Clíona O’Leary

Clíona O’Leary is Deputy Head of RTÉ TV Sport. A native of Drimoleague, West Cork, Clíona holds an Hons Degree in Media & Communications and English (TEFL & NCEF) and a 1st class Hons MSc in Sports Management. Clíona has been with RTÉ Sport since 1997,and formerly held the following roles there – Assistant Commissioning Editor, Editor on GAA/Soccer/Rugby/Olympics output and Away Team Leader on the Beijing and Rio Olympics. In recent years, Cliona, who’s Masters thesis was on the subject of  ‘The role of sports coaches in young people’s mental health’, has taken a keen interest in equality and social justice, particularly in the area of women’s sport, with a special focus on the positive contribution which Public Service Broadcasters can make in this regard.

Clíona is Chair of the European Broadcasting Union’s Women in Sport Expert Group, represents RTÉ on the Federation of Irish Sport’s 20×20 Steering Group, and is the chair of RTE’s internal 20×20 committee, where she is also a designated Diversity Champion.  Clíona is also Chair of Ranelagh Gaels Diversity and Inclusion sub-committee and lead coach with the U8 girls team.

Can leadership be taught? If so, how?

We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.” Ernest Hemingway.

In my opinion the skills required to be a good leader can be learned and developed. With a growth mindset, leadership is learned from our day-to-day interactions with people including: our parents, siblings, teachers, friends, team mates, and colleagues. The ability to reflect on our experiences and exposure all combine to build the person into a good leader. There are also a lot of really good studies and courses out there, with tools available on leadership strategies. I learned quite a lot from a leadership module I completed in the Masters in Sports Management in UCD last year, but I was actually very reluctant to complete this as I feel I have so much more to learn in this area.

What has sport taught you about leadership?

I have been lucky enough to play sport, coach sport and work in sport, so sport has taught me a huge amount about the importance of collaboration to deliver change. Leadership is all about self-awareness, taking the time to observe and listen, making a decision, communicating it effectively, and then empowering the team to deliver. All of those traits are critical to team work on the field of play, and learning the skills as part of a fun pursuit as a young person is really powerful.

Sport has also taught me from a young age that, if you really believe in something no matter what the odds, then commit and persevere and you’ll see that anything is possible.

And more recently as a GAA coach, it reinforced the fact that the primary role of the sports coach is to develop and optimise the performance of individuals and teams. In addition to the training plan and skills development, the communication and support around all of that indirectly and directly is really critical. I have learnt the importance of inclusivity, that there is a place for all of the population in sport, much about ability is subjective, every person has a role and people involved in leadership in sport have a responsibility to teach everyone to respect people as individuals and encourage people to form their expectations and interactions differently to suit people’s strengths. Playing sport also taught me to be empathetic and humble.

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?

We need to encourage people to be open minded; to recognise that no one has all of the answers, life is a constant journey of learning. If you are in a leadership position you need to be cognizant of ingrained practices and structures and understand how to tackle injustice. One area that interests me and I have put a lot of time into personally and professionally is the area of unconscious bias. It is really important for those of us in areas of dominance to put the right processes in place to amplify the voices of people in marginalised groups. We need to empower people to speak up. By encouraging people to speak up, it creates a questioning environment which promotes conversations that question rather than reinforce the status quo. A strong leader seeks contrasting opinions and honest disagreement, and this will deliver more leaders.

What is the one mistake you witness leaders making more frequently than others?

Not listening to others and making assumptions way too often without checking their bias. Put the team first and show gratitude for the work people put in.

What advice would you give to someone dealing with a high-pressure situation in their life or work?

In my experience I would suggest one should not try and ignore it, as I have done this and it eventually manifests in my body as an illness etc. Generally what works for me is to try and break the issue down and write out the potential solutions to try and release the pressure. It helps to speak to someone you trust to work through this process. When it comes to a high-pressure situation in work, if it is short term then keeping healthy and trying to maintain a good work/life balance is important to be able to perform optimally. If it is high pressure over a longer period, then one really needs to consider the pros and cons of the situation and weigh up the benefits versus the negatives to decide if it is worth it.

What are a few resources (books, blogs, podcasts, people, courses etc) you would recommend to someone looking to gain insight into becoming a better leader?

I look for opportunities to meet new people, courses make you focus on topics and explore areas in different ways, try to attend courses…. I follow the Harvard Business Review (HBR) on twitter and find a lot of their articles really instructive; I also listen to the HBR Women at work podcast.