Sometimes you hear humility being associated with business greatness

I WAS in New York last week for the ninth annual New York New Belfast Conference (my sixth time attending). Every year I learn something new, make new connections and come back thinking about things in a different way. Aisling Events, which puts the whole event together, does an amazing job packing in a really diverse set of talks and discussions from art and culture to investment and development.

So, you have writer and director of the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queen's University, Glenn Patterson, and the New York State Comptroller, Tom di Napoli, responsible for $200 billion of pension funds (including investments here) both on the agenda of the conference. Both were excellent.

I'm always way too optimistic about the books and papers I'll get through when I go on planes. And just to add to the pile I brought with me from Belfast last week, I also bought an additional book at the airport because I'd heard about the author, Jim Collins, at another event I was at recently.

There are probably quite a few readers of this column who have read Collins' big business books – 'Built to Last' and the one I bought this time round, 'Good to Great', a best-seller with over three million copies sold around the world.

After his first book, Collins set himself the challenge of finding why some companies which had been mediocre or good somehow became great over a sustained length of time. Using a set of benchmarks and after nearly five years of research looking in detail at over 1,400 companies, Collins and his team of 21 associates identified the key concepts that permitted these ‘good-to-great' companies to achieve cumulative stock returns 6.9 times the general stock market in the 15 years following their transition.

Having picked these star performers then, the book attempts to explain and codify what sets them apart with one clear, perhaps unsurprising assertion (given that it's a business book) that Collins believes that almost any organisation can substantially improve its stature and performance if it applies the framework, findings and practices set out in his book. I'm always sceptical about such claims but so far I'm finding the book very interesting and helpful. What he calls one of the most provocative findings of the whole study is the chapter on ‘Level 5 Leadership'.

Collins, in his introduction, talks about many of his conclusions seeming to be quite contrary to conventional wisdom and I suspect he puts his Level 5 Leadership in that category because it eschews and debunks much business pomp and ceremony around the ‘star CEO' – the cult of personality which so much business success is attributed to at times.

He identifies a leadership hierarchy with five levels starting at the entry level of ‘highly capable individual' to the top, Level 5 executive who ‘builds enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will'. Collins says that Level 5 leaders ‘channel their ego needs away from themselves into the larger goal of building a great company and while these leaders are extremely ambitious, that ambition is first and foremost for the institution, not themselves.'

It's not often you hear humility being associated with business greatness, but there are a number of excellent examples given in the book. And while I was sitting at the US-Ireland Top 50 Awards lunch on Friday, which is also part of the New York New Belfast conference, I got to see a Level 5 Executive in action.

The man in question is Shaun Kelly, a former St Mary's Glen Road man, now the global chief operating officer of KPMG International and the Americas, one of the big four accountancy and consulting firm across the world. He was introduced brilliantly by a senior business figure in Irish America, Donard Gaynor who, having spoken privately to some KPMG people, had gained some insight into how Shaun operates.

Gaynor told a couple of stories about how Shaun had shown real care and attention to his colleagues and demonstrated real leadership at times of need. I found his description inspirational and it made me feel great pride that a man from West Belfast was seen in such way at such a senior level in a global company.

Of course, Shaun's reaction, when he eventually got up to speak, was typically self-effacing. He said: “there are two Shaun Kellys at KPMG, that's the other guy you've described Donard'. Needless to say, he got a good laugh with that. Shaun's had a hugely interesting career with KPMG, starting first in Dublin after UCD and moving to San Francisco, then to Belfast and on to New York after stints in San Francisco again and Chicago/

He has a number of outside interests in the US but he is very active in supporting work at home also and chairs a group advising the First and Deputy First Minister on economic development matters from a US perspective. Of course, it would help if there was a First and Deputy First Minister here, but his role continues nonetheless.

What shone through in Shaun's words though were those Level 5 character traits identified by Collins: appreciation of his colleagues, clients and family, all things which deflected credit away from himself.

It reminded me of another inspirational character I had the pleasure to listen to recently, Brendan Mooney, chief executive of Kainos. Brendan's story and the incredible success of Kainos is worth a column on its own and I will probably do that next time.

In the meantime, it's back to the real world this week after New York, but with a renewed sense of purpose and some new ideas, concepts and people for inspiration.

:: Paul McErlean (paul is managing director of MCE Public Relations Ltd

:: Next week: Richard Ramsey

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