Leaders’ Insights: Caroline Spillane, Engineers Ireland

3 Mar 2016

Caroline Spillane is director general of Engineers Ireland.

Prior to undertaking this role at Engineers Ireland, where she leads a 23,000-member strong organisation, Caroline Spillane was the CEO of the Irish Medical Council.

She has also held senior roles in the HSE, including acting as CEO of the Crisis Pregnancy agency.

Spillane is an economics graduate of University College Cork, and also holds an MA from Dublin Institute of Technology.

Describe your role and what you do.

With more than 23,000 members from every discipline of engineering, Engineers Ireland is the voice of the engineering profession in Ireland. We have been representing the engineering profession since 1835, making us one of the oldest and largest professional bodies in Ireland. Members come from every discipline of engineering, and range from engineering students to fellows of the profession. My role as director general is to work with and harness the extraordinary contribution of our hundreds of volunteers and our staff for the benefit of the engineering profession.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

The organisation has an overarching business plan and my focus and that of all the staff is to see every aspect of it implemented. One of our priorities is to further develop Engineers Ireland as a member-centric organisation so that features as a high priority on my to-do list.

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

I have travelled extensively around the country to meet with our engineer members and employers to get their feedback on what our focus should be. Based on this, I believe that we need to work on building the profile and enhancing the status and reputation of the engineering profession. We also need to be supporting and growing our membership and collaborating with them to enable their professional progression both in Ireland and abroad.

What are the key industry opportunities you’re capitalising on?

Our medical technology and biopharmaceutical industries are thriving and further expansion in both will create opportunities for engineers across a range of disciplines. Civil, electrical, technological and construction-related engineering skills are in great demand to meet the requirements of our growing economy and to deliver on the Government’s capital plan, which includes major development of infrastructure over the next six years and beyond.

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

To borrow a phrase from [American business executive] Jack Welch “I’ve learned that mistakes can often be as good a teacher as success”. The need to consult with people early on in a project to get buy-in is a lesson I’ve learned – the hard way.

How do you get the best out of your team?

One of the responsibilities of a CEO is to pick the right people for the right roles and then give them the opportunity to spread their wings.

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?

While there is more uptake in engineering at third level in recent years, the gender divide persists and the profession still has to overcome its long-standing challenge of attracting and retaining female engineers. The lack of focus on and provision of STEM subjects in primary and post-primary girls schools is a problem that needs to be addressed if we want to see more young women studying STEM at third level and going on to pursue careers in STEM.

Positive role models can be a powerful way to demonstrate the potential of a career in engineering to young people. Initiatives such as Engineers Week and the Engineers Ireland STEPS programme bring engineering to life by helping young people to understand engineering as a career.

Who is your business hero and why?

From an engineering perspective, Dr Thomas A McLoughlin, who in the 1920s proposed damming the River Shannon and building an electric power station at Ardnacrusha, Co Clare. The effect of this was to bring power to cities and towns around Ireland, paving the way for Ireland to become a modern economy.

What books have you read that you would recommend?

The Practice of Adaptive Leadership – because you need to diagnose the problem before you take action.

The Improvement Guide – a practical read for any manager who wishes to improve the performance of an organisation.

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

Good old-fashioned checklists, my Outlook calendar and my smartphone.

Women Invent is Silicon Republic’s campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. It has been running since March 2013, and is kindly supported by Intel, Open Eir (formerly Eircom Wholesale), Fidelity Investments, Accenture and CoderDojo.