Paula Cunniffe

Paula Cunniffe is CEO of the Mark Pollock Trust, named after Irish adventure athlete Mark Pollock who suffered a catastrophic spinal cord injury in 2010 that left him paralysed. A key part of this role is managing a global run series called Run in the Dark with 25,000 participants taking part in 50 cities around the world. She spent 4 years as a strategic communications specialist working on communications projects with a focus on digital marketing and events in the Department of the Taoiseach. Prior to working in the public sector, she produced TV and radio documentaries broadcast on Setanta Sports, RTÉ Radio 1, Newstalk and Lyric FM. She holds a BA in Journalism and Irish degree from DIT and a Master’s in Broadcast Journalism from the University of Florida. She is a Director on the Board of Social Finance Foundation and Hockey Ireland and is the former President and Communications Officer of Loreto Hockey Club.

Under what conditions do you get your best work done?

I get my best work done with a committed team focused on a common goal. At the Mark Pollock Trust, we believe that to solve life’s big problems – like curing paralysis – we need to work together. It’s easy to become too busy or preoccupied with your own work to lift your head to see what other people are working on, and to find ways to work together. But, to get to the next level and make exciting breakthroughs, we need to think and work collaboratively – whether that’s within your team, your organisation, or across organisations. The challenge, of course, is competing agendas, which is where the common goal comes in – find the common thread to enable those collaborations to happen.

Our annual fundraiser, Run in the Dark, which takes place in 50 cities on 5 continents each November, is also a hugely collaborative effort. I work with a small, dedicated team at HQ in Dublin looking after logistics, sales, customer service, marketing, sponsorship, volunteer management… the list goes on. But, with 25,000 people taking part in Run in the Dark all around the world, it just wouldn’t succeed without teams of people who are passionate and committed to making it happen. We work with hundreds of volunteers from Sydney to San Francisco. We’re all working towards a common goal, which makes the hard work worthwhile.

As organisations get larger there’s often a tendency toward dampening inspiration. How do you encourage creative thinking within your or your client’s organisations?

For a number of years, I used to keep a post-it note permanently stuck to my computer screen with one word written on it: why. It’s been a mantra throughout my career working in both large and small organisations: why are we doing what we’re doing – what’s the higher purpose? It was described to me recently as “What is your North Star?”

Every decision I make is made through that filter: the “why”. And, that carries through to the entire team. Once everyone keeps the “why” to the forefront of their mind, it’s easy to follow through on how to make that happen. It’s also a good barometer when you need to decide which avenues to pursue, and those to pass by. It’s perhaps easier to do in a small team or small organisation but should be a common thread when organisations start to scale, even if that means keeping a post-it note stuck to your screen!

One aspect of our purpose is to help people achieve more than they thought possible. This could be someone running their first 5km at Run in the Dark, supporting scientists to make great breakthroughs, or helping a paralysed person access an exoskeleton for rehabilitation. It’s as much an internal purpose as an external one, so I encourage the team to push themselves, to try, to experiment, to learn new things. No one should be so afraid to fail that they don’t try; that’s when creativity starts to wane. I think people should always be experimenting and learning. That doesn’t have to be formal classroom learning, it could be as simple as talking to colleagues or mentors, or listening to an interesting podcast on your commute to work.

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

You sometimes see leaders who create, in their eyes, a world-class strategy. They present the strategy to the team and make two assumptions: firstly, that the team understands it and, secondly, that they understand how to translate it into a work program. Once the leader communicates the strategy they think, “job done,” and tick the “strategy” box.

But reality and perception just don’t line up.

Being a constant and clear communicator with your team is a challenge, but it has to be a priority for any good leader. Once just isn’t enough. It may seem obvious, but unless your team can repeat back what you’ve just communicated, chances are they haven’t understood you.

If you had to name three characteristics of great leaders what would they be?

I’ve played hockey since I was a child and in the last two years in my role as a CEO, I’ve noticed lots of parallels with sports teams and business teams.

Communication – open, clear communication with your team is the most important characteristic for a leader. For some people that can be a challenge – perhaps you think it’s taking too much time, or that it takes you away from your own work. But you need to look at it as your number one responsibility every day. And, you need to be approachable, so that your team feel that they can openly communicate with you, good or bad.

Collaboration – I favour a collaborative approach as a leader. Once your team feel they’re part of the decision making, they’re more likely to be committed and take ownership of their role within the team. The same goes for a hockey team; no one person is going to both defend your end and score the winning goal. Only by working together can you make that possible.

Composure and focus – everyone has an off day, but by and large, I think a great leader should be focused on the end goal, and stay calm and composed. I’ve seen teams on the sports pitch get stressed and start taking it out on each other – even when they’re winning! It doesn’t help your team if you lose your cool, either in front of them or at them.

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?

“New Power” by Jeremy Heimans
Masters of scale podcast
“Good to Great” by Jim Collins

What advice would you give your younger self?

I started my career in TV and radio production, I’ve worked in strategic communications and I now run a non-profit. So it’s safe to say my career has changed course from what I thought I’d be doing when I was in college – a radio producer.

I’d tell my younger self to learn as many skills as you can and to be open to taking some turns in your career, knowing that a strong skillset is transferrable across roles and industry. Journalism and communications are fantastic transferrable skills, and as spokesperson for both Run in the Dark and the Mark Pollock Trust, I call on those skills regularly.