Susan O’Dwyer

As Chief Executive of Make-A-Wish Ireland and a leading figure in the Irish charity sector, Susan O’Dwyer manages a team of more than 200 professionals and volunteers all working together to grant life-changing wishes for children living with serious illnesses. Susan has a long and distinguished track record spanning 25 years within the Irish not-for-profit sector.

Since its establishment, Make-A-Wish Ireland has granted over 2,250 wishes for children living with life-threatening illnesses such as cancer and cystic fibrosis. 2017 saw the organisation grant 221 wishes – the most of any year since its establishment in Ireland in 1992. Making wishes come true can have a hugely positive impact on a child and their families, giving strength, hope and joy. Susan’s mission is for Make-A-Wish to grant wishes to every eligible child in Ireland, bringing hope and happiness to seriously ill children and their families by uniting and inspiring communities. Prior to her appointment as Chief Executive, Susan held the position of Development and Fundraising Manager at Make-A-Wish where she drove the development of corporate partnerships. Susan significantly increased the organisation’s corporate support base and the professional pro-bono expertise that enables Make-A-Wish to positively impact more and more sick children, year on year.

Can leadership be taught? If so, how?

There are natural born leaders of course, however, leadership involves constant learning and being very self-aware. Personally, I have learnt through experience, mentoring and indeed an understanding that making mistakes is okay as long as you learn from them. I think passion is crucial too as a leader must inspire followers – so the first step to becoming a leader is finding a cause you are passionate about! I believe you continue to grow as a leader if you work with a team that pushes you, a team that will have skill sets you don’t have, a team that wants to be the best they can be. Motivation is not only from the top down.

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

The standard answer to this question is, “leaders have people who follow them and managers have people who work with them”. Over the last few years, I believe that it is important to motivate every member of your team to become a leader – to be the best they can be. An inspirational team as a whole can make an enormous difference and makes for an exciting and spirited work environment.

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?

Some of the key attributes a leader needs to have include decisiveness, integrity and passion, as well as the ability to grab opportunities and to lead by example. However, the ability to embrace change is probably the most critical. I have a saying, “‘it will do’, won’t.” Never settle, whether in your work or personal life. Change helps you to grow, learn, adapt and be more flexible and ultimately enjoy whatever you are doing. We need to empower individuals to push for change, rather than rely on their manager or CEO to drive new initiatives. We need to inspire people to reach for the stars, try new initiatives and succeed where they never thought possible. This all involves taking measured risks and sometimes making mistakes but if we let a fear of failure stop us, there would be no progress!

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

The biggest mistake I see leaders make is not delegating. A true leader must recognise skill sets and talents in others and must listen to the wisdom they can offer. It’s always important to encourage your team to share their insights and to listen when they do so.

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

As I find it impossible to be still and just switch off, yoga and meditation are out for me! Personally, I deal with high-pressure situations by pursuing passions outside of work, like learning Portuguese or taking boxing lessons. I also prioritise self-care at times when I am under pressure. It isn’t always easy to find the time to indulge in a massage or just take a walk on the beach but I remind myself that it is important.

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

  • “Effective Leadership – how to be a successful leader” by John Adair
  • “Leading Change” by John P. Kotter
  • “The one thing” by Gary Keller with Jay Papasan – an absolute must read

Of course one of the best ways to learn is to communicate – talk to peers, learn to share your challenges as a problem shared is definitely halved. As senior leaders it is felt that if we show vulnerability in that we not sure which way to go, we will be seen as weak and doubt, uncertainty and low morale will creep in. However, my belief is that demonstrating that vulnerability makes you human. Nobody is perfect, nobody can do everything. A true leader understands that inspiring a team to strive for their job will mean that you have been successful. A leader enables a team to be equal with a focus on the ultimate goal or mission.