Increasing the level of positive leadership in Ireland - (with Joanne Hession of LIFT Ireland)

Increasing the level of positive leadership in Ireland - (with Joanne Hession of LIFT Ireland)

November 04 2019

Laura & Paul had a fascinating discussion with Joanne Hession of LIFT Ireland about LIFT's inspiring mission to increase the level of positive leadership in Ireland.

About Joanne Hession

Joanne Hession is passionate and effective in helping individuals and organisations to achieve their potential by leveraging expert leadership training and entrepreneurial attributes.

A company director by the age of 27 she went on to found two companies of her own and today is the Executive Director of The Entrepreneurs Academy and QED The Accreditation Experts as well as being an Executive Director of The John Maxwell Team (largest leadership training organisation in the world).

In 2018 Joanne stepped aside from her business to found and dedicate her time to a national leadership initiative, LIFT Ireland.

LIFT Ireland builds authentic leadership across the country, at the kitchen table, in the classroom, clubhouse and boardroom.

Joanne’s business, The Entrepreneurs Academy has trained over 30 thousand people towards success over 20+ years.

Currently an elected Council member of Dublin Chamber, Joanne is focused on equipping leaders to fulfil their potential. Joanne is a passionate advocate of servant and authentic leadership. 

Read on or listen to the discussion below.

While You're Here: Get The Employee Retention Guide

Looking for some fresh ideas on how to retain your staff in times of increasing employee turnover?

The Employee Retention Guide features helpful tips and advice for financial services & FinTech employers from industry experts.

You can download the free Employee Retention Guide now.

Podcast Interview

Ok, let's get into the discussion . . .

Interview Notes

Joanne Hession: I was always big into business. I loved business, studied business and went into accountancy after, if I go back that far, went into accountancy and then worked for UCD. I thought I would always stay in business but something in my mid-twenties made me I suppose go searching for something else. I left in my mid-twenties and I headed off with Concern Worldwide to the Rwandan refugee camps. I was on the border and I worked there for a couple of years.

Joanne Hession: I think that probably was one of the things that led me to where I am now in that being catapulted from a very comfortable home with my mom and dad and siblings, all the way over to refugee camps where people have absolutely nothing but the clothes on their backs, so it certainly puts everything in perspective for you.

Joanne Hession: Anyway, I came back from there aged 27 and definitely with a renewed love for education and what education can do because when you've got nothing at all, if you've education, nobody can ever steal that off you. I had a new respect I think and love for education and came back and set up my own business then when I was 27. I think I was about 27, 28 and set up a business in education.

Joanne Hession: That business is that 21 years old now. We train people to set up their own business and it's called the Entrepreneurs Academy. It's a great business and I absolutely love it, but I think probably in my thirties I think, as I was running my business and I was busy at home, I had three kids under the age of five, so it was busy all the time. I'd sort of look at [inaudible 00:02:22] and my team and they were great people and we were doing well. But I'd kind of look and think, do you know what? If he could just do his job and I do mine then we'd be doing a lot better. Then I might look at another one and go, oh, you know, if you could just do your job, she could do her job and I'll do mine. It just felt like I was pushing the business like a rock up a hill.

Joanne Hession: When I really sat back and thought about it, I actually took holidays one year and took nine books away with me and said, I'm going to sort out what this is. I realized, I didn't think I would, but I realized when I was reading all these books that the problem wasn't the team at all. It was me. That I was managing well, but I just wasn't leading well. I wasn't leading myself well and I wasn't leading the business well. Once I really started to study leadership, then I realized that actually, do you know what? Everything really goes up or down based on how good a leader you are and I really wasn't performing as a good one.

Joanne Hession: So I started to study leadership. I started to do a lot of study both here and abroad. As a result I got invited into am a number of organizations to work with their top teams on leadership. It just kept on striking me all the time that it's great to be able to do this and I loved doing it, but so much pivots or depends on the character of the individual. That leadership, so much of it is about character rather than it being about IQ and that if we could help everyone in our nation to build their inner leader, that we would end up with a much better country and I suppose we'd have a much better impact on society.

Starting LIFT Ireland

Joanne Hession: It was on the back of my mind that I'd love to be able to offer something out to all the schools that are out there, not just young students and teenage students, but also teachers and principals and also all the nonprofits that we have, that just can't afford really great leadership training and yet all need excellent education in the whole area of personal development and personal leadership.

