TERRY PRONE: Spotting strengths in people is the ultimate measure of leadership

Managing director of Microsoft Ireland, Cathriona Hallahan, has been granted the inaugural Women of Concern award.

The fuller than full house made the whole thing worse. More than three hundred guests were gathered in a massive dining room in the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin, at lunchtime last Friday, for the inaugural Women of Concern awards.

These awards have been operated by Concern Worldwide for 16 years in the United States, with former secretary of state Madeleine Albright one of the recipients.

Given the title and purpose of the event on Friday, the majority of those present, not surprisingly, were women. The last day of the week is spot on for a gig like this.

Everybody gets to glam up, have a lovely meal, applaud a bit, and then not go back to work for the completely legit reason that the necessary networking took so long, you know.

I was the master of ceremonies, and though I say it myself, I launched the thing with some aplomb. Welcomed everybody warmly. Did the health and safety thing. Told the guests what was going to happen in the following few hours. Mentioned that this year is Concern’s 50th anniversary. 

At the end of all of that, I even managed to get down the podium steps in 4in heels without coming an embarrassing cropper, and got back to the round table, populated with VIPs, where I was to sit until my next task. I was kind of disappointed by CEO Dominic McSorley’s response, though. He made with the puzzlement, rather than the plaudits.

I thought you were going to introduce me?” he asked.

Pride cometh before a fall, exemplified right there. The one thing that mattered, I had forgotten to do. I fought my way back up to the podium, bellowed at 300 people to drop those forks and pay attention, and handed over, to the CEO, an audience seething with rage at having their smoked salmon with dots of Dijon dressing postponed right in front of them.

Give him his due, Mr McSorley rescued it. 

Right royally, he rescued it, although when a man in the audience later came up to the CEO and told him he’d been moved to tears by the speech, I couldn’t help but wonder if the audience member’s emotional lability had not been helped along by starvation.

After that, it all went pretty well. The event was to hammer home the lesson that if you lift women out of subservience and servitude, if you educate them and give them skills, you lift an entire community and a total society. That has been proven all over the world, in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean, where Concern operates. The speech given by the woman honoured with the Concern Women award hammered home to the audience that this is not something specific to Africa.

Cathriona Hallahan is managing director of Microsoft Ireland. The sort of woman you assume came from what Pat Kenny calls the leafy suburbs. You know the type. Silver spoon, definitely, for starters. 

Moving swiftly on to being brought in the family Beemer to ballet and violin classes from the age of four, predestined to have an MBA by 22 and picked out, thereafter, by some Microsoft algorithm as an elite employee full of promise. The audience, by now content because they were at the coffee stage of the meal, sat back and prepared to listen to a bunch of management and techie speak. The relief, when neither materialised, was palpable.

That was because Ms Hallahan went straight to the personal. 

Her childhood was Beemer-free. No violin lessons. No early MBA. Because her family background was somewhat less than privileged, she was needed, in her teens, to contribute to the collective income. Off she went and did a secretarial course.

To clarify for younger readers, these were training programmes that taught shorthand, touch typing, and how to make lists so your boss didn’t double-book himself or forget his wife’s birthday. And no, the gender in that last sentence is not a mistake.

Back in the days of secretarial courses, bosses were overwhelmingly male. In consequence, one of the skills secretaries needed, back then, was the ability to drop off and pick up dry cleaning. This skill didn’t figure in secretarial courses. Young women had to learn it all by themselves, but practice makes perfect and they got lots of practice.

When Ms Hallahan finished the secretarial course, off she went and got a job in a small family firm for about three years. That was grand, except that at the end of it, the usual recurring recession struck and she had to go looking for another job, which she found in a small computer company. Its name was Microsoft.

Within a short time, her new boss spotted potential in her that she didn’t know she had. She was encouraged, she says, to go back to college. Laughing at herself, she points out that of course, she had never gone to college in the first place. But she did, now, and, as she studied at third level for the first time, she was working her way up through Microsoft.

She gives no impression of having been hungry to reach the top, but she does no self-dismissal, either. Interestingly, while she doesn’t go into any detail about her university degrees, she spends more time talking about having trained and qualified as an executive coach and encouraged colleagues in the company to do likewise. This generates a not-very-muted cheer from the rowdiest table at the event, which is dominated by Microsoft women having a great time and clearly not bound by any duty of deference to Cathriona Hallahan.

Now, executive coaching is what’s often dismissively called a “soft” skill. If it figures on a CV, the chances are that the CV in question is thin to start with. Either that, or the executive coaching is thrown in towards the end along with other elements of self-expression like reading actual books and walking the Camino.

So for someone described as not only “managing the continued growth and expansion” of Microsoft Ireland but also “representing the company on all strategic policy and public affairs issues”, it’s significant that the issue of executive figures so largely in publicity material about her. It is unlikely it would figure so prominently in such material about a male managing director, perhaps because executive coaching is emerging as one of the ways to structure relationships in an increasingly female workplace.

One of the challenges that faces women in business is promotion. 

It may not look like a challenge, but it is, because it disrupts pre-existing female friendships, and in my experience advising companies, is often poorly dealt with. Executive coaching tends to create a more formal framework and understanding around female relationships within a company.

That said, what every woman and man in the workplace needs is the simple brilliant service Hallahan’s first boss provided her with when he identified strengths in her that she didn’t know she had. That’s the ultimate measure of business leadership.

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