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What I’d say to me back then - don't wait for the perfect time to go for it, says Salesforce’s Carolan Lennon

Madeline Bennett Profile picture for user Madeline Bennett February 2, 2024
Summary:
Salesforce Ireland’s Country Leader went from a C performance in financial services to an A in telcos and tech.

Salesforce
Carolan Lennon

When Carolan Lennon graduated in Ireland in the 1980s, there weren't a lot of jobs around. Lennon wasn't exactly sure what she wanted to do, but she had a certain degree of ambition, instilled in her by her mother. She recalls:

My mum used to say to all of us, you're as good as everybody, and better than most. It was her catchphrase which she repeated, a bit of a mantra. 

The one thing Lennon was sure about was she wanted to build a career in Ireland. She managed to get a job in financial services, but it wasn’t for her. She explains:

When I reflect on that part of my career and how I progressed, it was definitely a C [class] performance, maybe a C+ on a good day. It took me a while to find what I really liked.

An assignment as a business analyst on a commercial project gave Lennon her first opportunity to work with consumers and users. She realized she was really interested in who was going to buy the product, and discovered the commercial path and understanding the consumer was the ideal career for her. 

As she had always followed a science track through school and college, and didn’t have any formal business, accounting or economics skills, Lennon decided to up-skill. On completing a full-time MBA at Trinity College Dublin, she got the opportunity to move into telecoms, helped by the combination of her original degree in IT and Maths coupled with the MBA. 

CEO 

Lennon worked at Vodafone for many years, and ended up as Consumer Director there. She  then moved to Eir, Ireland's largest telco, where she went on to become its first woman CEO:

My career progression once I hit telecoms was definitely in the A category. I found something that I absolutely loved. 

While she really enjoyed being CEO at Eir, Lennon felt she had another leadership role in her. It needed to be outside telcos, because having run the largest one, she wasn't looking to work at another telco; she also wanted to work in a different business model to see if her skills and leadership were transferable, and in an industry that was growing.  

Lennon made the move from telco to tech in July 2022, joining Salesforce Ireland as Country Leader. At the same time, she took a seat on the board at Flutter, the international gaming and gambling company that operates brands like Paddy Power and Betfair. Entering two completely new industries was a bit scary at first, Lennon says:

But it's really good for your head and your brain to do new things, to learn new things.

While it’s no surprise that when Lennon was studying for her IT degree in the 1980s, it was an 80/20 male/female ratio, what’s less expected is that when she did her MBA, the vast majority were men as well:

My experience of education is, I have been in in the minority rather than the majority in the course choices that I have made.

Things have definitely changed for the better when it comes to representation for women, both in tech and business leadership. Ireland is an ideal example of this, Lennon notes:

There are women leading Salesforce, Meta, Google and Microsoft. I absolutely believe in the mantra, she can see it, she can be it. In my early days in telco, particularly when I was a leader, I often found myself on senior leadership teams where I was the only woman. No matter how confident you are, it's always much more of a challenge to be the only person in the room or to be in that minority.

There’s certainly more visibility of women in senior tech roles, and many tech companies are striving to get a more gender-balanced workforce. Lennon notes that Salesforce Ireland has some 16-year olds coming in for a course over the coming weeks, and the intake is divided 50/50 male/female. 

But look at surveys and women will say that technology is dominated by men. The focus of companies like Salesforce and others on wanting to see that representation at all levels through the organization makes it easier for women. But the challenges of children and maternity leave are challenges companies still need to address and they still impact on women much more than they impact on men, unfortunately.

Asking women what they want before they go off on maternity leave is a good starting point, advises Lennon. For her first two maternity leaves, she was keen to stay in regular contact with her company, including getting updates on any opportunities for career progression. By her third and final mat leave, Lennon wanted to take more of a step away and focus on enjoying the time with her new baby. 

Access

While Lennon is a huge advocate for women and always has been, there’s another aspect of DEI that she believes is just as important: class. She explains:

You don't achieve equality if all the women in the room come from the same postcode and the same university. Class and access and being open to bringing people in from different backgrounds is absolutely important, and actually just as important.

Access to opportunities is something close to Lennon’s heart. Back in 1966, Ireland’s Education Minister, Donogh O'Malley, announced plans for free upper second-level education for all. This was introduced in 1967, and Lennon ended up a beneficiary:

Because my parents are very working class and certainly for four kids, they would have struggled to pay for us all to go to secondary education.

Lennon also got a grant to go to University College Dublin at 17:

That opened a whole new world for me, because education is the game changer for people.

This message is clearly taken on-board at Salesforce. Lennon says the firm has donated millions in grants to education in Ireland, and works with schools in disadvantaged areas, introducing students to the world of tech and Salesforce:

It's introducing them at that early age as they're thinking about the future, and trying to demystify, de-stigmatize. If we keep looking in the same places for our people, we're going to get the same people. They're going to be great, but they're not going to be diverse.

The vast majority of the kids going to the big universities of Trinity and UCD will come from the same schools. My son is one of them. Access to education and having that broader diverse group is really important.

As someone who benefited from open access to education and has progressed to the top of the career ladder, what would 2023 Carolan tell her younger self, and what lessons learned would she share with those following in her footsteps? She says: 

Firstly, I wish I'd got to the fit of the role quicker. It took me a long time to realize that your best chance of excelling in a role is do something that you really like. Once I figured that out, I flew, but it took me a while. I would say to my younger self, get honest and realize that quicker.

The second learning, which Lennon says is more a female than male trait, is don't assume people know what you want regarding your ambitions and aspirations:

You've got to tell people what you want. It can be a bit scary but I was really upfront that I wanted to be the next CEO. There is something in being honest and open about what you want.

Finally, there's no perfect time. Lennon has three sons, but she definitely would have liked more children:

I was always trying to get my timing right with everything. It just doesn't work like that. So just go for it. I wish I'd started having kids a bit earlier because I might have had one or two more. I would have told myself not to worry about getting the timing right. There's no perfect time for anything.

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