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Ben Davern

Ben Davern

5th Dec 2023

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Learn. Innovate. Lead – Insights from CEO panel at the National Leadership Conference

In today’s volatile business world, the role of CEOs and senior leaders has never been more critical. In an insightful panel discussion chaired by Professor Thia Hennessy (UCC), the National Leadership Conference welcomed three prominent CEOs – David McRedmond (An Post), Fiona Gallagher (Wells Fargo Bank International), and Paul Ryan (founder of Qualcomm Ireland) – to delve into the themes of learning, innovation and leadership, while offering insights into the war for talent, the importance of upskilling, infrastructure challenges, regulation, AI and much more.

War for talent

Fiona Gallagher delved into the pressing need for upskilling in the banking sector, shedding light on the transformative changes witnessed in the industry over the past six years. With the influx of over 50,000 people into Ireland’s financial services sector, supported by the presence of 35 international banks, the landscape has evolved significantly. This transformation has extended to various facets, encompassing the expansion of operational spaces, the establishment of EU hubs, the reshaping of job profiles with more focus on client coverage, operations, compliance, risk management, and the creation of technology and innovation labs, including cyber-security initiatives.

The highly competitive environment within the sector was also emphasised, with a constant “war for talent” that may have slowed somewhat this year but remains a critical challenge, particularly for roles deemed essential. Fiona noted that 69% of organisations within the American Chamber of Commerce in Ireland are experiencing a skills gap. The shortage of engineering talent was singled out, accentuating the need to bridge this significant skills gap, particularly in emerging fields like machine learning and artificial intelligence. While mentioning Ph.D. stipends, Fiona stressed the imperative for more substantial investments in this area, calling attention to the importance of the National Training Fund to support these initiatives.

Addressing the scarcity of engineers, she noted that these professionals are often referred to as “unicorns,” and the challenge of attracting and retaining them is compounded by housing issues.  Fiona even identified her London office as her main competitor for talent, rather than traditional banking giants like Bank of Ireland or AIB. However, amidst these challenges, Fiona highlighted numerous positive aspects, such as the strong desire of people to work in Ireland, and lauded programs like Skillnet, emphasising their significance in nurturing and upskilling talent. Fiona shared that her own organisation has actively embraced sustainable finance courses, reflecting a proactive approach to equipping their workforce with relevant skills.


Additionally, Fiona discussed the internal dynamics of upskilling within her organisation, where AI and digital technologies are driving internal training and development efforts. She pointed out the concerning gap between the number of university lecturers and the growing student population, emphasising the importance of addressing this imbalance. Fiona raised concerns about funding challenges in universities, underlining the significance of addressing this issue in the context of fostering an adequate talent pipeline for the banking sector.

Regarding Ireland’s upskilling efforts, especially at the leadership and management level to drive innovation, digital transformation and business growth,Top of Form Paul Ryan felt the Irish government has a cohesive upskilling strategy in place overall, along with a clear appetite and desire for improving skills development in the country. Noting his belief that Ireland is making substantial progress in equipping its workforce with necessary digital skills in particular, Paul highlighted that professional services are actively driving digital projects, demonstrating the adaptability and digital readiness of various industries.

Infrastructure challenges

Along with calling out the value of mentoring programmes – such as the IMI/30% Club Network Mentor Programme – Paul went on to note the impact of digital transformation is not limited to the financial sector but is having a significant influence across various industries. He echoed Fiona’s concerns about universities struggling to attract professors and emphasized the importance of addressing this issue to ensure a strong talent pipeline for the future. Additionally, he underscored the role of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in showcasing Ireland as a flexible and adaptable location for international businesses. However, Paul acknowledged that infrastructure obstacles still posed challenges that needed to be addressed to maintain Ireland’s competitive edge in the global market.

While emphasising the power of sustainability in driving ideas and progress, David McRedmond noted that Ireland is a very young country, experiencing significant growth from 3 million to 8 million people with a single economy. He pointed out that infrastructure, especially in education, lags significantly behind, and stressed that addressing these issues doesn’t need to be the sole responsibility of the government. Along with collaborating with the IMI, David highlighted how An Post has set up the Green Institute to ensure everyone has access to lifelong learning, and emphasised the importance of large companies playing a significant role in training and upskilling their employees.


David touched on the outdated economic regulation model (rooted in the UK model) which encourages retail competition, but usually amounts to various companies all fighting to get to the lowest price and simply doesn’t work in practice. David expressed the need for substantial infrastructure investment in education, rail, transport and broadband, underscoring the importance of careful planning especially around the core issue Ireland is facing: can we be innovative and risk adverse at the same time (as we currently are due to current regulation model). Calling for improved regulation in Ireland, David highlighted the current issue of government setting up regulators and to some extent, hiding behind them. He emphasised the necessity of designing the economy and the country as a whole according to the nation’s aspirations and vision, which may actually include a much larger appetite for risk than our current regulation model allows, underlining the importance of proactive direction and governance.

Data governance and need for adaptability

The panel discussed the importance of data governance and the need to distinguish between using in-house cloud solutions and working with trusted providers to protect sensitive business information. They emphasised that, as a relatively young country, Ireland is facing challenges on multiple fronts and needs to showcase its ability to adapt and thrive independently, while capitalising on areas where Ireland can take the lead.

Paul highlighted the importance of resilience and adaptability, while drawing a metaphor from a scenario on a plane where you need to secure your mask first before helping others. He emphasised the need for diversity of thought and inclusivity, acknowledging that there is still a long way to go in addressing societal issues and supporting childhood development. Paul advocated for solutions like more paternity leave and improved access to childcare to foster inclusivity.

AI and leadership

The conversation shifted to the impact of AI in the workforce. While acknowledging that AI can replace many roles, the CEOs concurred that there would always be a place for traditional leadership. Nevertheless, while reflecting on the rapidly changing world, David stressed that leadership requires awareness of external change in order to consider what the future might hold in five to ten years, i.e. reading far and wide in order to stay informed about the world beyond one’s email inbox. David emphasised that leadership is a privilege and comes with the responsibility of steering organisations in the right direction, but questioned if current actions are aligned with future success. He discussed his enthusiasm for utilising AI to drive transformative change and stressed the importance of understanding one’s inner worlds (i.e. reading fiction) to truly connect and build empathy. Similarly, Fiona highlighted the importance of empathy but mentioned she draws her energy from interacting with people and understanding what’s going on in their lives, underscoring the role of human connection in leadership and decision-making.

Likewise, empathy plays a pivotal role in understanding the human impact of AI applications. It’s not merely about the technological advancements; it’s about the individuals affected, the societal implications, and the need to infuse ethical considerations into AI’s development and implementation. Empathy equips leaders to balance progress with humanity, ensuring AI serves people – not just objectives. At a more general level, leaders navigating the realm of AI face a duality of challenges and opportunities. Ethically, the use of AI introduces profound concerns: from biases embedded in algorithms to potential threats to privacy and security. Regulation becomes imperative to safeguard against these risks, ensuring AI is harnessed responsibly. However, the rewards are substantial, promising enhanced productivity, innovative solutions and streamlined processes. Additional upskilling and capability development is crucial for leaders to comprehend the nuances of AI and its ethical implications, enabling more informed decision-making.

The insights from our CEO panel offers a roadmap for leaders to navigate this constantly evolving effectively landscape successfully. To delve more deeply into learning, innovation and leadership, check out our professional diplomas in Leadership and Digital Leadership, or our AI for Senior Leaders half day programme.

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