Deirdre Garvey

Deirdre Garvey is the founding Chief Executive Officer of charitable non-profit The Wheel, Ireland’s association of charities, community and voluntary organisations. Ireland has over 8,500 registered charitable non-profits. Deirdre recognised that the relatively small amount of large charities in Ireland and the vast majority of small charities had much in common and set about establishing, against the odds, a network which would promote and nurture both professionalism as well as voluntarism as not mutually exclusive ideas. The Wheel was founded in 2000 and since then Deirdre has overseen its continued growth and success to be the national association of charities with over 1,300 member organisations. Its purpose is to strengthen the abilities of charities to achieve positive social change and it represents and supports the sector, promoting an understanding of getting involved.

Deirdre has served on a wide range of government committees and fora representing the sector. She is in demand as a media and public speaker on the topics of ethics and governance for charitable non-profit organisations, charities regulation, best practice in the non-profit sector and how societies can maximise the involvement and engagement of people in public decision-making. Prior to joining The Wheel, Deirdre was Director of Development (Fundraising) at Barretstown in Co. Kildare where she worked for five years. Before moving into the community and voluntary sector, Deirdre worked in the private sector, holding several managerial posts in the hi-tech field in Germany. Having studied science for her bachelors degree in 1986, she completed a Masters in Business Administration in 2003.

Can leadership be taught? If so, how?

Yes I think that leadership can be taught. Most of us know people who we think of as ‘natural leaders’. But I have a deep belief in every person’s ability to be a leader. The best ‘teaching’ of leadership is more about helping the learner become more self-aware about their own leadership potential and to help them identify the thing that makes them passionate. There are many ‘leadership programmes’ out there from universities to professional institutes and the best ones focus on emotional intelligence, growing self-knowledge and building listening skills.

When you are filling a leadership role in your organisation what qualities do you look for from candidates?

People who are self-aware, humble, passionate and who come across as someone who will work well with the culture that our organisation has. Things like knowledge is a secondary matter as that can be learned. Having the right attitude is much more important to me as that is harder to learn if a person isn’t self-aware enough to know what that means.

If you had to leave your organisation for 1 year what would you ask of your team and what advice would you give them?

I would ask my team to implement the 4-year strategy that the board of directors and our members have approved whilst being brave enough to second-guess any aspect of it with a solid rationale and make alternative suggestions to the board. Two pieces of advice: keep listening to their peers/fellow managers and also to the people who report to them because they are the ones who’ll keep the organisation successful; and secondly reconnect daily with the established (and written down) values and culture-statement of the organisation – and ensure that all decisions that they make are true to them.

What are you doing today to make sure your organisation will be relevant in 10 years time?

I am ensuring that myself and the leadership team here have regular all-day thinking and strategy sessions (once per quarter) that are distinct from operations meetings. We use this space to think about the future regularly beyond the scope of our current 4-year strategic plan. Secondly, we know that ensuring our membership renewal rates and (to a lesser extent) our membership growth rates, is the single most critically indicator of a successful sector-representative body in 10-years time.

What leaders outside your own organisation do you admire and why?

I admire the many CEOs from our member charities who do an extraordinary job delivering public benefit to improve the lives of people, families and communities all over Ireland. Having worked in the private sector prior to joining a charity, I believe that being the CEO of a charity is arguably more challenging due to the additional complexity of: a) reporting to a voluntary board of directors; and b) not having a simple definition of what success looks like (i.e. the equivalent to ‘profit’ in the private sector). It is my belief that it is my job (and The Wheel’s job) to support and release the variety of talents that such people (all leaders in their own right) bring.

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

Any resource that helps reflection and self-knowledge is to be recommended, regardless of the source. Asking leaders that you admire for a coffee and seeking to learn from them can be invaluable.