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Article

Chartered Director

Q&A: Sharon O'Connor CDir of Education Authority NI

20 Apr 2018

Sharon O'connor

Sharon O'Connor is a Chartered Director from Northern Ireland, who completed the IoD's flagship qualification as part of a cohort approach.

IoD members can now complete their journey towards becoming Chartered with the brand new IoD Academy NI, launched to provide professional development and training for directors in Northern Ireland, based on the original IoD Academy at 116 Pall Mall, London.

Read on to find out how Sharon's career and approach to professional development have been shaped and enhanced through IoD training.

Background

Currently I am Chair of the Education Authority NI, a role I was appointed to in 2015. EA is a major review of public administration transformation – it was formed from five legacy education and library boards as a regional organisation with a budget of around £1.8bn and 39,000 staff. 

The organisation delivers educational services including schools, transport, school meals and a complex range of other support services to ensure that our children and young people get every opportunity to be the best that they can be. I also serve on the National Oversight and Audit Commission in the Republic of Ireland (ROI).

Moving from the private to the public sector in 2000 (having sold my business to a company in the ROI), I took on a Development Director role in local government and was involved in capital projects, business and tourism. I am most proud of the capital projects that I led there, including Newcastle Co. Down, remodelling the physical fabric of the town and promenade. From there I moved to a Chief Executive role in Derry City Council where I led the acclaimed UK City of Culture project in 2013.

Why I undertook the CDir programme

When I was made a director I had a look at courses that would support me in a new role. I became very interested in governance and the mechanisms that support every organisation deliver for their customers, shareholders and service users. Although I already had a range of post graduate and professional business qualifications I wanted to better equip myself for the boardroom and the IoD training seemed uniquely placed to offer the skills set required. The programme was a good fit for me and believe I was the first public sector participant to qualify as a Chartered Director. My original requirements of the learning process and experience were met and exceeded. 

My key learnings 

The core benefit of the programme is the core focus on the skills required of a director. There is a widely held belief that a general interest or previous experience in a sector makes a good director but the subject matter of the qualification focuses on the transferable skills such as Strategy, Leadership, Governance, Finance, People Development, Law and most importantly capacity for challenge that makes for ‘rounded’ professional board performance. I learned about leadership, board dynamics and what good processes look like. 

The case study exercises were very useful and whilst I am not an accountant I have developed a very sound understanding and confidence in interrogating and challenging financial data. I gained knowledge and understanding of risk management, decision-making process and board performance especially the people dimension.

I can honestly say that the programme I undertook was by far the most beneficial and enjoyable developmental experience in my professional life.  

How the CDir programme has helped me

The key benefit was that I gained a most useful qualification for a senior leader, one that gave me confidence and inspires confidence in others and evidences my professional competence as a director. The organisation benefited by my improved performance and confidence. I became a better contributor to discussions where finance was critical, in governance matters I developed processes I formerly might have regarded as unnecessarily bureaucratic. The matters covered still have everyday currency for me in supporting excellent financial and governance practice. 

Enthused by my own learning experience I put in place professional development routes for my own teams and I draw considerable pleasure from seeing the upward progression of many former staff colleagues. Overall I have no doubt that this has helped me in my career progression and I’m very glad to have had the opportunity. I actively recommend this route to others I have appointed and mentor. 

The world of governance, legal and HR matters is constantly changing so up to date input from subject specialists was most helpful. My job currently focuses on leading the board, ensuring that we aim for best practice standards in our work, with the board leading the strategic direction of the organisation and performing a challenge function. My personal contribution as chair of a board is focussed on board dynamics, influence and potential conflicts. 

The benefit of training with others

My peers were largely private sector, which I found extremely refreshing. We all tend to stick to our sectors and it really broadens understanding to hear perspectives which are different. Personally I believe that a mix of sectors and people are most interesting to engage with. I also made some long-term friends and advisors. 

I think those considering professional development should consider what is going to be of the most practical benefit in terms of their career and ambition. Talking to others who have completed the Chartered Director journey will be helpful in choosing options and mapping out an appropriate route.



Get Involved

To find out more about becoming a Chartered Director click here, or to take part and complete a Q&A for the Chartered Director hub, get in touch here.

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