Joanne Hession: That is kind of, in a very roundabout way how LIFT started. I'd be talking to people in 2017 and 2016 and probably for many years before that and saying, "Do you know what? We really need to do something in this country because we have a great country, we've got amazing people here. We've got wonderful education, beautiful countryside, fabulous arts, media. We've won the birth lottery by being here and yet, if we look at it, we still have issues across every single sector of society." I mean across our institutions, across our sports institutions, our business institutions, our church. There isn't an area of society or charities where there haven't been issues that really fall down on leadership. If we look at it, even though we are from such a, privileged is an unusual word to use, but we're very lucky where we live and yet we're good with a small G rather than being good with a big G.

Joanne Hession: A number of us got together and said, okay, well let's do something about this, and we started LIFT Ireland, which is a nationwide initiative to raise the level of leadership in the country. Not positional leadership, it's not a criticism of anybody in any position, but it's me saying if I get a little bit better, personally how I lead myself and my family, my companies, my community, and if you also do the same and if the next person does the same, then together we'll have more positive influence. Just by the way that it all happens, we will influence and have a positive effect on society.

LIFT Ireland logo

Paul: Thanks, Joanne. There's loads I could ask you on that. One thing I just wanted to pick up on and get your thoughts on because our podcast is listened to by people who'd be moving into management positions for the first time or progressing through a management career. What's the difference between leadership and management?

Joanne Hession: Yeah, it's a great question, and do you know, the two words are used interchangeably and they really shouldn't be because they're very, very different things. In fact, when I studied business in the early nineties there might have been one leadership class in a whole business course, so they were intermingled and there wasn't a really good understanding of what leadership was. The books were on the same shelves and so on, but management is about doing things in the right way, at the right time by the right people. If you're a good manager, you're making sure that the right people are doing the right things in the right way, at the right time. Okay? So you can be a really excellent manager, but you might not be an excellent leader.

Joanne Hession: To be able to see if an excellent manager is also a great leader, ask them to create really substantial change because a leader is somebody that you want to follow. If you ask a manager to create great change, if people don't really want to follow them in that change, then they're not really leading. That's where the leadership skills really come into play because a leader is somebody that has positive influence, that you will follow. I mean think yourselves of people that you admire or that you would want to follow in your own workplaces or people that you know. There are people that have got strong character attributes, as well as other things. It doesn't mean that they're naturally great managers, but they are people you want to follow.

Paul: You kind of talked to us already about I suppose where LIFT came from, but it's a really big idea. I suppose when you're talking about leadership, it must take an awful lot of leadership to push LIFT, if you know what I mean.

Joanne Hession: Yeah. Look, it is. It's a huge initiative that we have. We're looking here to transform a country. That's what we're going to do. Over the next 10 years, by 2028 we are looking to get 10% of the population of the island living LIFT or being in touch with LIFT, so that they raise their personal leadership. That in turn, will create a tipping point. In fact, I think it would probably create it before then in Ireland because we're so well networked. But it will create a tipping point where we have an impact on society.

Joanne Hession: Because I mean if you look at any of the research, it shows that helping people to achieve their potential, if you help people to achieve, to raise their potential, to achieve their potential, this has an enormous impact on society. At a very practical level, it means that I may make a better decision on a day, or I may have more positive influence with somebody on my team, which means that they go home and in turn feel better about their jobs.

Joanne Hession: Whereas what we actually have at the moment is quite low engagement in our workforces and often we have high stress for people in their jobs and people not really being engaged. If we can all raise ourselves a little bit, that will in turn have an impact and a knock-on effect in society. But yes, it is huge, and in terms of leadership, don't get me wrong, I'm not doing this all on my own. I absolutely love it. I have stepped away from my own businesses to volunteer full time for LIFT and drive LIFT Ireland forward. But I have a superb advisory board made up of 12 really competent individuals that are fantastic. On top of that we also have eight different teams that are all working on different areas of LIFT. So some are volunteers and we've just got two people that are working full time for LIFT. But in this second year of LIFT Ireland we will increase those numbers because we just have to in order to achieve the goals we've set.

