Audrey O'Sullivan, General Counsel / Legal Director at SIRO
General Counsel / Legal Director at SIRO, Audrey O'Sullivan successfully completed her UCD Diploma in Business & Executive Coaching and UCD Diploma in Corporate Governance and is currently undertaking the UCD Diploma in Advanced Business & Executive Coaching at UCD Smurfit School.
SIRO General Counsel and UCD Diploma in Business & Executive Coaching graduate Audrey O’Sullivan has had a busy year by any standards. Not only has she added to her diploma with an advanced coaching programme at UCD, but she has played a key role (with colleagues) in the process which saw SIRO, the joint broadband communications venture between Vodafone and ESB, rolling out Ireland's only 100% fibre broadband network, raise €620 million in funding from International and Irish banks, including the European Investment Bank in 2021.
She describes the funding deal as a fantastic project to be involved with. “I’ve been with SIRO since the beginning in 2015,” she says. “We have more than 420,000 homes and businesses passed now and are completing phase one and moving into phase two of our rollout. The funding project took up all our energy this year and will finance our next spurt of growth over the next five years.”
To put its significance in context, the funding round will almost double SIRO’s reach to an additional 320,000 homes and businesses, bringing the total to 770,000 premises across 154 towns in Ireland.
A corporate lawyer who trained with McCann Fitzgerald, technology and communications have been continuing themes in her career. Back at the very beginning of telecommunications deregulation in Ireland she worked with Ocean, a joint venture between BT and ESB, which was offering voice telephony services at the time.
“That was in the very early days of the deregulated market,” she recalls. “It was a challenger business trying to carve out a space in the market.”
She also spent five years as Chief Counsel with BT Ireland before moving to the UK to join information technology, IP and fintech specialist legal firm Axiom Law. While there she worked on secondment for three years with payments firm Worldpay.
“Worldpay spun out of RBS after the global financial crash,” she explains. “There was a lot of migration of technology systems out of RBS into the new company and onto a new technology platform. It was a very enjoyable experience. The company IPOed just as I was moving back to Ireland to join SIRO in 2015.”
Her journey with UCD Smurfit Executive Development began with the Diploma in Corporate Governance. Her interest in the programme was triggered by working in a start-up company and the need to establish best in class corporate governance from the outset.
“The corporate governance programme in UCD caught my attention. It is such an impactful programme. For example, one of the lecturers, Dr Margaret Cullen, does a fascinating module on board behaviour which looked at functioning boards and dysfunctional boards. I really wanted to know more about that. It focuses on the underlying dynamics of personalities and how they can lead to situations where people feel they are not able to speak up or challenge if they have a contrary view.”
She believes such behaviours can be the difference between success and failure for a business. “I thought about how few people spoke up leading up to the financial crash,” she recalls. “I wanted to know how you can have effective corporate governance. That’s how I segued into Business and Executive Coaching. There are lots of things going on in the underlying psychological dynamics of an organisation and how you navigate them is very important.”
The coaching programme introduced her to very different concepts and new ways of approaching issues. “I had come from a corporate background which was very driven and focused on getting the job done,” she explains. “The coaching programme taught me to think about more than that. To think through what I was thinking, how I was feeling emotionally, my mood. It got me to think about concepts and ideas I hadn’t thought about for a long time.”
Those concepts included the core conditions for building trust. “Am I aware of my presence? Do I actively listen? Do I offer accurate empathy? It’s about honing your skills around how you interact and relate to people and teams. I learned really important skills during the programme. Sure, I had some of them already, but I was learning new ones. It’s very practical and eye opening. You have to do 100 hours of coaching during the programme.”
Those new skills included taking a more deliberative and thoughtful approach. “It’s not just about getting things done. You learn to become much more patient rather than reacting.”
Building trust with different people is another example. “With some people you build trust by doing the task with them. Others need to have a relationship first. They want to have a conversation first and then do the task. Looking back through my career, I had never paused, there were always tasks and goals to be achieved. Then you realise that the next stage mightn’t be happening because you need to take a different approach. There is a lot of reflection involved. You think about the impact you have on other people; do you realise that you might be putting them off? These are the kind of things you learn and which you can help other people with.”
And those learnings have also been of real benefit in her own workplace. “It has helped phenomenally,” she says. “When you think about the number of relationships involved in the fundraising round. We actually achieved in nine months what would normally take 18 months and during a global pandemic where most interactions were remote. If you accept that people are coming from a good place and trying to achieve something together it helps to achieve a successful outcome.”
It is also helping her colleagues. “SIRO is promoting a coaching culture within the organisation and has offered coaching for staff. I am one of three accredited coaches in SIRO, and I have two internal candidates who I have recently started supporting via coaching as part of the SIRO offering which includes mentoring and buddying support. I have also been a mentor with the Law Society of Ireland for the past seven years. All the skills I learned in Smurfit are very applicable to my work there.”
“I now need to complete the Masters in Business (Leadership & Management Practice),” she adds. “I will probably cap that off with another final diploma (as required) next year.”
And she has no hesitation in recommending the programme to others. “You find a lot of people are doing amazing jobs, but they are not always connecting with their colleagues or managers because they are overly task focused to deliver. More balance is needed for leadership. One of the benefits of coaching is that it helps you see your own blind spots and see yourself as others do. And you can help other people see their blind spots in a safe controlled environment and help them to be more successful. That’s a huge benefit of the programme.”