Meet Niamh O’Keeffe, an expert leadership advisor, author and the founder of First100 www.First100assist.com, she has over 25 years of career experience in leadership advisory services including strategy consulting, executive search and leadership coaching, her clients are global corporations like Accenture, Microsoft and Oliver Wyman Group. She recently published her new book: 'Future shaper: how leaders can take charge in an uncertain world'.
Who is Niamh? define yourself
At work I am a leadership advisor and published author. I am also a mother of a lively seven year old daughter. I live in London and am from Ireland originally. I am very independent, I like new ideas, and I am more interested in the future than the past.
How were you as a kid?
I was a happy-go-lucky kid, interested in school, had plenty of friends, played lots of games outside with kids from the neighbourhood.
You have studied Commerce, strategy & Economics at University College Cork, Power & Politics in the Corporation at NYU Stern School of Business, Entrepreneurship at London Business School, Leadership Best Practices at Harvard Business School, why did you choose those courses of study?
“I am a fearless truth teller. I am not afraid to speak my mind to my clients, and CEOs value this – because very often too many people are afraid to give direct feedback or bad news to their CEO”
I always found strategy, marketing and management very interesting. I also just love learning. At university I enjoyed reading Harvard Business Review case studies about real companies and what made them successful. I like the new, and creating. I wanted to be my own boss but knew I had a lot to learn so I did the entrepreneurship course when I set up my business. As my career progressed I realised that I had very high expectations of leaders and it became my main topic of interest.
Your career background includes working for 8 years as a strategy consultant with Accenture and two years as a head hunter in the City of London, how did you jump from that point to found your own company First100, which is a niche leadership consultancy, to advise leaders on how to make maximum impact in their new leadership role?
When I worked as a head-hunter I realised that all this time and money was invested in securing the right candidate but a disproportionately low – and even zero - amount of money ensuring that the newly hired leader made a successful transition in the first 100 days. I realised that with my background in Accenture strategy and management consulting, I would be ideally placed to set up a First 100 Days leadership consultancy. After 7 years of experience coaching First100 clients, I wrote a book on the topic ‘Your First 100 Days; how to make maximum impact in your new role’.
You have over 25 years of career experience in leadership advisory services – including strategy consulting, executive search, and leadership coaching. You are a trusted advisor to chief executives and works with senior leaders on key moments in their leadership role lifecycle: how to get promoted, how to have a great first 100 days, how to stay the course, and legacy projects, your clients are important firms as Accenture, Microsoft, and Oliver Wyman Group, what´s the recipe for your success?
I have a very high standard on what I expect from our leaders, and I am a fearless truth teller. I am not afraid to speak my mind to my clients, and CEOs value this – because very often too many people are afraid to give direct feedback or bad news to their CEO. I also care deeply about my client’s success – and I work hard.
You are a bestselling author of the FT series on Your First 100 Days, Lead Your Team, Your Next Role, Stepping up recently Future Shaper, tell us about your new book, what can we find in it?
‘Future Shaper; how leaders can take charge in an uncertain world’ is my leadership manifesto – everything I have always wanted to say about what it takes to become a great leader today. It is intended to be a thought-provoking and practical guide for people who are serious about becoming stand out leaders.
“Leaders are made, not born. Learning leadership skills should start at a young age. You don’t need to be an extrovert or the school captain or a member of the school council to be a leader”
I heard you founded Prosper Leadership Academy, what is it? Especially I am interested in knowing about SCHOOLS PROGRAM?
I set up First100 in 2004 as a very niche offering – how to make maximum impact as a leader in the first 100 days of a new role. In contrast The Prosper Leadership Academy is about a much broader leadership advisory service - offering insightful advice for leaders through focused executive coaching at each stage of their leadership career and role life cycle; first 100 days, second act, staying the course, legacy projects.
The Prosper schools program is about my plans to teach children and young people about leadership. It strikes me that our current leaders fail us, because they have never been properly taught the skills of leadership. Leaders are made, not born. Learning leadership skills should start at a young age. You don’t need to be an extrovert or the school captain or a member of the school council to be a leader. Everyone can be a leader. They just need to learn the skills and our schools are not teaching these skills properly. So I have a project underway to write a book for children on leadership and this will become the ‘manual’ or ‘way in’ to teaching and inspiring our children to be great leaders.
You work with the most senior clients at CEO and C-suite level, based on your experience, what are the do and don´ts for women, who want to be great leaders?
Women – do stay ambitious and resilient and don’t fall into societal traps and pressures to ever give up the study or work you love.
What does a normal workday look like for you?
I work from 9am to 3pm and then I pick up my daughter from school. Sometimes I work a couple of hours in the evening, to finish on deadlines and because I may have calls with clients from different time zones.
“My job is not very difficult because I have built my role around my key strengths. That said, all of it was very difficult at the beginning –but I have a lot of experience in all these areas now”
Do you have any particular philosophy that guides your career decisions?
My philosophy is to enjoy my work, and make a meaningful impact on others. My purposeful mission is to improve the quality of leadership in the world – and this helps me to be a fearless truth teller because I am focused on the bigger picture and not just trying to please people.
What do you love most about your job? & what is the most difficult part?
