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Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh arrives late, and apologises for not calling. He says he has forgotten his charger and decided to turn his mobile phone off to conserve the battery.
The quiet charm and honesty make his timekeeping easy to forgive. The diversions that follow – taking in the value of fools and policemen who think they are turning into bicycles – make you feel as if you should drop everything and talk all day with the man who has been dean of University College Dublin’s Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School since 2011.
We start with his name: “It’s not as bad as you think,” he says. (I can apparently manage a fair approximation of the pronunciation by saying something that looks like “Kieron O’Hogarty”.) Had the shoe been on the other foot, and Prof Ó hÓgartaigh been the one faced with an unfamiliar foreign name, you get the impression he would have been unfazed. His fluent English is his second language, Irish being the first. His first degree, a bachelor of commerce from NUI Galway, was combined with business french. Really, one suspects, his gift with languages is strongly allied to his abilities as a communicator.
He says it was a gifted teacher that awakened his interest in accountancy and led to him studying the subject and qualifying as a chartered accountant with Arthur Andersen in Dublin.
“But I always wanted to be in academic life,” he says, and he undertook a PhD in accounting at the University of Leeds in the mid-1990s. He is also a former Fulbright fellow at Northeastern University in Boston. His academic career has seen him teach at undergraduate, graduate and executive levels at Dublin City University and Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.
Significantly, he joined UCD as professor of accountancy in 2008 – just in time for the financial crisis that tore into the developed world and devastated Ireland’s economy. With the eyes of the world focused on the mistakes and wrongdoings that contributed to the crisis, Prof Ó hÓgartaigh says the school took it upon itself to learn what it could do better.
The team at Smurfit decided to look more closely at the business school’s role in society. It decided to emphasise exports as a driver for growth in Ireland’s economy, rather than the retail and construction industries. Under his leadership, he says, the school’s revenues have grown by more than 12 per cent. After “reframing” the relationship with the university, he has been able to recruit between 15 and 20 new faculty members in the past 18 months.
For those wishing to learn more about Prof Ó hÓgartaigh himself, the most intriguing aspect to his leadership at Smurfit is perhaps his decision to focus on the value of dissent.
This is a topic that is very close to his heart. He talks about the role of the fool as in Greek tragedies and as used by Shakespeare, for example in King Lear. Fools, he says, have the power to say things “without getting their heads chopped off”.
He aims to encourage a polyphonic classroom where educators make a conscious effort to encourage everyone’s voice to be heard.
“The fool’s role is to speak truth to power,” he says.
He admires the work of Daniel Kahneman in his 2011 book Thinking, Fast and Slow, in which the economist recommends carrying out “pre-mortems”. This working backwards from imagined bad outcomes is a good way of giving those unwanted events enough attention, he says. “As humans we tend to be optimistic and we undervalue pessimism. We don’t often think about consequences.”
Once an individual has spotted a possible consequence or a present ill-doing, the challenge is to be able to have the courage to report it.
This is one of the things that Smurfit, under his leadership, is hoping to influence. Prof Ó hÓgartaigh says he hopes to be able to encourage students to hang on to their idealism once they enter the different corporate cultures of their future employers.
He mentions the comic novel The Third Policeman, by Flann O’Brien, in which the policemen believe themselves to be turning into bicycles because of the length of time they have sat on them. He uses that example when he tries to tell his students not to become part of what they do.
You get the impression that he genuinely cares about his staff and students. Unusually, for a dean, he has managed to find time to continue teaching and he continues to deliver a whole module in financial accounting to final year undergraduates – this includes handling the marking. Teaching not only keeps him in contact with his students, which he enjoys, but also enables him to better understand the pressures staff are under. “The reason why we’re here is so the world becomes a better place as we pass through,” he says.
When he was invited to speak at a Visions for Ireland conference in 2012, Prof Ó hÓgartaigh recounted to the audience some advice he had received on public speaking. He had been told, he said, that people do not remember what you said, they remember how you made them feel.
In Prof Ó hÓgartaigh’s case, it might be a bit of both.