Rebooting Brand Ireland

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Anita Sands DublinGlobe.com

The Big Read, powered by Vodafone. Global tech and business leader Dr. Anita Sands gave the keynote at this year’s Independence Day celebration held by the American Chamber Of Commerce Ireland. Here, we republish her remarkable speech in full:

Mr. Speaker, distinguished members of Congress, Ambassadors O’Malley and Chilcott, President of the American Chamber, Ladies & Gentlemen… Firstly, I would like to thank Mark Redmond for the privilege of joining you this afternoon and to have the opportunity to meet so many of Ireland’s business and civic leaders.

It’s particularly fitting to be here celebrating Independence Day, a date which commemorates 56 brave and visionary American leaders who were determined, despite much difficulty and sacrifice, to reshape the course of their country’s history, ensuring for their fellow citizens the ‘inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’.

Here today is a similarly courageous group, whose exemplary vision and leadership has done much to reshape the course of our country’s recent history. You are the leaders who amidst the backdrop of recession and austerity have worked tirelessly to restore Ireland’s reputation, to inject momentum back into our economy, and to provide opportunity and optimism to our people.

While the recent past has been sobering and remains difficult, you chose in the words of President McAleese not to “ransack the past for ammunition with which to booby trap the future”. There were others who might well have preferred to wallow in our newfound “misery and misfortune”, but as a business community, you decided NOT to be paralyzed by negativity and cynicism.

It would be a shame for us to reemerge from all this without plenty of lessons learned and a distilled wisdom, but it would be a far greater shame, in my opinion, to squander this opportunity to rebrand the country

Instead you faced courageously into the responsibilities these times demand, and thanks to your collective efforts, we will be a country defined by how we got OUT of the mess, and not how we got into it. We have proven that as a nation, we can adapt to changing circumstances, and that when the world’s economy throws us a curveball, we can run a different play. Yep, pretty sure I mixed up my American sports metaphors there, but sure you got the gist!!

Unlike others, Ireland took the battle to the boardroom and not to the streets. You represented us inside your organizations, fighting to keep jobs and investment, even when our competitiveness was lagging and our economy uncertain. Getting back on our feet had nothing to do with the ‘luck of the Irish’, but instead is indicative of our ingenuity and resourcefulness and because, ordinary Irish people were willing to make extraordinary sacrifices, we defied the odds.

It would be a shame for us to reemerge from all this without plenty of lessons learned and a distilled wisdom, but it would be a far greater shame, in my opinion, to squander this opportunity to rebrand the country – finally putting the postcards of shamrocks and shillelaghs on the shelf and replacing the comely maidens at the crossroads with the selfie maidens on Snapchat!

From my vantage point sitting in U.S. boardrooms, Ireland’s brand is now one of adaptability, agility, of being resilient and resourceful. A country that has both the talent and the courage to innovate when things go badly wrong.

We have a window of opportunity now to reposition Brand Ireland. To paraphrase WB Yeats, ‘you don’t just strike when the iron’s hot, you make it hot by striking’. To evolve our brand, we have to focus on a couple of things – Firstly, leveraging the unique creativity and versatility of our talent, and secondly, fully harnessing the resources of the global Irish network. Those things coupled with our traditional brand attributes of being a pro business environment with a highly educated workforce will help cement Ireland’s ongoing relevance and competitiveness.

Brand Ireland:

From my vantage point sitting in U.S. boardrooms, Ireland’s brand is now one of adaptability, agility, of being resilient and resourceful. A country that has both the talent and the courage to innovate when things go badly wrong. When President Kennedy visited Ireland in 1963, he described us as an “extraordinary country” with people who can dream of things that never were and ask why not. And even though he said that about us over 50 years ago, never before has that ability been in higher demand. It is after all the fuel for engines of growth such as Silicon Valley or the Silicon Docks.

Nature of Disruption:

No one here has to be convinced that we are living in one of the most disruptive, and transformative times the world has ever seen, where every industry is being revolutionized by technology and at an unprecedented pace. Every company is grappling with the fact that it’s not just customer expectations that have changed; it’s HUMAN expectations that have changed. Kids nowadays sure know what a selfie is, but they wouldn’t know a manual if it hit them in the head! Something that’s needed to explain how something works? None of us have time for that!

Disruptive players like Amazon and Apple, aren’t just selling new products or services, they’re offering new experiences. The only way to respond and to compete with that is with design and creativity embedded in everything we do. Luckily for us, few nations can lay claim to creativity with the credibility of the Irish; it’s part of our cultural identity, it runs through our veins.

It now equally has to be part of our brand and seen as a core and differentiating skill – not an IDA slogan, a SKILL just as important as coding or computation. As managers, that means a huge break from our traditional hiring profiles and how we’ve historically sought out talent. Central to this will be to look for talent in non-obvious places and with unorthodox backgrounds and then to place a bet on these people.

The most successful companies have networks that allow them to source solutions from anywhere. The same applies to countries and this is where we’ve been dealt a winning hand. For centuries we have been sharing our people with the world.

