Already an experienced businesswoman before she branched out on her own, Ciara Donlon’s background is in marketing. She has a BSc in Management & Marketing and over 15 years’ experience in marketing in large corporates including RBS, Irish Life & Permanent and Vodafone as Head of the Online Channel. Ciara always dreamed of building a business of her own. In 2010, she set up a lingerie retail business in Ranelagh in Dublin. Many women undergoing treatment for breast cancer came into her shop looking for a comfortable and feminine bra to wear post surgery. Ciara was stunned when she couldn’t find anything suitable on the market. The plight of these women was something very close to Ciara’s heart, as her grandmother, Rose, had undergone a double mastectomy as a result of breast cancer. It was Ciara’s desire to do something to help these women through their recovery that was the catalyst for the creation of THEYA Healthcare and after conducting a feasibility study it became clear that there was a big gap in the market.
Ciara secured significant private investment as well as becoming a High Potential Start-Up client of Enterprise Ireland. Since the company started trading in 2015, Ciara has won and been shortlisted for many high profile awards. In 2017 alone, she won Laureate for Europe in the Cartier Women’s Initiative awards and was shortlisted for both the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year (Emerging category) and the Matheson WMB Female Entrepreneur of the Year.
Can leadership be taught? If so, how?
It’s true that some people seem to be born with the ability to lead while others struggle to be good leaders, but I think it is untrue to say it cannot be taught. The real question is whether a person is willing to learn. Many ‘leaders’ stumble into their role without the necessary skillset, for example through promotion or through setting up their own business. The good ones are those that find themselves in a leadership position and then take concrete steps to hone their skillset to lead more effectively.
What do you think is the difference between management and leadership?
Management is about enabling your team to do their jobs and coordinating cross functional activities in order to deliver on objectives. Leadership is about inspiring people, showing them their role in the bigger picture and letting them know how their contribution makes a difference, leadership is about reaching the hearts of people to motivate them.
The world around us is changing faster than at any time in human history and we need more leaders to emerge. How do we make this happen?
Personally, I think the leadership imbalance that exists between men and women is doing a disservice, not just to women, but to the world as a whole. After all the world is made up of 51% women, yet only 6% of world leaders are female. Empowering more women to take up leadership roles to redress this imbalance will ultimately benefit everyone. I’m a strong believer that if you can see it you can be it. The more that little girls see women in leadership positions the more likely they are to envisage themselves in those roles and work towards that goal. This may take some time, given that today only 2% of all venture capital money goes to women and those women that do secure it get on average 5 times less than their male counterparts. Most Fortune 500 companies were originally backed by venture capital money, today only 6% of those companies are led by women. In order to see real change at the top of these global giants we need to first see change at the base of the pyramid, through funding more females to grow such companies. I feel passionately about this and I hope to be in a position one day to invest in female led companies to help make a more balanced leadership landscape a reality faster.
What is the one mistake you witness leaders making more frequently than others?
Trying to control everything. A good leader knows his/her strengths and builds a team that compliments those strengths. Once you’ve built that strong team around you, you have to delegate and then trust them to do what they do best. By trying to stay on top of every detail, you’ll quickly lose sight of the bigger picture.
What advice would you give to someone dealing with a high-pressure situation in their life or work?
Back yourself. As an entrepreneur, you encounter a lot of very high-pressure situations where your confidence may waver. What you very quickly learn is that keeping a cool head is crucial if you want to navigate such situations successfully. Most people are more resourceful than they give themselves credit for, so believing you can deal with a situation is the first and most important step to actually dealing with it.
What are a few resources (books, blogs, podcasts, courses etc) you would recommend to someone looking to gain insight into becoming a better leader?
“The Female Lead: Women Who Shape Our World” by Edwina Dunn
“Why Should Anyone Be Led by You?: What It Takes To Be An Authentic Leader” by Robert Goffee
“The Big Leap” by Gay Hendricks
“The Universe has your back” by Gabby Bernstein