On Tuesday, June 26th, 2018, a group of senior executives across various industries participated in a panel event in New York City called Rise to the Top: A Panel on Career Progression. The event was hosted by the Irish International Business Network (IIBN), the leading business organization for professionals with Irish nationality or heritage, and welcoming remarks were given by Ambassador Daniel Mulhall, Ireland's Ambassador to the United States.


Pictured above: Ambassador Dan Mulhall (speaking) with Courtney Sunna (right)

The moderator and coordinator for the evening was Courtney Sunna, Chair of IIBN's Future Leaders Board, a 17-member board of NYC-based outstanding young professionals who created and planned the event. Sponsors included Bank of Ireland and catering was generously provided by the Dessert Ladies.

Also in attendance: Ronan Dunne (President of Verizon Wireless), Tony Dunne (US Country Manager and COO, Bank of Ireland), Anna McGillicuddy (Deputy Consul General at the Consulate of Ireland, New York City), and Ragnar Almqvist (Economic & Trade Attaché for the Embassy of Ireland in Washington D.C.), along with IIBN Members, aspiring young professionals, and the current intake of the highly prestigious Washington Ireland Program, of which the current Prime Minister of Ireland, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, is a graduate.

Meet the Panel

Donard Gaynor: Former SVP, Beam Global Spirits & Wine. Donard is is currently dedicating his time to various non-executive director roles in the global business arena with companies such as Glanbia, H&K International, Amboy Foods, and Kyro Distillery, and for charitable organizations, such as Co-operation Ireland, the Ireland-U.S. Business Council, and the Children’s Medical Research Foundation. Donard spent 15 years at PwC, and later served nearly 10 years at the Seagram Spirits & Wine Group and nine years at Beam before his retirement in 2012. 

Michelle Accardi: President & Chief Revenue Officer, Star2Star Communications. Michelle is an award-winning marketer and author of Agile Marketing. An accomplished 20-year marketing veteran, Michelle is a world-renowned technical thought leader on next-generation marketing and communications strategies. She was recently named 2018 CRN Channel Chiefs by the Channel Co.

Paul McMahon: Founder & Head of Americas, BSM Group. Following a 6 year career within Financial Services, including Bank of America and Citibank, Paul founded his own recruitment firm, BSM Group, with offices in Dublin, London, and the United States. Paul runs the US operations, and is scaling the company across the east and west coast.

Sarah-Anne Hughes: Regional Sales Manager, LinkedIn. Sarah-Anne juggles the tasks of leading a sales team and ensuring the +500 corporate customers in her business see success with LinkedIn. Previously she worked as a VP of Business Development with Invest Northern Ireland, and was also a prior Chair of the IIBN Future Leaders Board.

Lessons from the Top

1) Many young professionals expressed confusion about how to approach senior managers within their organization that they looked up to, and wanted a way to connect with them in a way that was genuine and helpful for both parties.

The advice: Connect with potential mentors or superiors by offering to help them in some way. For example, says Donard, in his earlier career years, he noticed a senior manager at PricewaterhouseCoopers was heavily involved with a reputable Irish charitable organization. Being an Irish expat, Donard offered to help him with any administrative assistance he could offer, just to be involved and get his feet wet. It allowed him to work more closely with that person while helping a cause that was important to him, and today, Donard is on the Board of that organization, leading philanthropic efforts in Ireland and the United States. Other panelists suggested offering to update the professional bio of someone they look up to, or by gently offering to update information on their professional social media profiles such as LinkedIn if you've noticed it's outdated.


2) Demonstrate personality!

Don't be afraid to call out unique interests or experiences about yourself, both on your résumé and also during the interview. For example, if you're going heliskiing for the weekend, you may want to subtly mention it to your hiring manager. Look around their office for pictures or souvenirs of topics you can find common ground with. If you've volunteered abroad (even if it's unrelated to the position you are seeking), make sure it's present on your résumé. Competition in the job market is fierce, so education and relevant skills may no longer be the only thing standing between you and your dream job.


Courtney shared a story about leaving a job where she wasn't happy to spend time living abroad, and had close friends warn her that a gap in employment could turn-off potential employers. Instead, she proudly featured this experience at the top of her résumé as it made her unique - and related it in the interview to independence, courage, and a deeper understanding of people and cultures. She cited a spike in calls from positions she was most interested in, and it was also an easy way to 'weed out' companies that were not aligned with her values and interests.


