Diarmuid ÓNéill

Diarmuid ÓNéill has just stepped down as CEO of Retrak, an international development organisation working with street children. Retrak works in Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, DRC, Malawi, Zimbabwe and Brazil with the aim of creating an environment where no child is forced to live on the street. During his five year tenure the organisation has grown a team of 18 to a team of almost 180, and from working with around 1,000 beneficiaries to over 17,000.

Previously, he was a research scientist working on global warming at Edinburgh University investigating natural levels of greenhouse gases and with a team of scientists designing new technology to run automated experiments in a variety of tropical and forested locations. A career change followed that where he worked with community organisations and marginalised young people in Brazil and later, in Bradford. Where the use of sport, art and accredited informal education was used to help young people gain qualifications & employment.

From 2004 to 2008 he was Chair of Q2, a regeneration company that dispersed European & UK government funding to locally run projects in Bradford. He has also worked in IT with Xerox & IBM; and consulted for charities such as Tearfund and The Lighthouse Group in the areas of fundraising and strategy.

Away from work he enjoys cycling, swimming, squash, scuba diving (when he can) and the company of friends. A Clore Social Leadership Fellow, he is currently on a short sabbatical.

How would you describe your style or approach to managing and supporting people?

It’s about empowering and unlocking people. I handed in my notice six months ago. Since then, almost all of my direct reports and people that work really close to me have said, “I never thought I was able to do X until you pushed me in that direction.” One of the biggest things is that I see potential in people. I can really give them the space and push them—sometimes scarily so. A lot of times if I think they’re a little bit wobbly in themselves I’ll give them the training to go with it. So if there is one particularly dominant aspect of my leadership style, that’s it: I see people.

How did you learn to support others?

I’ve not done formal academic management training. I have been on several day & week long courses on the subject matter. But overall I’ve not had a lot of – nothing like the level of support and input in courses that I give to people in my organization. I’ve never had that. I’ve learnt from books. I read tons of books about strategy, organisational & personal development and then I try and see what sticks.

For me it’s having people to run ideas by. I’ve got maybe seven or eight external allies that I’ll talk to by phone or email. They’re my stabilizers as I take off having being given the model or the tools. I think you have to manage the risks, try & put capabalities to mitigate the risks & review the residual risk involved but in the end you & the people around just have to step out.

Is it intuitive, how far you can push team members? It makes me think about Vygotsky, about the zone of proximal development and scaffolding. Some people really need help slowly going there. Then others maybe can experiment and are happy to be a bit wobbly. How do you know?

I hadn’t realized it was intuitive until I read that [description of Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development]. There are some people I’ve tried to push, even with scaffolding, who don’t want to stretch. They and I then just don’t connect. Eventually they go in different directions because its what the organisation & they need so if they cannot then sadly the leave the ‘bus.’

What are the challenges around devising or intuiting different ways for people to grow?

You’ve got to be very accepting of mistakes and create a safe platform or environment for people to make those mistakes and not be worried about it. Again it goes back to putting capabilities in place to manage risk according to your risk appetite & the person/organisation’s willingness to stretch.

How much space can you make for mistakes within the team, especially when their work impacts extremely vulnerable children?

You isolate the mistakes and the kind of environment that they’re really experimenting in. Where things are really risky like working with children, that’s not the area you experiment with. It would be doing something new or fresh such as redesigning a program or writing a research paper. It’s that 80/20 approach so you make 20% a bit about the risk and the rest of it is structured. There’s a huge challenge because it takes a lot of time. I think the bigger you are as an organisation, the harder it becomes. When you are medium sized or small that agility is essential if you want / need to grow.

How do you support and manage teams?

Every four to six weeks you have one-to-one time with your your line manager. What I’m trying to do is get people to connect. And one of the first questions they should be asked is, “What was a success?” so that you celebrate it, because I think that’s really important in terms of moulding and motivating people, more than talking about the ‘bad stuff.’. If you can tell someone about the success who understands what it costs you to get that success, then I think it really motivates you to keep going.

I think that listening is really important and that regular connection with people is vital. It gives a sense of ownership and empowerment and they are then able to deliver something which helps build their capacity and stature and sense of purpose and belonging.

The responsibility as a CEO to tell people when they’re wrong too is really important. It is not always easy at all but critical for everyone involved. Fierce conversations are a healthy ingredient when it comes to supporting & managing teams. We need to walk with our team on the journey, while at the same time guiding them where they need you to go.

Are there ways within Retrak that people are able to contribute and design and shape how it works?

One of the things that freaked people out was when I introduced the Children’s Councils. The kids became involved in everything, including recruitment, even for my position. Some staff were quite angry about it because they were having to give something up (for example we said the children have 40% of the vote for staff) and suddenly there was another party in this conversation that the staff don’t necessarily know what way they children are going to go. The really fascinating thing is that it’s become a valuable component of who we are. You hear them talk about it all the time, “The Children’s Council said this.” I think what that’s done is really empowered staff to talk about program design. It’s created a sense of expectation that the children will be part of whatever the plans and programs are. It also helps us to close the feedback loop by ensuring our beneficiaries are genuinely shaping what we do.

How important is it to have an organisation’s values clearly defined?

It’s very important. I think if you run an organization based on values – you should integrate them into your performance management system. Our values are: Boldness, Excellence, Respect and Innovation. The boldness one is really about tenacity, about speaking out and about never letting go and constantly knocking on doors on behalf of children’s rights and things like that. You hear the kids say to our staff, “That’s not very bold.” The one thing I would stress here is as leaders, if you do put values in place then you had better ensure you are ‘living them out.’ It is better not to have values than not live ones out.

What is the link between well-supported teams and the impact an organisation makes?

The children are so vulnerable and have been so marginalized and had such a lack of opportunities that we need to be as brilliant as we can be in order that they have brilliant services to hopefully be brilliant in whatever they do as a result of all of that. My way of looking after the staff is how I want that modelled to the children, so that the children see that this is the possibility – they see us giving staff opportunities to grow & learn then they know we are serious about doing that with them.

How, ideally, would you like to bring out the best in the people you work with?

One of things I think we are profoundly poor at in this sector is developing people. I think we’re actually terrible about it. We pay it lip service, but it’s the first thing that gets caught in a budget. It’s the first thing, often, that a donor won’t fund.

One of the things that I did when I first started was I created the position of a Learning and Development Director. How are we going to learn and develop as an organization in order to reach our strategy? How are we going to help the kids learn and develop as a result of that kind of organization? We didn’t have the money to bring brilliant, experienced (the finished product if you like) people so we had to bring in people who were really keen at the early or middle of their careers and wanted to develop.

The core strategic question is: if we’re going to create a world where no child is forced to live in the street then what ‘s the learning and development process that you’d need to do all the time to get you to that end?

So is learning critical to an organisation’s success?

Yes. Especially when you’re working with young children or young people, if your staff aren’t learning then how on earth can you encourage the children to be doing the same thing? That reflects. I think it’s a critical thing to be doing in an organization. For us, it was one of three key things that made Retrak successful: learning and development, having a strategy and a really clear vision (that 150 kids contributed to), and going after grants based on our M&E (trying, if you like to build an evidence base for every programme we designed then sought grant funding for that).

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