This is a risk and an investment, but I’m the walking proof that it’s possible. As someone who went from physics to public policy, banking to technology, I never fitted neatly in a box on an org chart, but I was able to think differently than anyone else around the table, which fortunately prompted a few courageous managers to place a bet on me. When you start looking at talent from this perspective, you appreciate that crossing multiple disciplines, functions, industries and indeed countries leaves you with a versatility that is a mission critical skill in today’s world and only going to be more essential in tomorrows. After all, to fix ever changing problems, you’re far better off with a Swiss army knife than a hammer.

The American author Alvin Toffler put it well – “the illiterate of the 21st Century will not be those who can’t read or write, it will be those who can’t learn, unlearn and relearn”. We already have a head start on that because we know we are a people who can ‘turn our hand to anything’, but to translate that into a competitive advantage, we will have to purposefully and proactively develop this skill in people by both hiring differently and by managing people’s careers in a nonlinear and nontraditional fashion.

Globally Connected:

The final thought I’ll leave you with is that dealing with disruption is a team sport. If the economic crisis taught us anything it’s that no island is an island and as much as we don’t suffer change alone, we can’t manage it alone either. The most successful companies have networks that allow them to source solutions from anywhere. The same applies to countries and this is where we’ve been dealt a winning hand. For centuries we have been sharing our people with the world. You could call us the original social network! With over a million Irish born people like myself living abroad, and 70 million claiming Irish descent, it’s safe to say the Irish have gone viral!

The New Era of Diaspora Emigration has always been synonymous with our brand and in both the distant and recent past has reflected the economic dynamics of our country, carrying with it a significant social and emotional cost. That said, even as the economy here improves, I’m not sure we’ll see a change in these migration patterns, which were never unique to Ireland, but are now truly a global phenomenon. Nor am I sure we should want to see a change. The time has come for us to reframe the paradigm of emigration, to recast it in a positive light, and whilst not ignoring its emotive nature, to nevertheless ‘own’ it as part of brand Ireland, because we’re not local brand, we’re a global brand.

This Irish network is not a dormant thing, nor is it something that we should talk about in platitudes. It’s a living, active asset, one that kicks into gear quickly when called upon, and with a ferocious loyalty.

For that we need a new lexicon to replace legacy labels. Colum McCann at the last Global Irish Forum talked about the Diaspora as “we who are both here and there at the same time” and called for an “intricate reimagining of what it means to be Irish”; to “create a contemporary Irishness that is agile enough to understand that we can be in more than two places at once.” In that context, terms such as exile, emigrant, even Diaspora, are no longer fit for purpose.

Today’s reality is not one where I’m an Irish business leader living abroad and you are Irish business leaders at home. We are all global business leaders as likely, in this connected world, to be stationed in Dublin or Belfast as we are Dubai or Boston. Reframing our brand in this way means thinking of ourselves as nodes on a global network of world class Irish talent. Ireland’s greatest balance is off the books, not just in our ability to connect but in the value of our connections.

This Irish network is not a dormant thing, nor is it something that we should talk about in platitudes. It’s a living, active asset, one that kicks into gear quickly when called upon, and with a ferocious loyalty. Nowhere was that more evident than in Berkeley a few weeks ago. One of our former Presidents once said that “no other nation holds onto its children and its children’s children like we do” and you could see last month; that when our children venture out into the world, it is into the arms of our global Irish family and when our children stumble, that Irish family is never more present. In one of our worst moments, Berkley was our family at it’s very best.

It was also at it’s best here at home on May 22nd. On that historic day we showed the world just how inclusive our clan is. The vote for marriage equality reflected perfectly the contemporary and progressive country we’ve become and, consistent with our new brand, demonstrated that we’re not afraid of change, nor are we afraid to lead the world in instigating it.

It was great to see how so many traveled back as #hometovote lit up the Twittersphere, and for those who couldn’t make it home, they encouraged voters here with #bemyyes. That is contemporary Ireland. We are far more than just a country. We are a people, one that is neither defined nor limited by its borders. So when a company makes an investment in Ireland, it is investing in an asset with global reach, influence and resource.

Our special relationship with the United States, evidenced by the presence of Speaker Boehner and members of congress here today only further enhances our value and our brand and for that we are grateful. The visible and vocal support of organizations such as the American Chamber of Commerce equally plays an important part in developing and maintaining our brand and I want to thank and commend Mark and his team for their stellar work.

To conclude, as much as we have always been a country of traditions, we have proven that we can change our tactics when we need to adapt, and change our attitudes when we need to overcome. As the leaders of our business community, you have been at the forefront of that change, and are now the custodians of that momentum.

I’ll leave you with the words of George Bernard Shaw: “those who can’t change their minds can’t change anything”. I firmly believe that if we think differently about our brand, we can revise the mistakes of our past, sustain the momentum of our present and propel Ireland to new heights in the future.

Go raibh mile mhaith again and Happy Independence Day! Thank you.

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