and changed me in terms of becoming more mindful, particularly in terms of my approach to leadership.

What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

I must admit to being a bit of tech geek! As CEO of Olive Group, it’s vital to know what the latest technologies are and how we can implement them in our courses. So, I use my phone daily to check in with news sites and online publications to read about what’s going on in the world of technology. Thankfully, all of this information is at our fingertips and it’s never been easier to stay in touch with what is happening and to stay ahead of the curve.

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