I find writing books very cathartic because it is an outlet for expressing my point of view on leadership. I also love the intellectual stimulation of advising senior clients – having to come up with ideas, answers and advice in the moment. My job is not very difficult because I have built my role around my key strengths. That said, all of it was very difficult at the beginning – business development, managing cash flow, working with clients, writing books – but I have a lot of experience in all these areas now. When I am writing a book, the middle part is always the most difficult and requires a lot of drive and self-discipline to push through. Beginnings and endings are easier!
Everybody has had dark moments in their lives, what have you done to get out of that phase?
I have an advisor who is also a very good friend. She is very wise, and helps me to empower myself to accept and cope with challenges constructively. My sister is also a good person to talk to, because we have a shared life history and she knows me very well. I have learned that all dark moments eventually pass. For example when COVID-19 lockdown happened, I stayed focused on knowing that this is a temporary phase and we need to keep the bigger picture in mind.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else does?
Keep selling to current clients and stay in touch with former clients. With former clients, keep them updated on what you are doing, and come up with new ideas which may interest them. For me, it has always been easier to sell to former clients, every few years, rather than spend so much time developing new relationships again and again. Clients like to take a break from your services from time to time, and try new service providers – which is fine but that doesn’t mean they won’t buy from you again. They will compare their new service to yours, and if you served them better, be confident they will return.
“For me, it has always been easier to sell to former clients, every few years, rather than spend so much time developing new relationships again and again”
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
To continue to nurture key client relationships whether you have an ongoing project or not. I have relatively small number of key client relationships – but they run quite deep. I work for my clients, and their teams – and this helps me to expand. Also I help people to get promoted, and this offering is of interest to just about everyone!
What situation marked your life in a way that prompted you to be who you are today?
Having a child is a key life milestone! I guess it changes everything. It has given me fantastic perspective - because life becomes as simple as knowing that as long as your child is healthy and happy, then there is nothing else to worry about. All other stresses don’t matter.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
Day to day I don’t have much spare time because life is centered on work and school routines. I am not a hobbies person. I am quite happy to just relax with family in London at weekends. During the mid-term breaks and school holidays, I like to go abroad and enjoy really great holidays
Many authors say women can and must strive to have everything – a shining career, blossoming family life and a perfectly balanced lifestyle all at once, others point out that– then women are placing unrealistic expectations on themselves if they believe they can have it all, I don´t know if you are married and have kids, so according to your experience, what do you think about these statements?
Women should not put themselves under pressure from any societal definition of what ‘having it all’ means. Liberate yourself from all external pressure. It is better to have an independent mind and decide yourself what matters to you, what you want to achieve with your life and go for it. Live your own life, not the life others say you should.
What are your plans for the future?
I don’t know that the future has in store. I like to keep an open mind. I am sure I will stay interested in the topic of leadership for the rest of my life. It would be interesting to advise politicians and government. I might do more with my writing skills – like writing life stories, or trying fiction. I would also like to invest more time on being creative – like learning how to be a sculptor.
“Possibly the only way the traditional ideal of female equality will only ever be achieved when gender becomes so fluid that the idea of female and male will fade into the background. Either then, or when women decide equality is about defining their own way of working, and not trying to fit into a male system set up to disadvantage them”
There is still the glass ceiling for women in the world: Fewer opportunities, jobs underpaid just for that fact of being a woman, etc. Have you experimented with the glass ceiling? If yes, what are the biggest challenges you have faced and how have you overcome them?
The corporate system was set up by men for men – and so men are advantaged in that system for sure. My advice is that women should not feel like they need to conform to a system that does not suit them – they should seek to change it and create their own ways of working. Women should feel more empowered to speak up or lead by example. Increasingly, women can do anything they want to do. They just need to want to do it and be willing to ignore societal pressures still defining what it means to be a woman. Women should feel empowered to achieve whatever they want to achieve, and not let other people erode their confidence or put them down.
What tips, can you give to young girls who want to become an entrepreneur like you?
Decide what you want to achieve in the world, and focus all your energy on making it happen. Learn from others who have plenty of experience to share. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes – it is the price you pay for learning how to do it better next time.
Who is the woman you admire the most and why?
At the moment I really admire Greta Thunberg. She has a singular focus, and is totally fearless. Greta is a great example of an iconic female Future Shaper leader.
I also find my daughter inspiring – observing her development and adaptability. Children have to learn so much – walking, talking, swimming, school education – and they just get on with it. It is fascinating to bear witness to the process of such a delightful human going from baby to child to – eventual – teenager and young adult.
Something else do you want to add or share with us?
I have noticed that women in business are particularly bright and impressive, compared to their male counterparts. Perhaps the women that stay in business are determined to succeed, and have had to endure more than the average man to get to the same place. It is interesting. That said, possibly the only way the traditional ideal of female equality will only ever be achieved when gender becomes so fluid that the idea of female and male will fade into the background. Either then, or when women decide equality is about defining their own way of working, and not trying to fit into a male system set up to disadvantage them.
Name: Niamh O’Keeffe
Sector: Leadership Advisory/Consultancy, across all sectors
Company: Prosper Leadership Academy
Designation: Founder, Managing Director
Country: United Kingdom/Global reach