3) Use GoogleAds to get your dream job. Let's say you applied for a role you're really excited about, and are hoping the hiring manager will get back to you for an interview. You don't want to reach out directly, as that might have the opposite effect you wanted. Here's a tip: Spend a few dollars to buy Google AdWords in your name, and in the name of the hiring manager (you can often find this person's name on LinkedIn). As employers search for prospective candidates that are relevant to the job they posted, this simple task may make your name and application appear as the first one on their list. The whole campaign may cost you just a few dollars, but could end up landing you that dream-job interview. Money well spent!

4) Seek positions in complementary roles. Donard credits his appointment as SVP of Beam, and responsible for the P&L of hundreds of millions of dollars, to his experience in a variety of roles. Although he was initially hired as an accountant at PwC, he knew he needed experience in complementary areas in order to get the dream gig. He took roles in HR, as CIO, CFO, and accountancy before he felt he was ready to apply for the SVP position at Beam. Armed with an understanding of various departments, the SVP role was a natural progression for him. Also, he notes, confidence is key; never doubt yourself when you are seeking a role with more responsibility. If you believe in yourself, others will follow suit.

5) Use the 2-year Rule of Thumb. It takes about two years before you can fully understand your new role and how it fits in with the company, so don't give up too early. The two year mark may also be a good time to seek a new position -- not necessarily to leave your current company, but rather to seek a promotion or a position in a complementary department to learn new skills and advance your career. Being stagnant in a role inhibits growth and learning, so it's important to be cognizant of these potential restraints and opportunities when you are interviewing with a new company. Remember, you are interviewing the company just as much as they are interviewing you, so making sure that there is upward potential internally is an important factor. A job with a fantastic ability to learn and grow may be a better option at the beginning, even if it means a lower initial salary than one with limited upward mobility.

6) The New Work/Life Balance. The panelists were passionate about this topic, as many of them spent years of their professional careers commuting on airplanes, juggling work and family life. "Never leave 'Work/Life balance' up to your employer - it's your own responsibility to manage," was the viewpoint shared by Michelle and Donard. If work is putting too much pressure on your home and family life, it's up to you to have a conversation with your superior and seek to find a way to shift responsibilities to other colleagues, step back from certain non-imperative initiatives, or take time off. Even companies that tout a culture of work-life balance may not always walk the walk, as some panelists noted that "unlimited vacation often means no vacation."

The bright side is that it is becoming more mainstream for companies to understand the importance of a healthy balance between work and life, as Sarah-Anne noted at companies like LinkedIn, these often blend together. It's not always necessary to separate the two, you can show your personality at work and be yourself, or go down to the company breakroom to chill out on some bean bag chairs if you just got out of a long meeting. You're human - and that's understandable! Many companies are more empathetic to the personal needs of their employees, and if you need to come in late one day, that doesn't necessarily mean you need to sit in the office until 8:00pm to make up for it, it may just mean that you check and reply to company emails when you are at home that evening. Find a healthy balance that works for you, and which allows you to be successful in your role.

7) Always Keep and Cultivate the Connections You Make. Michelle remembers entering the professional workforce and starting a new position in the typical 'first job out of college' gig, and putting in the hours of overtime doing tasks that were not always the most exciting-- but she put in the effort and was viewed as hard worker and a team player. Many years later, a recruiter called her because a position opened up as the Chief Marketing Officer at a company where, the recruiter noted, she was connected on LinkedIn with the current CEO, so the recruiter urged her to apply. That company was Star2Star communications, where she is currently President, and the CEO was a colleague of hers at that 'first job out of college' gig. Keep all the connections you make, even those early in your career, as you never know when they may reach out.

8) Industry Downturns are Normal. Business revolves in cycles- and it's normal to have your chosen industry experience a downturn. That doesn't mean you should jump ship and seek a new career path, and abandon all the experience you've gotten thus far. Donard's experience in working for a Big4 consulting firm has taught him that lesson, and he feels it's most important. He suggests choosing an industry you are passionate about and interested in, and make a 5 year plan to achieve your goals. Don't be afraid when you watch the news or hear whispers about a negative industry outlook, as it's normal for business to move in cycles. Stick it out, and eventually you will be an expert in that field and known as someone who has persevered in the worst of times and made it out ahead.

Thank you to all our speakers and panelists who participated in the event. We hope all attendees found the information valuable, interesting, and relevant.

If you are interested in becoming an IIBN-New York Member, or joining our mailing list to hear about upcoming events, visit the IIBN Webpage.

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