BComm '92 & MAcc '93
After spending the early part of his career as an accountant, Colm Murphy found his real passion and strength – working with leaders and teams to help them achieve learning, growth and transformation. He now runs his own business – Dynamic Leadership Development – and is head of coaching programmes at UCD Smurfit Executive Development.
About Colm Murphy
Tell us about your educational background and early career
I completed my BComm in UCD in 1992 and my Masters in Accounting in Smurfit UCD in 1993.
I started off in Deloitte, where I ended up staying for quite a few years and having several different careers. I did the standard accountancy auditing track and then spent a year and a half in Australia after qualifying. When I came back, I progressed into audit management but accountancy was never really my thing.
But I got lucky in Deloitte in that I had a really good mentor who asked me to get involved in delivering a training course. It went well and I really enjoyed it and within 12 months I was heading up audit training and development. I found I had a passion for it and was good at it. I subsequently became training manager and then learning development manager for Deloitte Ireland.
After nine years in Deloitte I moved to Symantec to deliver leadership development across Europe and Asia. A couple of years later I pitched for – and got – the newly created role of head of executive development, working with all the vice presidents and high potential directors across the globe. Then I was headhunted by Symantec’s head of sales to lead sales enablement for 1,300 sales reps across Europe.
Everything changed in 2007 when we had triplet boys and I realised I just couldn’t do an international role with three babies in the house. So, in May 2008 I went out on my own as an executive coach – a part of me still wonders what I was thinking!
It wasn’t something I had planned for but I had new priorities and needed to be travelling less and to have more freedom around my time. It was a risk, but I saw an opportunity to go out on my own and do what I was already doing but for a range of companies.
What is your role now?
Currently I have two roles. One is my own business – Dynamic Leadership Development – which is focused on coaching leaders and teams. In my other role, I’m head of coaching programmes in UCD Smurfit Executive Development. I am responsible for our three post-graduate programmes and building up our reputation as a centre of excellence for coaching.
At the heart of coaching is helping people to stop and reflect and act with more purpose. I’m trying to help leaders look at what they want to achieve, the things they’re currently doing that are working and the things that might need to change. This often involves working at a psychological level. Often the change isn’t about just doing something different but also identifying what’s really going on – it may be imposter syndrome, a sense of perfectionism, or an inner voice telling them they’re not good enough. Coaching is all about working with people to develop a relationship where they and I can have honest, challenging conversations.
My real passion is around doing that very thing with teams. Leadership development has had a lot of focus for a number of years but I don’t think we spend a lot of time truly developing teams. Team development has typically involved taking a group into the wilderness to build a raft. But it’s much more impactful if you can work with a team over six to 12 months and help them have those honest, challenging conversations about their purpose, whether they need to be a team and how they’re behaving and performing.
What do you see as the defining moment in your career?
The defining moment was when I was doing accountancy and the new managing partner began running workshops on the culture of the organisation, which was a very different approach at the time. One of those workshops raised the idea of introducing a mentoring scheme and I found myself leading the charge in setting up such an initiative in the organisation. In hindsight, I realise it was my first ‘career best’ moment.
Career best moments will often involve a combination of you using your strengths, working on something you’re passionate about, and meeting a need. Nobody asked me to do the mentoring scheme. It was probably the first time I stepped up and took the initiative to lead. I was using my core strengths, namely taking the initiative and people development; it was something I was passionate about – developing people; and there was a need in the organisation.
In hindsight, I realise that was probably the pivotal moment when I stepped out of the crowd a bit. And it ties into a key philosophy for me, which is around continuing to play to my strengths.
What motivates you?
My motivations have changed over the course of my career. Right now they are around the areas of challenge and freedom. In the past, advancement would have been a key driver but, being self-employed and having reached a certain stage in life, that’s less important to me. Now, I’m really interested in doing work that I find challenging and that develops me and also challenges my clients.
I’m also motivated by freedom. Right now, I have the ability to pick and choose my own work and take time and have balance with the family as well.
