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Turning leadership into a team sport

Refereeing is much like leadership. While you have a small team of colleagues to support you, you are out in front. You are making decisions that have the potential to polarise opinion and you are often on the big screen – at times, the sole focus of hundreds and thousands of people. Donal Courtney has experienced both scenarios in his sporting and business careers.

Having qualified as a Chartered Accountant with Arthur Andersen in the 1980s, Donal subsequently moved into industry and was involved in building several businesses from a standing start. His first role beyond practice was with the Japanese financial services company, Orix, a former audit client that had just established an aircraft leasing and lending company in Dublin’s burgeoning International Financial Services district. Donal spent five years as CFO of the company, which continues to operate from Ireland to this day, before being lured to Airbus. The aviation giant was also looking to develop its aircraft financing and leasing business in Ireland, and Donal – having enjoyed a very successful stint with Orix – duly deployed his skills and experience with the Toulouse-based company, which has also maintained its presence in Ireland. 

During this time, Donal fell into an accidental second life as a rugby referee. The former Monkstown rugby player was in the stands ready to watch Belvedere take on Skerries when a call went out over the tannoy for a stand-in referee as the match referee had picked up an injury. Donal reluctantly took to the turf, which was the first step in a journey that led him to top-tier tournaments including the Heineken Cup, the Six Nations Championship and the Rugby World Cup. “It was a happy accident, but around the time I was starting to referee more seriously, I had an opportunity to move to Toulouse with Airbus,” he recalls. “My wife, Sarah, and I had just had twins so overall, we didn’t think it was the right move for us as a family – so I declined.”

Instead, Donal joined GMAC Commercial Mortgages, a division of GM, which was involved in financing commercial real estate projects. “They had operations in the US and Japan, and they wanted to establish a presence in Europe by setting up a regulated banking operation,” he says. “But at that time, acquiring a banking licence for a non-bank entity was quite difficult and that became my priority when I joined the company as CFO in 2000.”

GMAC Commercial Mortgages did secure the banking licence (it was one of the first non-bank entities in Ireland to do so) and Donal stayed with the company for eight years. Having been sold to KKR – the private equity house – and Goldman Sachs in 2016, GMAC Commercial Mortgages decided to exit its commercial real estate business in 2018 due to the global financial crash. At this stage, it was time for a change of direction for Donal away from the financial world.

A fresh start and the importance of people

Having retired from international refereeing in 2017 and with GMAC exiting the real estate business, Donal moved into the world of referee management full-time, taking up a position with European Rugby as head of match official performance for the Heineken Cup. He also became a referee selector for World Rugby and its international matches including the Six Nations and the Rugby World Cup. Donal now holds a portfolio of independent non-executive director roles at Dell Bank International, IPUT PLC (a commercial property fund) and Permanent TSB PLC, where he also acts as chair of the audit committees. “I’ve worn a few different hats in my various roles but one thing that has always struck me – and even more so in my work with boards – is the importance of people,” he says. “I’m reminded of Zig Ziglar’s famous quote: ‘You don’t build a business. You build people, and people build the business.’ This is absolutely true and there is a real need for a seat at the board table for people who are expert in the area of talent management, development and retention.”

For Donal, how leaders deal with others is founded on a core set of values. “At one end of the scale, you need to identify talent, attract them into your organisation and incentivise them to do great work. At the other, you need to create a really great environment where your people feel valued and trusted; where they feel that they can speak up and have a say in the direction of the organisation. In many cases, getting the latter ‘culture’ piece right will make the process of attracting high calibre talent to your organisation much, much easier,” he said.

To err is human

Given his experience on the pitch, Donal is also very accepting of the fact that leaders will make mistakes. To err is human. However, he stresses the importance of communication and reflection in setting a positive example for colleagues at all levels.  “In today’s workplace, people no longer ask what they should do. Instead, they ask why they should do it,” he said. “The best way to answer this question is through clear communication as it allows you to define the ‘why’ and gives your people something to rally around.

“And when things go wrong, and they inevitably will, it’s important for leaders – and everyone in the organisation, actually – to conduct a review of their own work,” he added. “It goes back to the question of ‘why’. If something did go wrong, why did it go wrong? Once we learn from our experience, there’s an element of positivity and progress in that, no matter how bad the situation might be.”

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