After graduating from Trinity I joined the graduate scheme at BT Research Labs in Ipswich and worked on standards for mobile communications systems, and in particular the second-generation mobile system – GSM. A couple of years later I was assigned to the BT subsidiary Cellnet UK where I progressed to Technical Vendor Manager overseeing the deployment of the GSM equipment in the UK.
A turning point
When the opportunity to work overseas presented itself, I took it. In 1994 I was recruited as Project Director by Airtouch International, an international wireless telecoms company based in California. After a year the in US I then transferred to Italy to oversee Radio Networks at the start-up of Omnitel Pronto Italia, now known as Vodafone Italy. Living in another country and speaking the language affords you a completely different perspective.
Although I don’t sit around congratulating myself on any 'big achievements' I've managed, what does make me especially proud is to see someone I’ve advocated for promotion doing really well. I also like to look back and see a team built from nothing at a point where they’re having a great business impact – that’s always very satisfying!
I would say it is probably the ability to explain technically complex issues to non-technical people. Experience with different cultures is also helpful as the world becomes a smaller place.
Whether the challenge is communicating to non-technical people or to other nationalities, the trick in my view is to speak their language. For the technical items, using analogies and no technical terms is key; as for living in a place like Madrid, it was even more straightforward – learn Spanish – which is exactly what I did.
Advice for graduates
Be flexible, try new things and go to new places. It's much easier to do this when you are younger and more junior in an organisation than when you're settled with kids and a dog! Organisations invariably value people with a breadth of experience – both from a functional and a cultural point of view. If you don’t speak another language now – learn one. In my last role in Vodafone Group many members of my team spoke three or more languages with a fluency that was startling.
Skills for future leaders
I don't think being a good leader comes from skills per se – rather it comes from having a vision and being able to communicate it with impact, so that people will follow. Apart from the courage and ability to communicate concisely, as I mentioned earlier, it's about having a breadth of experience. If people identify with you then they are more likely to listen. If they are listening, you're already halfway there to selling them your vision.
How to survive an economic downturn
For graduates starting out now, of course it's difficult. When I first embarked on my career (in 1989) 70 per cent of my class had emigrated within a month, so I know what it is like. I don’t advocate that people leave Ireland, but I do encourage them to be open to opportunities. In my experience, any business will recognise people with energy and goodwill. And if you do leave, then do so with a view to coming back.
Fergal Kelly was interviewed for Ireland's 100 leading graduate employers 2011/12.