Leaders’ Insights: Anne O’Leary, Vodafone Ireland

8 Nov 2016

Anne O’Leary, CEO of Vodafone. Image: Vodafone

Anne O’Leary is the CEO of Vodafone Ireland.

She heads a team of 2,000 workers, striving to make Ireland part of a connected ‘Gigabit Society’, where every citizen can have access to premium broadband services.

With 18 years of experience in the telecoms industry, she still gets a buzz from her daily work on the front line.

Describe your role and what you do.

Future Human

As CEO, I am responsible for Vodafone’s operations in Ireland and a 2,000-strong workforce across the country. Vodafone is Ireland’s leading mobile communications operator with 2.4m customers providing services across mobile, fixed, broadband and TV.

I enjoy my role immensely and feel a strong sense of purpose as CEO at Vodafone to drive a vision for a Gigabit Society for Ireland – where everyone, no matter where they live, can benefit from world-class connectivity.

We are operating in a hugely fast-paced and exciting environment and our customers are at the core of everything we do. We strive to anticipate and respond to their changing needs; we enable them to connect to what matters most to them, to live a better today and build a better tomorrow. I really feel privileged to be CEO of such an exciting, innovative, future-focused business.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

Life is very busy so it is really important for me to be as organised as possible and I rely on my iPhone and email and my amazing PA, Emily, a lot to make that possible. I also ensure that I take the time each day to review my schedule and sit with my senior leadership team to work through key tasks, activities and issues.

I am very conscious that everything I do must feed in to Vodafone’s business strategy and vision and that is how I prioritise my work. I am focused on being as productive as possible and delivering results.

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

The telecoms market is highly competitive. We are constantly being challenged to review our business and make sure we have the most attractive offers and services so that customers will truly benefit.

We work hard to understand our customers and we put them at the centre of everything we do. Customers’ needs change rapidly and we must always be ahead in terms of what we are delivering.

Since establishing in Ireland, we have invested over €1bn and have committed to spending a further €550m over the next three years on improving our infrastructure and customer experience.

We are no longer just a mobile company. We are the total communications provider of choice in Ireland, covering mobile, broadband, fixed line and TV. We believe having the best quality network is what will provide customers with the best experience.  

‘With the structures and supports in place and stakeholders working together, Ireland can become one of the most digitally advanced nations in Europe’

What are the key industry opportunities you are capitalising on?

In June 2016, we launched our Connected Futures Report which focused on Ireland’s digital divide. The report showed that one in five rural dwellers can’t get access to broadband. We found villages that had no access to broadband whatsoever, where people had to drive to neighbouring towns to study or work in places like libraries or other Wi-Fi enabled locations.

Vodafone strongly believes that wherever you live or work in Ireland – from the biggest city to the smallest village or beyond, you should be entitled to top-quality high-speed internet access.

This is why Vodafone is determined to play its part in creating a ‘Gigabit Society’ in Ireland. In simple terms, we want to bridge the urban/rural digital divide by ensuring all citizens have equal access to 1GB broadband speeds through 100pc fibre optic broadband.

This means investing in and empowering local communities through connected technologies. It also means continuously investing in our network and delivering innovative, converged solutions that suit our customers changing needs and demands.

The Gigabit Society in Ireland is within reach, and Vodafone will be at the heart of that transformation. With the structures and supports in place and stakeholders working together, Ireland can become one of the most digitally advanced nations in Europe.

Vodafone will be holding a panel discussion on ‘Creating Ireland’s Gigabit Society’ at National Digital Week 2016 in Skibbereen on 12 November.

What set you on the road to where you are in the technology industry?

Preparation for my role of CEO at Vodafone started years before my appointment. I began my career in Nixdorf Computers in Cork. From there, I moved to customer service in Western Digital and on to Reuters in London. On my return home to Ireland, I worked initially with Golden Pages and then moved to Esat Telecom where I was involved in selling fixed-line voice services against the incumbent Eircom.

