An Interview With: Louise Phelan

CEO’s need mentors too. Because no one achieves success alone.
In Fitzgerald Power’s interview series, we’re speaking to people, with different perspectives, who feel they can offer more to the workplace – from the water cooler all the way up to C-Suite.
Louise Phelan
Louise Phelan

For as long as there has been commerce, less experienced entrepreneurs have sought counsel, guidance and advice from more established people in their fields. Today, the relationship between a mentor and protégé has become more critical than ever: not only as part of a professional’s development within one’s current company, but also externally as they pursue personal development. Down in the ranks, mentoring has become very popular in modern companies. Many of them set up formal arrangements whereby “old hands” help novices learn the ropes. But what about when you’re not a novice – does the mentoring finish then? “Absolutely not,” former Vice President of PayPal Louise Phelan shares. “Every day should be a school day, whether you’re the boss or not.” The role of CEO can be a lonely one, she continues, and support is rarely offered to the boss. “That’s something that should absolutely change,” she says. “I’ve had mentors all my life, because I would often be looking for someone with experience in certain areas that I don’t have, or even for guidance and perspective on things I cannot provide for myself. Mentorship in this way can provide guidance or even help with my own personal development. It’s also crucial for accountability – that someone can pull me up on something that I’m not doing, though I said I would.”

As former CEO of Phelan Energy Group, former Global Vice President of PayPal and former Senior Manager at GE Money, Louise Phelan’s leadership achievements have been widely recognised; she is the first woman to receive the Sir Michael Smurfit Business Achievement Award and a recipient on two separate occasions of Ireland’s Businesswoman of the Year. And according to her, the values of executive mentoring are plentiful; by encouraging mentees to have open, frank, forthright conversations about business ethics, career moves and interpersonal relationships; by showing that asking for help doesn’t equate to weakness; and by improving communication skills in what can often be high-stress environments. For employers, the benefits are not only higher performance but also greater success in attracting, developing, and retaining talent. “Throughout my career, I have met with and talked with my trusted advisors through every step,” Phelan smiles. “When you have someone in your corner, telling you the things you need to hear, it’s very hard to fail.”

Just because you’re a CEO, doesn’t mean you have to have all the answers. That’s something Phelan is absolutely sure about – though imposter syndrome often triggers amidst that thought process, especially for women. “I talk about impostor syndrome all the time,” she says. “You know, individuals doubt their own ability all the time. They feel like they don’t belong or they don’t deserve it. Women feel like that all the time. And I suppose here’s what I would say to people who experience imposter syndrome: first of all recognise and acknowledge it. You don’t have all the answers, and you’re not supposed to. I used to be sick about not knowing the answer. But over time, I came to realise that I can’t know everything, and if I did, I mightn’t have done my job right because my skills would have been elsewhere. Let your team do their work and you do yours. Seek support when you need it and celebrate your own achievements, which is something we’re all terrible at doing. You are valued, appreciated and important. Remember that there is room for you at the table, and that failure has its importance, too.”

The world is changing for women in business all the time, but no more than the most recent decade, Phelan says. “Women have been given opportunities and also taken them so much more than before 10 years ago. You know, women are now stepping in and taking a lot more risk than they ever would have been before. And really, they are learning from role models. They’re learning from people they’ve seen, almost as if they’re saying to themselves: if she can do that, I can too. Which is great. And you know, a huge amount of anyone’s customers these days are women, so it’s good for business to allow women to speak their minds and give their opinions.” That said, Phelan’s own experience as a woman in business hasn’t always been easy. “There were so many times where I would have been stopped in the middle of a sentence, interrupted and never let finish. That, or someone just fully taking my idea. So I decided the only way I was going to be heard was by force – if I wanted to share my piece and I was stopped, I would say “do you want me to continue or finish later?” It usually stopped them and redirected back to me, like it should’ve always been.”

For Phelan, a good entrepreneur can come in many forms. But the ones that impress her always boast the following: a strong work ethic, an ability to be adaptable, integrity, vision and innovation, determination, resilience and motivation. “A lot of people working in the entrepreneurial world want to see something to the end but lack the financial acumen to do so,” she says. “If an entrepreneur can’t tell me how they make money in 30 seconds or less, that worries me.” It’s also of crucial importance that they are customer focused. “Whatever they are building is going to be used by customers. So, what is it going to achieve for them? Is someone else doing it already? And how are you going to build on your original idea? If you don’t have the answers to them, then you need to move on. Pronto.”

The final ingredient when it comes to successful entrepreneurship is risk, something many of us find difficult to deal with. For those looking to succeed in business, however, the only way out is through. “Take the risk,” she says. “Don’t put your life savings into it, but invest your time and effort. Get a couple of people who are advocates of you, who believe in you – whether it’s a mother, a father, a sister or brother. Get them to say whether it is something that they would use, and if it is, go for it. Failing fast is really important. And I have to say that I admire every entrepreneur out there, because it’s not easy. It’s a tough environment. There’s always going to be a reason that it’s the wrong time, but you just have to believe in yourself and go for it. Life’s too short, and you have to back yourself.”

For more information on Louise, or her thoughts on imposter syndrome, check out her podcast, Ask My Mentor which can be found on Spotify, Apple and all good podcast hosts.