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Transforming Our Systems: Niall Dunne on Seizing the Power of Technology for Good
April 10, 2017
This is one of a series of interviews that started when Rosie Warin, CEO of culture and communications agency Kin&Co, began having conversations with high–profile, values–driven leaders of the ‘purpose revolution’ about the future of leadership. Each explores how these leaders got to where they are now, and what they think the future of values–driven leadership looks like.
Did you know that Niall Dunne, Chief Sustainability Officer at BT, used to be a professional athlete? Or that his first job was on the floor of a cat food factory, and he used to break the rules? And that’s not even the best bit…
Rosie Warin: What was your first job?
Niall Dunne: I worked in a cat food factory, packing Whiskas - one penny a tin. Occasionally, when we’d worked a few days straight through and really needed a break, we’d send a tin through the machine the wrong way, because it would break the machine. There was only one person in the UK who could fix it and they had to fly them into Dublin from Birmingham, so we got two or three days off.
Then from 10pm until 2am I worked clearing cheques. Remember cheques? I remember working machines called ‘jogglers’ and drinking lots of tea.
At the time, it didn’t feel like either of these jobs, or my attitude to them, helped me grow. But they helped me understand what my purpose wasn’t, which started me asking myself what it was.
RW: What are your most important personal values?
ND: I believe in people. I think humanity has amazing potential. We’ve shown that potential time and time again throughout the course of our evolution. Technology has a real role in empowering humanity with the tools that it needs to figure out the solution to a lot of issues.
I believe that corporations need to show leadership around the equal distribution of wealth and what the transformation of capitalism looks like.
RW: What have been your greatest achievements as a values-driven leader?
ND: My failures. I would not be able to survive a day in this job without having had all those hard knocks. I was so foolish when I was young: Dropped out of college twice, failed as a rugby player, failed as an athlete [Note: Niall considers getting the B time instead of the A time for the Sydney Olympics a failure]. My own company, Bluvolution, failed. But when you put all of that failure together, you can roll it into something that is uniquely equipped to give you an opportunity to really shine and inspire people.
I think the only other time, besides now, that I’ve been this excited about my job was as an athlete. I didn’t run for ego - I wanted to stand on the podium and for us all to say, “Look at who we are, look at how brilliant humanity is. Look at how a guy from Ireland can race with Kenyans, Jamaicans and Americans.” To be one of the best, and inspire training partners, coaches, nutritionists and everybody who supports you, and comes with you on the journey. It’s very hard to find a job that kind of replicates that, and that’s been a very long journey. But now, I get that same sense of purpose, that same sense of achievement every day that I had when I was a professional athlete.
RW: Who are your heroes in the values-driven business space?
ND: The people who really inspire me are the people making a difference every day – like farmers and teachers. Did you know I used to draw in silage, and can debate the merits of various tractors from the ‘80s and ‘90s with anyone? I am very proud to come from that background, so my uncles and parents have always been heroes to me. Every day, no excuses - they’re the ones that really motivate me.
RW: In your ideal world, what will society look like in 30 years’ time?
ND: People will have seized the power of technology for good. We will have utilised Artificial Intelligence to impose our values and sustainable development on the global systems of supply and demand. Specifically, energy users will become energy providers. In healthcare, we’ll have centres for excellence that will then provide the tools to replicate good practice locally. Education will go through a fundamental transformation - from classroom to cloud. In my view, the classroom is dead.
With food, we’ll see a massive philosophical challenge - industrial-size farms versus more local, seasonal produce - but all enabled digitally, and therefore far more empowering to people as a result.
There are massive opportunities for businesses to create value on the back of all of that. Those who don’t and hold on to dying business models - they’ll all just disappear.
RW: What’s your biggest challenge on a day-to-day basis?
ND: Getting the balance right between being inspiring, being empathetic and being empowering. Making sure people will stand on their own two feet, come up with their own ideas and bring their own energies into play. This is the great test for any leader - do things fall apart when you’re away? You’re always learning; you don’t always get it right.
RW:Is there any business jargon - specifically related to the world of values-driven business - which you really hate?
ND:I hate ‘CSR.’ As soon as anybody says it I’m like, ugh! People don’t even see how limiting it’s actually been. It’s really about core business, mainstream engagement. That’s what creates better business.
RW: If you could give advice to your 25-year-old self, what would it be?
ND: Back yourself. Don’t ever give up. And establish networks - if you can’t access your hero offline, access them online. I once found out that Jeff Sachs was in Dublin, so I showed up in the reception of the Marriott Hotel he was staying in. We’ve laughed about it later in life - I made a point of telling him the story!
RW: As we move forward from a year full of political upheaval, the onus is on purpose-driven business leaders to continue driving sustainability agendas. What do you see as your biggest priorities and challenges for 2017?
ND: Global events of the last few months have shown us that a more networked society can undermine our social structures far more rapidly than anything else. The rise of cyber warfare, social bubbles that prevent diversity and inclusion, fake news and its ability to undermine democracy have created a disruptive storm that we don't yet know the full impact of. However, this networked society is also facilitating innovation, rags-to-riches stories, fraternity & community at an unprecedented level.
BT sits at the intersection of all of these forces and, to be true to our purpose, needs to ensure that the gravity of this perfect storm results is a successful chapter in human evolution.