Liz O’Donnell was born in Dublin, educated in Dublin and Limerick and studied law in Trinity College. Before politics Liz worked in law and banking. She was elected to Dublin City council for the Rathmines Ward in 1991 and to the Dail as TD for Dublin South (Progressive Democrats) in 1992. She served as a TD for fifteen years and was a Minister of State at the Dept of Foreign Affairs from 1997 to 2002. She was a member of the negotiating team in the multi party talks leading to the Good Friday Agreement. She also had responsibility for the Irish Overseas Aid and Human Rights Programme and oversaw an expansion of the aid budget when Minister. She was a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee and the Committee of Procedures and Privileges of the Dail for ten years. She was the only female member of the Commission of the Houses of the Oireachtas from 2002 to 2007 and was Deputy Leader of her party.
She left politics in 2007 and took up a career in broadcasting journalism and public affairs consultancy. She was appointed Chairperson of the Road Safety Authority in 2014 and is a member of the Board of the Chernobyl Children International charity. For several years Liz had a political column with the Irish Independent. She joined MSD Ireland in January 2017 as Director of Policy, Government Affairs and Communications.
Can leadership be taught? If so, how?
Yes I believe leadership skills can be improved by mentoring and also by aspiring leaders watching and learning from their colleagues in positions of authority/leadership in their organisation. I learned my leadership skills by observing my political colleagues and party leaders Mary Harney and Des O’ Malley as a young TD in the 1990s. Watching them analysing situations, making policy and taking public positions on matters of political importance was a unique privilege. I was fortunate in having such strong personalities as colleagues and mentors as I developed my political skills. Leadership is not about “following the leader”; it is about taking stock of a situation, having the courage to take a considered position; sticking by that decision and being accountable for it when implemented. It may not always turn out to be the correct or wisest decision but there is an integrity in taking responsibility for one’s decision as a leader.
If you had to leave your organisation for 1 year what would you ask of your team and what advice would you give them?
No one person is indispensable. A good team should be able to function properly and effectively without the boss. I would ask the team to carry on the work we had been doing and even expand on that endeavour. As a leader in my organisation related to the corporate reputation of the company, I would advise the team to hold firm to the values and ethos which we have strived to develop for the organisation. Transparency, corporate social responsibility and candour in all dealings with customers and stakeholders. Keeping the focus on patients and on the global anthem of the company MSD, which is Inventing for Life.
What are you doing today to make sure your organisation will be relevant in 10 years time?
MSD is a global pharmaceutical company which employs over 1700 people in Ireland. The company has a long footprint in Ireland of over fifty years and is continuing to invest in Ireland. We are working hard to establish MSD as a highly regarded and respected corporate healthcare player in Ireland, providing high quality employment and producing ground breaking innovative medicines and vaccines for the global market. Access to a highly educated and diverse workforce is essential for our productivity so we are collaborating with Government to sustain that talent particularly in STEM to ensure we can continue to innovate and invent for life in Ireland. Fortune Magazine this month listed MSD as first among its peers for innovation and second overall across our industry. This was in a list of the world’s most admired companies.
What leaders outside your own organisation do you admire and why?
I admire our President Michael D. Higgins. I worked with him for many years as a TD in the Dail and can vouch for his integrity and inspirational leadership qualities. I admired greatly the late Peter Sutherland for his advocacy on the rights of refugees. I also admire Hillary Clinton and Senator George Mitchell with whom I worked in the talks leading up to the Good Friday Agreement.
If you could wind back the clock to when you were starting your career what advice would you give yourself?
Fortunately, I have no real or overwhelming regrets about my career. I studied law in college but realised pretty soon that a legal career as a solicitor or barrister was not for me so I deviated into politics. But this deviation came about quite by accident rather than design. I expect I could have been more organised in my career development plan but I am not like that. I tend to run with the opportunities as they arise and make the best of them. As a working politician, I probably overworked and this posed a risk to my health and to time commitment to my family. But politics is particularly preoccupying and fast moving. It is notoriously difficult to find a work/life balance. Politics is also unreliable and insecure as a career so looking back I probably should have continued and completed my professional legal qualifications so that I could pick it up on leaving politics. But in the round it all worked out and I exited politics young enough to have a second career in business and media.
What are a few resources (books, blogs, podcasts, courses etc) you would recommend to someone looking to gain insight into becoming a better leader?
I prefer to watch leaders in real time rather than read books on the topic. I like biographies of leaders though and find that they give a better insight into leadership qualities than textbooks or courses.