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Professor Niamh Brennan

Success story to provide an in-depth view on the journey to the Chartered Director qualification and how the IoD programme has supported these outstanding individuals in their professional development.

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With a first class honours in Science (Microbiology and Biochemistry) degree from University College Dublin (UCD) and a PhD from the University of Warwick, Niamh has been a Chartered Director since 2007.

Also qualified as a Chartered Accountant having trained with KPMG, Niamh is a former chairman of the Dublin Docklands Development Authority and has held non-executive directorships with the Health Service Executive, Ulster Bank, Co-operation Ireland, Coillte (State forestry company) and Lifetime Assurance (Bank of Ireland’s life assurance arm).

Niamh is also a regular television, radio and newspaper contributor.

Your current role

I am Michael MacCormac professor of management at UCD, where I teach and research corporate governance. In 2002, I established the UCD Centre for Corporate Governance, at the height of “light touch” regulation in Ireland. The Centre provides training to company directors in Ireland and conducts research on corporate governance.

Your journey pre-Chartered Director

I have held a number of non-executive director positions, having obtained my first board appointment in 1990, with others following. At the beginning, I didn’t really know what to do as a non-executive director and found it hard to know what my duties and responsibilities were. This is what gave me the idea of setting up the Centre in UCD. Many who hold the position of company director do not properly understand their roles and it is surprising that such onerous legal positions are taken on in the absence of education or training. This does not happen in most other professions.

A number of graduates of the UCD Diploma in Corporate Governance completed the Chartered Director qualification with the Institute of Directors in London. Over my dead body will any of my students have more qualifications than me!

Your journey to chartered director and beyond

I undertook the Chartered Director programme in 2007, enjoying the experience of being a student again. At the time of completing the Portfolio of Experience, I was a non-executive director of Ulster Bank, a wholly owned subsidiary of Royal Bank of Scotland, and of the Health Service Executive. Completing the portfolio was challenging, having to identify my individual contribution – how I made a difference as a board member – even though board members operate as a group. I learned a lot from that exercise.

Since I qualified as a Chartered Director in 2007, I became chairman of the Dublin Docklands Development Authority, a state property and planning company, appointed to the position by the Minister for the Environment. As the organisation had suffered serious corporate governance problems during Ireland’s boom, the Minister was looking for someone known to be an expert in corporate governance. This was a white-knuckle ride but very interesting and enjoyable [in a pain- pleasure sense] assignment!

Also since becoming a Chartered Director, I have become chairman of the family business, Brennan Holdings Group, a financial services entity. The business came out of Ireland’s crash in very good health, having been directed and managed in a prudent manner. It faced considerable challenges, however, arising from significant regulatory changes in Ireland’s financial services sector following the global financial crisis in 2008. This resulted in changes to its business model.

The importance of Chartered Director

The qualification of Chartered Director allows me to hold myself out as an expert in corporate governance. Another tangible benefit is that I am a member of the Chartered Directors’ network in Ireland. I enjoy meeting regularly with other CDirs to discuss the myriad dilemmas involved with company directing.

Important attributes for a director

Many academics writing on corporate governance do not really understand what goes on in boardrooms. I am fortunate to be able to marry hands-on practical experience of directing with corporate governance research. I am also lucky to have so many senior executives bringing their extensive experience of business into UCD classrooms, where there is a lovely reciprocal learning relationship between students and lecturers.

Having a depth of knowledge of corporate governance is a necessary but not sufficient condition in being an effective director. To be an effective director requires outstanding communication skills, people skills, judgement and a bit of luck!

The art of directing is a never-ending challenge and as a result is continually fascinating.