Leaders’ Insights: Joanna Murphy, CEO, ConnectIreland

26 Aug 2015

Joanna Murphy is CEO of ConnectIreland, the IDA-backed body set up to incentivise overseas referrals that turn into job creation projects in Ireland.

Recently appointed CEO of the organisation, Murphy previously held the position of chief operations officer.

ConnectIreland has spearheaded more than 50 projects that came from referrals and which created more than 1,500 jobs in Ireland.

The most recent project from New York-headquartered digital business company 6D Global Technologies is to create 60 new jobs at a new European operations hub in Dublin.

Describe your role and what you do.

I am the chief executive officer of ConnectIrelanda truly unique and exciting organisation, which has tried, pretty successfully I think it is fair to say (50 projects and counting), to turn the power of our great diaspora into jobs — that is the single purpose. Together with IDA Ireland we deliver a Government-backed programme called the Succeed in Ireland Initiative.

In my day-to-day role, I am involved in promoting all that is good about Ireland and its people, with the aim of creating much-needed employment. Selling Ireland is not a hard task and working in close partnership with professionals such as those in IDA Ireland to promote ‘brand Ireland’ is inspiring stuff. We do that through reaching out to people around the globe, as well as advancing our partnerships with organisations and communities across Ireland and internationally. We have had thousands of companies introduced to us over the past three years and it is a very exciting place to be, even on a wet Monday morning.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

It is something that I learned many years ago and that has stood to me ever since: I try to focus on what is important, not what is urgent. I keep my efforts aligned with my purpose.

My purpose is simply to create a conduit to help create jobs with our remarkable family of connectors. Our focus is really on relationships and a positive Ireland message. In order to develop any of these relationships you need, I think, to approach them one at a time and with full presence and that is when you see your network grow and the message being propagated. That celebration of all that is good is so important to us and even more important to those of us that live abroad but always with one eye on home.

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

There may be a sense that in Ireland our worst days are behind us as a country, and hopefully that is the case. However, rural Ireland is still suffering. I have travelled the length and breadth of Ireland meeting communities outside the urban centres. By engaging directly with communities throughout Ireland, we are reaching out to their networks and working on creating employment regionally.

Growing our connector network and keeping the Succeed in Ireland message fresh is an ongoing challenge. That is why we constantly adapt our strategies to ensure that people engage with us and become proactive connectors.

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

As a people, the Irish are very well connected. There is a diaspora of 70m across the globe and Ireland is well thought of by other nations. Ireland has a strong track record of attracting global multinationals, which makes a compelling case for companies to choose Ireland for their business expansion. Our remit is to add value to IDA Ireland by bringing them introductions, typically through our diaspora, to companies they wouldn’t have known about before. It’s smart and it works, we are fast approaching 2,000 jobs approved under the programme.

What set you on the road to where you are?

I have always been entrepreneurially minded, having founded and ran two previous companies. I so admire innovation and creativity and that was the first thing that struck me about ConnectIreland. I can remember going down the escalator in Terminal 2 in Dublin Airport listening to JFK talking about what it means to be Irish. I was with my three small children and my husband at the time heading off on our summer holiday. By the time I got to the bottom of the escalator, I was hooked. It framed for me (and this was at the height of the recession) that the Irish had ingenuity beyond belief.


‘Ireland has a strong track record of attracting global multinationals, which makes a compelling case for companies to choose Ireland for their business expansion’

I registered as a connector and many months later came across a company that was looking to expand to Europe; the company didn’t progress but I was bitten by the ConnectIreland bug. Simply put, it inspired me and I jumped at the chance to be involved with the project.

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

My biggest mistake commercially was being too trusting. I believe passionately in allowing people to do their own job and I have always had an aversion to micromanaging. I like to trust the people that work with me and I hope that they trust me also. I have learned over the years, however, to hone that trust just a little, and it is now more from the Ronald Regan school of hard knocks: “trust but verify”.

That said, I believe that you learn more in failure that you ever do in success. I also feel it is important to create an environment that it’s okay to fail in. Try it, if it works, great, if it doesn’t, call it quickly and move on. In my opinion, that’s how to create an environment of innovation in an organisation.

How do you get the best out of your team?

I let them do their job. Having employed fantastic people you then need to get out of their way. Somewhere in the back of my head rests that old adage of ‘disagree and commit’. What that means from a ConnectIreland perspective is that dialogue is open, everyone’s opinion is heard and everyone’s opinion is important. When all the ideas are heard and everyone is done, I have no problem making the decision, but it generally makes itself. Our staff are amazing and the team is incredibly tight with very different skill sets and a good spread on the personality profile scale too, which is very important.

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?

I think we need to teach our daughters and our sons differently.

We need to address how mathematics is taught, certainly, but that is only one part of the problem. How inherited stereotypes and unconscious bias are impeding the development of girls, their own perception of themselves, is the real issue. As a mother to a teenage girl, I feel we need to start by reframing our language with our sons and daughters.

‘Stay the hell away from negative people and work with solution finders’

Here in Ireland, however, we have been witness to some really great improvements regarding the involvement of women and minority groups. The inaugural Inspirefest, organised by Silicon Republic and supported by ConnectIreland, this year was a major step towards changing the ratio and challenging preconceptions about women in STEM. DCU’s Girls Hack is another fantastic initiative and Brian MacCraith has done a remarkable job effecting change in this area in his role as president of DCU.

Who is your business hero and why?

Easy, Terry Clune of Taxback Group. And not just because he is the founder of ConnectIreland! His tenacity and determination to grow the ConnectIreland idea into a functioning job creation model is inspiring. It was difficult because it has never been done before but Terry has been utterly relentless and committed to delivering this programme.

The unique thing I have observed about him is that he finds the problem first and then sees where the opportunity lies, it’s a remarkable thing to witness.

What books have you read that you would recommend?

It depends of the mood:

For business:

Good to Great – Jim Collins and  The Lean Startup – Eric Ries.

For pleasure:

The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins (of course); The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde (so pithy and fun); The Pillars of the Earth – Ken Follett (but you won’t be able to put it down and it’s a big read, so be careful or you will lose sleep).

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

One tool and one resource: a positive frame of mind, that’s all you need. Stay the hell away from negative people and work with solution finders.