“Don’t look at a person as a networking opportunity”
Each week, we profile one of Ireland’s corporate leaders, tracing their career to date and exploring the lessons they have learned along the way. This week, we meet John Donoghue of Ifac
John Donoghue is chief executive of the Irish Farm Accounts Co-Operative (Ifac), the professional services firm serving the farming, food and agribusiness sectors nationwide.
Ifac employs 225 people at 30 offices and has a further 150 contract bookkeepers.
It has 18,000 clients and will open new offices in Carlow town and Trim in Co Meath this year.
Ifac’s services include accounting, tax planning, audit, business, financial and investment advice.
Tell us about your career to date.
I qualified as an accountant in 2005, having trained in Ifac’s Carlow office and an accounting firm in Kildare. I was appointed managing partner of the Tullamore office in August 2005.
I held that role for almost seven years before being appointed group commercial manager, which is a largely business development role. I was appointed chief executive in July 2015.
Are you where you expected to be in your career?
My goals changed over time. I initially pursued science at third level and I found myself doing shiftwork at the Braun plant in Carlow. I always knew that I wanted to be in business.
When I looked at the business world, many of the people leading firms had come from an accounting background, so it made sense to pursue an accounting career.
I was lucky to get an opportunity with Ifac, which was recruiting a trainee accountant in the Carlow office in 2001. I’m still not sure how I got the interview, as the only accounting experience I had was a six-week City and Guilds double entry book-keeping course. Still, they took me on and I’ve not looked back since.
I was really lucky that they were willing to take a punt – it’s something that has stayed with me, and I try to do the same now whenever I can. Talent can come from unusual places and I’m not blind to that. We believe in building people, growing their skills and promoting from within when possible. My values haven’t changed: I believe in hard work, using your talent, giving everything you have to a role or task and being fair to people.
What was the best career advice you got along the way?
I have been lucky to have some great mentors along the way, people who invested time in me. Their advice was everything from “don’t forget to get to know the people you work with” to “put yourself in the other person’s shoes when you have a problem to solve”.
My parents instilled in me the importance of integrity and honesty. Their mantra of “do your best” remains a driver for me and the ultimate test.
Based on your own experience, what are your top career tips?
Always be the hardest-working person in the room.
Work like it’s a dream job, and soon enough you’ll be moving on to what might be your actual dream job. I started out footing turf for pocket money. I worked hard, and I still remember buying a pair of Marco van Basten football boots for £45 with my hard-earned pay. I was ten and it felt great.
If you feel like quitting a job or telling someone to take a walk, sleep on it. If you still feel the same way in the morning, go ahead.
Build your network, but do it in an authentic way. Make as many friends as you can, help as many people as you can. Do a favour, take the call, write the letter. You’d be surprised how much that kind of thing matters.
Admit when you are wrong, don’t let ego get in the way. It’s never too late to make a good decision. Apologise quickly and frequently. When you’re wrong, you’re wrong. Listen. Then listen some more.
How would you define your work style, and how has it evolved over the years?
I am committed to the project or task. We can disagree on how we might do something or if we’d do it, but once the decisions are made, I commit and drive on. This has probably always been my style.
In terms of managing teams and individuals, what are your insights?
Give people the room to use their creativity and make decisions. Autonomy is the key to recruiting, retaining and growing excellent people. Encourage people to be agile and open to new ideas. Be open to criticism and use it to make the organisation better. Say yes as often as possible.
What about communication and negotiating the typical ups and downs of working life?
Communication will vary from individual to individual, some people perform better with detailed information, others prefer broader content. Use whatever tools you can to identify the communication style that’s most effective with the individual you are communicating with.
Sometimes an email or memo in advance of a meeting is great; sometimes it can lead to complications. Work with individuals and make sure you hear their message.
Has networking played an important part in your career?
Don’t look at a person as a networking opportunity. Get to know people. Opportunities will come from investing time in building solid relationships.
If you had to choose another career tomorrow, what would it be and why?
I would still go into accounting, no contest. I get to work with great people. The Ifac team and our clients who are creating the next generation of successful Irish businesses are incredible.
Every job I’ve had, I’ve learned lessons and used them in my next job. I worked on the bog, in the FCA, including as an extra on Saving Private Ryan, I made electronic shaver kits for Braun, and pizzas for Poldy’s in Naas. I even sold Esat call plans door to door.
The world is full of opportunity nowadays. Choosing a career is not always easy, but it’s never too late to change direction.