Fiona O’Brien is country manager of Lenovo Ireland and EMEA business transformation director.
Armed with a degree in business from Trinity College Dublin, Fiona O’Brien began working at IBM in 1996. When Lenovo acquired IBM in 2005, she decided to take a leap of faith and continue her career at a brand new company.
O’Brien recently won the Digital, Science and Technology award at the Image Businesswoman of the Year Awards 2016, acknowledging her 20 years of experience in the tech sector.
Describe your role and what you do.
I have a dual role within Lenovo. Firstly, I have been the country manager for Lenovo in Ireland for ten years. I am also the business transformation director for our EMEA business.
I am very proud to run our Irish operation, having led its initial formation following the acquisition of IBM’s PC division, and subsequently focused on driving its continued success. The Irish team has a varied mission; we have local and global sales responsibilities, as well as tax, e-commerce and technical teams based in Ireland.
In my transformation role, I am responsible for the change management strategy within Europe, the Middle East and Africa. It’s my job to ensure that we align people, processes and technology to support our corporate vision. The purpose of my team is to systematically manage projects and programmes to ensure that the company undertakes the right initiatives, drives execution and allocates critical resources appropriately.
How do you prioritise and organise your working life?
Due to the nature of my job, no day or week is ever the same. However, there are some top priorities that I always make time for.
The first is to have regular meetings with my direct reports to give them a chance to raise issues, ask for help and maintain a regular dialogue about their professional development.
The second is one-to-one time with my boss, to better understand his priorities as well as those of our EMEA president and our local leaders. Understanding these concerns is critical to ensuring that my team and I are aligned on what needs to be achieved and what constitutes success.
I am an avid list writer, and this keeps me focused on the tasks that matter, rather than simply getting sidetracked with the multitude of activities that could take up my time.
I have spent the last eight years in an EMEA job role, managing a multinational team across various country and cultural boundaries. This has challenged me in how I work on a daily basis. I have learnt that you can never over-communicate a message, as you break down language and cultural barriers. This means that I spent a lot of my day connecting with people. The benefit of sitting in the same room cannot be underestimated, which is why I travel so much to visit our teams and keep the lines of communication open.
What are the biggest challenges facing your business and how are you tackling them?
Like many technology companies, we’ve been too focused on product in the past. As both commercial customers and end users become savvier, we need to evolve our business further, while also keeping an eye on emerging technology and becoming an incubator for innovation.
Buying goods is now far less transactional. Instead, consumers are looking to develop a long-term relationship with brands; following them on social media, purchasing other products within a portfolio. So, it is essential that at every touch point, we provide a positive experience from answering basic ‘how to’ questions on Twitter, to ensuring we resolve serious customer services issues quickly and efficiently, and this is an area we are currently investing heavily in.
What are the key industry opportunities you’re capitalising on?
Businesses are transforming at an alarming rate, with the influx of business from Silicon Valley into Dublin and the rise of the digital native.
How people work has changed. The office is no longer a linear workspace. Google and Facebook have turned the workplace into creative spaces that support work and place. As a result, the technology business use has transformed.
Convertible devices – laptops with 360-degree screens – allow the user to use either a traditional laptop or tablet mode depending on what they are doing. Highly powered tablets that support input from both a stylus and a keyboard enable people to be more mobile and work, however and wherever they choose. Lenovo was first to market with innovative laptops, and our designers are committed to developing new products based on how people use their technology.
AR and VR have been gathering attention – most of the applications for this technology we’ve seen so far has been in the gaming space. Lenovo, through our work with Google and due to our understanding of business, is focusing on more commercial aspects of the technology; for example, modelling of new products and its use in the classroom. This, we believe, will be the future of the technology.
What set you on the road to where you are in the technology industry?
I joined IBM as a business graduate, with no real opinion on the technology sector. It was a great job in a ‘blue-chip’ company, so I was open to the potential that it could offer. After nine exciting and varied years, Lenovo acquired IBM and I was then faced with a huge choice. I could continue at IBM where I had forged a good career, or I could take a leap of faith with a brand new company where I would be involved in the creation and formation of the local brand, and, ultimately, its success.
I took the opportunity that Lenovo offered and I have never looked back. This industry is constantly evolving and shifting, and I’ve had the ability to work in a number of roles that continue to stimulate and challenge me on a daily basis.
What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?
My biggest mistake was in my first year of management. I was 28 and had become the personal computing division manager for IBM Ireland, and my first team was responsible for delivering a significant revenue stream. I was excited to be running a team and was keen to make a name for myself. In my haste to impress and implement my ideas about how to transform the business, I failed to bring my team with me and ended up micromanaging every facet of the business. It was a painful, but very valuable, lesson that I’ll never forget.
How do you get the best out of your team?
In a simple sentence, I trust them! We have a motto in Lenovo: “We say what we do, and we do what we say.” It encapsulates how I manage my team – everyone has ownership of their own results and is empowered to do what they believe is required to get the task done. I am there to support and guide the team, and to challenge where necessary. However, I completely trust that every person in my team is striving to be successful and when they achieve that success, I ensure that their efforts are recognised and rewarded.
STEM sectors receive a lot of criticism for a lack of diversity. What are your thoughts on this and what’s needed to effect change?
Every team benefits from a variety of different perspectives. As a company, we are focused on building a diverse workforce as it allows us to see the world from many different angles, solve complex problems and build a business that resonates across borders and cultures. For Lenovo, diversity is a competitive advantage, not just a tick-box exercise.
I have been very lucky to have been mentored by some very successful individuals and I actively participate in programmes to support female leaders, both within Lenovo and throughout Ireland. I firmly believe that women need to help each other grow and become successful. Confidence is the key to success. If you believe in yourself, other people will too.
So honoured and humbled to win amongst an amazing category of women! https://t.co/7DxzQ1YeOY
— Fiona O'Brien (@fionagobrien) November 21, 2016
Who is your business hero and why?
I’ve always found Ginni Rometty to be an inspiration. As well as being the first woman to lead IBM, she’s managed to succeed and grow within an industry, which, for the majority for her career, was male-dominated, and successfully took the company on a new strategic journey.
With Ginni, Sheryl Sandberg, Ursula Burns and Meg Whitman, we are fortunate to have a number of high-profile women in lead roles within tech, helping to open the door and challenge perceptions.
What books have you read that you would recommend?
I am an avid reader of fiction. For me, it’s a great way to relax and clear the mind after a busy day. However, I always try to keep abreast of the latest business thinking and have a subscription to the Harvard Business Review, which allows me dip into various topics and consider new approaches and recommendations.
One of the most personally useful books that I have read is Flourishing by Maureen Gaffney. She lays out a lot of practical examples and techniques to help achieve a sense of positivity and purpose in your life as a whole, rather than focusing on negativity – a great book to refer back to over time.
What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?
The nature of my role means that I travel most weeks throughout Europe and internationally. I tend to rely on four things to get me through:
- My Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon, a laptop that is light enough to fit into my handbag, and a battery that allows me to remain productive throughout my journey.
- My Moto smartphone, so I can stay connected to my various teams and stakeholders.
- The Evernote app, so I can keep track of ideas, conversations and to-do lists, whatever device I use.
- I also have a young son, so Skype allows me to catch up, help with homework and read bedtime stories from anywhere I am in the world.