Paul: In terms of LIFT then, obviously it's broader than just the professional side, in terms of organizations, but what types of organizations are you targeting or looking to get on board with this?

Joanne Hession: Yeah, so every single organization and individual is invited to LIFT Ireland. Loads of people have asked me over the last year and a half or so are, "Is that group invited? Is that group invited?" Everybody is invited. It doesn't matter from where. It doesn't matter where you're from. It doesn't matter what you believe in or don't believe in. It doesn't matter what political party you're part of or known. It really doesn't matter. We don't care at all. Every single organization is invited.

Joanne Hession: Initially, when LIFT started, and I should have said this actually in the last question too, with regard to not starting this myself, 23 founding partners came in behind us. There were organizations like the ESB, like the CPL Group, AIB, WeddingDates. So we had small organizations and then we had huge large organizations like Dublin Airport Authority. They all came behind those. Digicom. Huge number of different organizations, Enterprise Ireland, RTÉ, Musgraves and so on. They said, yes, we will come on behind this and we will start to live LIFT within our organizations.

Joanne Hession: They would be the more commercial organizations that are behind it. But then there are lots of other organizations that are also involved, like the LauraLynn Foundation or Munster Rugby, or others that are involved. The way we work at is that we ask any organization that can afford to give a financial contribution to LIFT to give us one and then we give it for free to any other organization that would like to be involved.

Joanne Hession: We are inundated with schools that would like to. They get their 16 year old transition years to start to live LIFT and then the transition years are doing it with the 14 year olds in schools. At the same time the teachers are doing is in the staff rooms. So it's absolutely open to everybody, nobody is turned away. If you can afford to contribute to do and if you don't, you don't.

Living LIFT

Laura: Great. Thanks for that Joanne. What does living LIFT actually mean?

Joanne Hession: Yeah. A great question because this is a big initiative and it's hard to get your head around sometimes. What living LIFT means is that you go through the LIFT program, and LIFT is a series of eight round tables. They only take 30 minutes each to take part in. Laura and Paul, you two and myself, we could do LIFT round table here and now. It would take us probably about 15 or 20 minutes. We sit and over eight weeks, once a week we look at a different area of leadership.

Joanne Hession: When we look at that area of leadership, we self reflect on that area and we go, do you know what? How good was I at that in the last 24 hours and how could I get a tiny bit better? We have a LIFT process that we actually take you through. We teach people how to do it and then they can follow the process.

Joanne Hession: The eight areas that we go through are areas that Irish people voted on as the areas that are most important for us to build as leaders. The areas that they said we need to become better at, in terms of leadership in Ireland are we need to become better at listening. We need to become better at holding each other accountable, but also holding ourselves accountable. We need to become more competent, more drive and determination, more empathy, more integrity, more positive attitude and more respect.


Joanne Hession: Each time you sit at one of these LIFT round tables, you look at one of those eight areas of leadership and you go through a reflective process that we teach you how to do and learn how to build that muscle inside you. Because if three of us suddenly looked at listening now and started to think, how good was I at listening before this podcast and yesterday, and was I really listening to people? We will start to raise our self-awareness around listening. Then when you do it, once, that really starts to improve your behavior. But then after you do the eight round tables, you start them again and you do listening again. So in nine weeks' time you do it again. So it's about embedding this good behavior all the time and building your inner leader. Am I explaining that well enough for you?

Paul: Yeah, and it's really interesting actually because the eight areas you talk about, they're not the kind of traditional things that you'd see on a management transition course in a big company. They almost sound like values.

Joanne Hession: Yeah, they are. It's sort of like, we've got a lot of academic-led education, which is really important, but we're missing, we have a gap in fundamental values education. If you look at a lot of the leadership, for example, one of the things that really breaks down in teams when they're working together is when trust falls, and why does trust fall or break down?

Joanne Hession: If the three of us were in a meeting together and all of a sudden one of you starts to cut across me and sort of ignore me, then you're disrespecting me and suddenly I start to feel disrespected and trust starts to break down. It is actually these fundamental values or good attributes, character, good character attributes that really build your inner leader. That's what they do. It's the kind of thing that your granny would have told you to do years ago. But we've kind of lost sight of some of them. Not everybody has, but we can all definitely improve in them.