I’m also always trying to find work that has the potential to be transformational for the person or the team. It’s about trying to provide an environment where someone can really change how they see themselves or how they behave or perform.
What is your leadership style?
If I was giving my style a name I would say it is conversational. That may not sound very leadership-like but I believe in the value of asking people the right questions, listening, making connections and building trust, and knowing the right time to challenge and the right time to support. I like to connect with people and try to figure out how to help them.
The most powerful thing I’ve read on this subject is that leadership is about creating the environment where people can and want to do what needs to be done.
What’s your biggest achievement to date?
In six months between the end of 2007 and May 2008 I went from having no family and being in the middle of a corporate career, to having triplet boys and starting my own business at the start of an economic meltdown.
When I look back, that achievement may be one of survival. Everything went up in the air and thankfully it has all landed well – 11 years later and the business is going strong and the boys are well. That feels like the biggest achievement I can think of.
How important is ongoing learning to you?
One of the joys of what I do as a business coach and working with leaders and teams is that the learning is ongoing. You’re always learning from your clients, seeing how they work, how they deal with challenges and how they see the world.
I don’t mean to be rude to my younger self but when I look back at my 20s and 30s, it feels like I was sleepwalking around. There was no sense of self awareness or really knowing what learning felt like, and that stretch. Now, it almost feels like an exciting burden to realise that you have to keep on developing. I think I’ll always be trying to challenge myself and figure myself and others out.
Continuing to develop my skills and mindset is also helpful to my clients. I don’t think it would be authentic if I was trying to help them stretch while thinking that I was all done in that regard.
As part of ongoing development, one of the challenges we all have is to take time to stop and reflect. Without that I think we lose a lot of the learning in our day-to-day lives.
What’s your best piece of advice?
Play to your strengths. About 15 years ago I got to read a good bit about research on positive psychology and people playing to their strengths. That has stuck with me. It’s not about ignoring areas where you can improve, but it is very important to examine what you’re particularly good at and how you can get yourself into situations that allow you to use those strengths.
We need to move away from the script we all got in school that we had to be good at everything and we had to do grinds in the areas where we’re weak. The idea of doing grinds in what you’re really good at and passionate about might seem strange but that can help any of us to stand out.
So, play to your strengths, be distinctive and stand out by being you.
What are your career or business aspirations going forward?
I’ve realised my ambition is not necessarily to grow an organisation or be at the centre of it, because that would take me away from the very thing I’m good at, which is coaching. I’d just be managing other people who are doing that work. It might – or might not – make me financially happier but it wouldn’t make me happier in my job.
I’m currently doing a doctorate on team coaching and one of my aspirations going forward is to complete it and to write more on that subject.
Working more with teams is another key aspiration. And I’ll keep working to try to figure out myself.
What are your main interests outside of work?
Tennis, music, reading, shouting at the Irish rugby team on the TV.
Tell us something most people don’t know about you?
I won a prize last year at a charity ball to be an extra on Fair City – that's me drinking fake beer and pretending to talk to another extra in the corner of the pub.
What piece of technology can you not live without?
My wife and kids would say my iPhone. But I actually love my AirPods more.
Favourite book or writer?
That's too hard to answer. The book the made the earliest big impression was Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut – I never knew a book could combine the bombing of Dresden, aliens, the meaning of life and cartoons.
And what is your favourite band or musician?
Could give you a different answer on any given day but Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, John Prine and Guy Clark are always on the playlist.
What’s the last gig you went to that you loved?
Chris Smither in the Seamus Ennis Centre in Naul – 80 people in a venue listing to a great blues singer song writer.
What is your favourite place in the world to visit and why?
Rome – the history, the fountains, the architecture and the great ice cream.
What causes are closest to your heart?
Cybersafe Ireland is a great small non-profit organisation going out to schools to educate kids and parents on safe internet usage – am so impressed by the passion and energy of the founders Alex and Cliona.