Miriam O'Keeffe

Miriam O'Keeffe

Member Network and Programmes Director at American Chamber of Commerce Ireland

Member Network and Programmes Director at American Chamber of Commerce Ireland. Miriam was awarded an MSc Business (Leadership and Management Practice) after completing the MSc Pathway at UCD Smurfit Executive Development in 2020.

Tell us about your educational and career background?

When I left school I went to college for a year but I really didn’t know what I wanted to do at that stage. So I ended up spending my twenties training to be a chef and working in reception in a large London hotel before moving into more managerial roles. I got into the habit of saying, ‘I’ll try it’, and that’s how my career has developed. 

I joined the American Chamber of Commerce Ireland 18 years ago as finance and operations manager. Even though the chamber is 60 years old this year, it hadn’t been a commercial organisation up to that point so it was the early stages and there were lots of opportunities for personal growth.

My job has expanded as the chamber has grown over the last 18 years. I’m now member network and programmes director and I spend most of my time facilitating our members in learning from, meeting and talking to each other. It means I’m quite frequently in rooms with people who are experts at what they do but they need me to help them connect. 

Why did you decide to do the MSc in Business (Leadership & Management Practice) Pathway?

About six or seven years ago I increasingly wanted to know more about the foundation knowledge a lot of these people have from coming through colleges. I wanted to have the language they use and the toolkits and also to understand what I did know and what I didn’t. 

I’ve done certificates and pieces of qualifications as the need has arisen over the years but the absence of a third-level degree was always at the back of my mind.  I was looking at various master’s degrees and they all took two or three years. I had done a post grad in human resources about 10 years ago and really enjoyed it and the fact that it was over one year. 

UCD Smurfit Executive Development’s pathway, where you could do pieces of learning that fitted into your work, really appealed to me. I liked the idea that it would be fine if I wanted to stop after doing one diploma. I would still have a stand alone Level 9 professional diploma qualification from that one year. 

Tell us about your experience of doing the MSc in Business (LMP) Pathway? 

It has given me everything I hoped it would – some of which is to do with me and some of which is to do with what I learned during the programme.  

I work with US multinationals operating in Ireland and also with Irish companies expanding into the US. I need to understand the kind of questions I have to ask if I am to be useful to them and to connect them with the right people. So it’s largely about business acumen.

The various modules within the UCD diplomas have helped me ask the questions I need to know the answers to in a structure that makes it clearer to the person that I’m asking for a particular reason. 

It was also hugely energising to both learn something brand new that I hadn’t considered before and to realise that I do actually know as much as I thought I knew.

What were your three diplomas and what did you get out of each of them?

I started on the Diploma in Advanced Management Performance (AMP), which is very complementary to what I do on a day-to-day basis. I was unbelievably nervous arriving into the classes and very daunted by the idea of having to do submissions not having written in that way for a very long time. 

I found the AMP diploma very useful for my own development as well as from a professional point of view. Even though we were talking about organisational performance I was able to use it in relation to my own understanding of how I do things and within my own life. There was a lot of very reflective aspects to it and it was a great one to start with. We also had a great class.

Arising from that was a huge improvement in my confidence, in how I deal with my own reports and with the members and various groups. 

I paused at that stage and took a year out to think about whether to go on. There’s no point doing two and then stopping – if you do a second one, you’re really committing to doing three. I found myself missing it so decided to go ahead.

My second diploma – Diploma in Strategy Development and Innovation – was revelatory for me. It has given me absolute toolkits to be concrete and confident that the direction I’m taking things in is correct from a business point of view. It has enabled me to understand why I want to do something and have structures around how I’m doing it. As I was doing the diploma we were in the process of developing a three-year strategy for the chamber so it was hugely beneficial to be able to bring what I was learning directly into the organisation.

The programme also helped me to get a real understanding of my values and my management and interaction style. I discovered that understanding our members’ motives and helping them achieve what they want to do is one of my core values, which is why I’m good at what I do. I don’t think I would have been able to articulate that five years ago. 

My final diploma of the three was the Diploma in Organisational Change and Transformation.  We completed in June 2020 and I couldn’t have done that particular programme at a better time. It gave me a very good understanding of what I was going through in relation to this change that was being forced on me – and so many others – and enabled me to help team members through the process as well. 

One of the modules was around identifying team and team coaching and I found that very useful for the current circumstances. All of that is informing the next couple of years – we’re talking a lot to companies about the future of work and what that’s going to look like. 

This programme is always relevant – we spend our lives in change; what we’ve gone through over the last year just happens to be more identifiable.

What have been the big takeaways for you? 

The key impact has been clarity, both in what and how I do what I do, but in what I can do for members. 

Starting this I felt I do what I do very well, I know what I’m about and who I am and yet the last five years have been a really interesting  journey.

There’s an increased sense of belonging about being right about some of your thinking, and at the same time not being afraid to challenge your own thinking or that of others. 

I’m much clearer now when I set out to do something about where I need to start. 

What is your advice to anyone starting a diploma or the pathway?

My first piece of advice is to select a diploma that is directly complementary to something you do. Don’t start on a full year’s course around finance if finance isn’t what you do. Start on something that is genuinely going to support you in your work.

Make sure you attend all classes. If you’re doing a module on a Friday and Saturday, try to sit down on the Sunday and write up your notes. Sketching out how you think you’re going to approach your submission for that module would also be really good use of time. 

Count not the cost but the impact. 

Make sure your colleagues and your organisation know you’re doing something. That will make it much easier for you to complete the course but also to start bringing what you’re learning back to your colleagues. 

Throw yourself into it and enjoy it!

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