Declan Hughes

Declan Hughes is a founder and managing partner of The Grey Matters Network, an organisation set up in 2015 to harness the experience and expertise of mature, seasoned business professionals and to make the capability of that structured network available to both corporates and SMEs. For corporates the attraction is getting access to seasoned professionals with a proven track record to augment their existing teams, usually for specific projects or to consult on a particular business challenge. The attraction for SMEs is getting access to advice and mentoring from people with real-world experience in their industry sector and access to people who are passionate about helping our indigenous SMEs get access to the best possible experience and expertise at a price point that makes sense to those SMEs.

Declan has worked in technology for nearly 40 years in semi-state, private and PLC organisations starting his career as a trainee technician in the Department of Posts and Telegraphs! He has spent the last 20 years running I.T. services and consultancy companies. Declan has always had a strong belief in Corporate Social Responsibility and this has been a key element of all the companies he has owned or run. For the last 5 years, he has been a non-exec director on the board of the ISPCC and would hold strong views on successive governments’ reliance on the not-for-profit sector for basic social services. Having been lucky enough to have had his nascent leadership traits recognised and nurtured, he is passionate about giving other aspiring leaders the sort of opportunities he was fortunate to have and to help them on that journey. The Grey Matters Network is an excellent vehicle to achieve that especially for those working in the SME sector who often have difficulty in accessing development programmes.

Can leadership be taught? If so, how?

I think some people are born with leadership traits and some aren’t, just like some people are born with artistic traits and some aren’t. To be a good leader you either have to be taught how to develop those inherent traits or you might be lucky enough to develop them through (usually painful) experiences. Leadership can be taught to people with the right traits by making them more self-aware, by showing how the key traits can be developed and by getting them hands-on experience of working with good leaders.

What do you think is the difference between management and leadership?

Good management is the art of getting things done – through good organisation, attention to detail and the ability to motivate people to achieve an end. Good leadership is about the ability to inspire people to believe they can do extraordinary things, to be able to create a vision and to get people to buy into that vision because they want to be part of it. And to sustain that commitment to that vision through all the ups and downs. Leadership is the ability to sometimes say – stop, I made a mistake.

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?

Make leadership a topic in secondary schools. Enable young people to identify effective leaders in business, sports, politics or just normal life and be able to articulate what makes that person a good leader. Help them to be self-aware and understand whether or not being a leader lights their fire. Put more emphasis on leadership in every third level course. Every smart organisation of every size should be looking for potential leaders they can develop but some need help. “Leadership for Growth” was an excellent initiative from Enterprise Ireland in the for-profit export space but there are large tracts of for-profit and most of the not-for-profit space that is not served well. If we as a society are happy to outsource huge areas of social services to the not-for-profit sector then it surely makes sense to actively grow the leadership skills in that sector.

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

Not surrounding themselves with the smartest people they can find. A leaders job is definitely not to be the smartest person in the room. The job is to inspire and enable people who have chosen to follow you to fully realise their potential.

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

Take a deep breath, do a mindfulness session, run, swim – whatever it is that gives your head a little peace. You have a much better chance of making good decisions if you can stop the turmoil in your brain for a little while. Don’t be afraid to go to people you trust and look for their advice – it’s not a sign of weakness. At the end of the day, believe in yourself and make the decision, it’s your job as a leader.

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

There are some great TED talks and the book ‘Good to Great’ by Jim Collins has some interesting insights. ‘Start with Why’ by Simon Sinek is a really interesting read and some of his talks are excellent. But I think the key is not to live in an echo chamber. Seek out unusual takes on leadership such as ‘Turn the Ship Around’ by David Marquet.