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Mary Lou Nolan, Country Manager and Director, Cisco Ireland

Mary Lou Nolan is Country MD and Director of Cisco Ireland. Previously Director of Sales for Hewlett-Packard Ireland, she joined Cisco in 2010. With more than 15 years in the industry, Mary Lou is well placed to offer advice to future leaders.

Getting started

When I graduated in 1994 there were limited options in the labour market – it was all about taking a role that would give you the necessary experience to build up your CV. I started my working life at Philips in Dublin in an internal sales support role, which basically meant doing anything that was needed to support the sale of the product. This varied from merchandising to marketing to administration. My studies really stood to me at this initial stage in my career: I was able to apply the knowledge of marketing and customers' buying behaviours that I'd gained at college, for the first time putting the theory I had learnt into practice.

A turning point

A key milestone for me was getting a mentor. At the time I was making the transition from being an individual contributor to becoming a people manager and was I filled with the fear of failure. The beauty of mentors is that they help you visualise situations from another perspective. Most of the time the answers to your fears lie within you, but when you lack experience you need someone who isn't your manager to help you find those answers and to bounce ideas and concerns off.

Career highlight

Without a doubt my career highlight so far has been becoming Country Manager for Cisco Ireland. I am humbled by the talent, commitment and support that I have from the team and excited about being the leader of the company in Ireland.

Key skill

I'm a people person and I have good communication skills. I believe strongly in being transparent, treating people with respect and trusting they are doing the right thing. Once you have these foundations in place you should be able to deal with whatever the company and the market can throw at you.

Working in a multinational environment definitely helps to develop your people skills as most of the time you have to achieve objectives by winning the cooperation and support from people across the organisation who don't work for you in the traditional sense. You can’t rely on 'telling' people to do things: you must convince and influence them. Both of these actions require tact, respect and gaining people’s confidence.

Advice for graduates

Be open to trying many different roles before you make your decision on what you want to focus on. Once you find something you enjoy, focus upon it and become the absolute best that you can.

Skills for future leaders

A balance of skills: positivity, a strong work ethic, agility, execution, clear communication skills, the ability to deal with ambiguity, and respectful behaviour. These are all equally important because it's the combination of skills that makes a person a great leader – having a solid work ethic is a good start.

How to survive an economic downturn

Be positive and open to trying varied roles to build experience. Work hard, know what gives you the edge, and be able to articulate it.

Mary Lou was interviewed for Ireland's 100 leading graduate employers 2011/12.