This was new territory for me and represented the beginnings of an exciting opportunity to work in a pioneering organisation, doing daily battle and being thrown into the front line. We had to learn quickly and that gave me a great buzz and a love for the telecoms industry, which is probably why I have stayed in it for 18 years.

After Esat was acquired by British Telecom, I was appointed MD with BT for north and south of Ireland. I spent about six years there before moving to Vodafone as enterprise director. 

How do you get the best out of your team?

At Vodafone, our objective is to generate a culture that empowers employees to think, feel and live well by providing a holistic and accessible approach to wellness. We have created an innovative wellness programme that puts our employees at the heart of our organisation and enables them to live a balanced life.

We are also embracing new ways of working, trying to knock down barriers to limit isolation in the workplace and create employee inclusion. Our wellness programme covers mental fitness, physical health, emotional wellbeing — and we have created a programme to help our employees to get involved in activities that suit them. It is hugely important to me that our people feel valued, that they feel their roles are meaningful and that their daily work is intrinsically satisfying – that way, they can bring their whole self to work.

‘The fact is that improving gender understanding and enhancing diversity and inclusiveness leads to a better, happier workplace and better business results’

STEM sectors receive a lot of criticism for a lack of diversity. What are your thoughts on this and whats needed to effect change?

One of the most important lessons I have learned in my role as CEO is that diversity delivers. Diversity is a tool for driving business success and is a competitive edge. Our role as leaders is to try to understand and to ensure that we do all we can, that everybody feels welcome and included and that their views and values are respected. The culture, behaviours and environment that we create in our companies ensure that everyone – no matter what gender, race or sexuality – can reach their full potential.

Traditionally, STEM sectors attracted predominately male talent but that is changing thankfully. I have a passion for female empowerment and for women fulfilling their full potential in the workplace. Women make 70pc of the decisions in the home so we must have gender balance in the workplace. The fact is that improving gender understanding and enhancing diversity and inclusiveness leads to a better, happier workplace and better business results.

My vision for Vodafone is that customers will love us through the products they use and the network they experience.  I want Vodafone to be an admired company and an admired brand through the eyes of our customers and our diversity and inclusion agenda is one of the core objectives to us achieving this.

Who is your business hero and why?

I would have to say Elon Musk. He is a visionary really, someone who has an extraordinary work ethic and incredible futuristic view of how business can transform and adapt. He is constantly breaking down barriers to create and influence how we and future generations approach sustainable energy. His dedication to climate issues is very much at the core of everything he does and he is to be very much admired for this. 

What books have you read that you would recommend?

I have just finished reading Misbehaving by Richard H Thalor. It is a book about behavioural economics – a book about life, about how people buy, save, compete and how their behaviour differs from traditional economic theory. It’s a book about how, in a very complicated world, people can make smarter decisions. It was a hugely informative and interesting perspective on consumer choice.

I have also recently read Shantaram which is an incredible story that brings together cultural vibrancy and human adaptability and resilience. 

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

I depend on my smartphone to manage my daily schedule and I would be lost without my Gianoi  handbag, which charges my phone while I am on the go and lights up in different colours to tell me if I have a new text or email. It is incredible really that technology is constantly changing to meet our growing day-to-day needs.

Throughout my career, even when putting in long hours and focusing on my job, I wasn’t prepared to compromise on the one thing that enabled me to be at my best, which is my commitment to and passion for my health through fitness and sport. Through the years, I stayed involved and found time to pursue those interests. I am a firm believer that exercise keeps you alert, focused and energised.

National Digital Week returns to Skibbereen, West Cork from 10 to 12 November, expecting over 1,600 attendees for two arenas with over 80 speakers. National Digital Week 2015 was a sell-out, and you can book online for 2016 at digitalweek.ie, and follow @DigitalWeekIrl and #NDW16 on Twitter for updates.