Laura: Definitely. I suppose while we're on the topic of values, what we're seeing more and more of is authenticity has become more important for people within a company. How important is authenticity in leadership within all of this?

Joanne Hession: Oh, for me it's everything. For me it's everything. In fact, LIFT is really all about being your authentic itself. It's about being able to bring yourself to work. So in a LIFT round table, one of the aspects of it is, is that there is no judgment and no commenting. No matter what I say, I can just be myself. If the two of you are in my round table with me, you can't comment and you can't judge me. They're the rules of the game. It allows people, the freedom to just be themselves, to be authentic.

Joanne Hession: Because if you look at the world now, the world is full of judgment. We are being judged all the time and we are judging all the time, both online and offline. It can be very difficult to be your authentic self. Whereas LIFT is all about allowing you to be yourself and me to be myself because it's only by doing that, that you look at me and say, "Do you know what? She's exactly the same as me. She's human," and I'm looking at you going, "Do you know, you guys are human too."

Joanne Hession: That's what's gorgeous about this. It can sound very soft and it can sound very fluffy, and I'm telling you there is nothing soft or fluffy about this. I think it was Renee Brown that said recently the soft stuff is the hard stuff and she's absolutely right. This stuff is what's hard and certainly from the work I've done with leadership teams and big corporates, it is this soft stuff that people find extremely hard because either you were taught it a lot of the time as you were growing up within your family or you've had very good mentoring or managers or leaders in work that have helped you with it. But more often than not, behavior is just keep going on and silence is approval and people are behaving in ways that they're actually just not aware that they shouldn't be.

Paul: Yeah, I agree 100% stuff that the soft stuff is sometimes the hard stuff and certainly something I see in the coaching side of what we do in this type of business, in terms of living LIFT, what have you seen that has been the impact of organizations that are living LIFT?

The Impact of LIFT Ireland

Joanne Hession: We've seen huge impact. I think the biggest thing for us has been that almost 90% of people that have gone through the eight weeks of the eight round tables, 89 point something percent of people are saying that they can cite behavior change as a result of it.

Joanne Hession: Now what we're looking for is small actions, small behavior change, because it's small actions that lead to great change. That's a huge percentage of people going through the LIFT process that are actually saying their behavior is changing. As some of this may be that in a work context, if somebody enters the room, they're moving from their laptop or from a computer or they're not looking at their mobile phone or whatever that might be, but that kind of change, that builds respect, that builds trust. People are listening more and that all builds positive influence, so that's really important.

Joanne Hession: We're looking for three types of change or three types of impact. At an individual level, at an organizational level and then at a society, the level of society. We're too young yet to see it at the level of society because we've only just started our second year, but certainly at an individual and at an organizational level, the organizations that are involved with us are seeing greater engagement. They're citing examples where real problems are being solved because people are in the same LIFT round tables and have a common language that they can use to explore things and talk about things.

Joanne Hession: We've done a lot of work with RSA and fantastic people in there. Noelle Burke is the HR director and Amanda Johnson, and Ken Norgrove is the CEO. Ken himself said that when they did it at their executive level that it just gave them a really greater understanding of each other as individuals. But also he said his respect and his admiration for his colleagues just absolutely heightened by things he was learning. Just by hearing about them talk about these different character attributes. We've seen a lot of change, but we have a long way to go yet. But certainly after year one we've seen a lot of positive impact, it's definitely the concept has been proven.

Laura: Thank you very much for that, Joanne. If people want to get in touch or find out more about LIFT, what should they do next?

Joanne Hession: Yes, just go to LIFT There's an events page there. If anybody would like to learn how to live LIFT, you become a facilitator so you learn how to facilitate one of the round tables and you can bring it into your organization then, or you could do it with a group of friends or your family, whatever you'd like to do, or in a club. We've got it running in GAA clubs and other organizations around the country. Just go to Go to the events if you'd like to see the events and on the website there's a lot of detail about our partner organizations and those who are involved in it. If anybody would like to get involved, I'd just urge them to jump in.

Need Help?

If you want any information or are interested in one of our roles in the Fintech and financial services industry, get in touch with us at Top Tier Recruitment.

Check out our podcast and, if there's ever anything that you would like discussed, feel free to get in touch,