Community//

“Lean on lived experiences and make a start” With Denis Doolan

Lean on lived experiences and make a start — The German writer and statesman, Johann Von Goethe, once wrote, “Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do.” There is no overnight fix to issues around diversity and inclusion, but we must start somewhere. At Special Olympics, we began by training […]

The Thrive Global Community welcomes voices from many spheres on our open platform. We publish pieces as written by outside contributors with a wide range of opinions, which don’t necessarily reflect our own. Community stories are not commissioned by our editorial team and must meet our guidelines prior to being published.

Lean on lived experiences and make a start — The German writer and statesman, Johann Von Goethe, once wrote, “Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do.” There is no overnight fix to issues around diversity and inclusion, but we must start somewhere. At Special Olympics, we began by training people with intellectual disabilities in sport, then in performing certain roles, and now in leadership skills. As a result, they have moved from being ‘beneficiaries,’ to having a voice, to being more involved in all aspects of how the organization is run. It’s been a journey, but it’s working, and it could apply to any individual or group that currently experiences inequity or exclusion.

As part of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’ I had the pleasure of interviewing Denis Doolan, Chief of Organizational Excellence, Special Olympics International.

Denis has over 25 years of international experience in strategic and operational planning, project management, leadership development and consultancy across a variety of sectors.

In his current role, Denis oversees leadership and operational excellence at Special Olympics International, the world’s largest organization working with people with intellectual disabilities. He has recently overseen the launch of an inclusive leadership approach, development of Special Olympics’ 2021–2024 strategic plan (which aligns with the UN Sustainable Development Goals) and implementation of an enterprise-wide project management methodology. He also led the organization’s global 50th anniversary celebrations and founded the Special Olympics Leadership Academy that supports staff with and without intellectual disabilities. Denis’ previous experience includes work with organizations such as Allianz, Amrop and Credit Agricole.

Thank you so much for doing this with us Denis! Before we dig in, our readers would like to ‘get to know you’. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

I grew up just outside Killarney, in the South-West of Ireland. It’s a beautiful area, home to Ireland’s largest national park. My early years were filled with outdoor activities, music and singing, a tradition in our family. When I was 14, I moved in with my grandmother, who was a wheelchair user, which taught me a lot, as did the arrival of my sister Emma, who is a Special Olympics athlete, a few years later. Killarney is a tourist destination, so I worked my first summer jobs as a hall porter or bell boy in local hotels, which certainly added to my life education! I didn’t travel much until I left home for University in Dublin, but then lived in Scotland, London, Sydney and Dublin before moving back to Killarney in 2010. I’ve been in a remote leadership role ever since, travelling quite a bit until the pandemic arrived.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

As part of my undergraduate degree in Communication Studies, we studied a book called ‘The Turning Point’ by Fritjof Capra, an American physicist and systems theorist. It was one of the first moments in my life when I became aware that my ‘reality’ was just that, my own but not necessarily the same as for others. And things don’t have to stay as they are. More recently, I enjoyed Daniel Kahneman’s ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’, for much the same reason. It really challenged my belief that I was reasonably good at making unbiased judgements and choices — turns out I still have some work to do!

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

Around age 15, I bought a poster with a Native American prophecy that said, “Only after the last tree has been cut down, only after the last river has been poisoned, only after the last fish has been eaten, only then will you find that money cannot be eaten.” I’ve had the poster with me throughout my life and travels — in fact it’s hanging on my office wall right now — but I don’t think it has ever had more resonance than in recent years as the extent of our impact on the planet has become clear. I didn’t realize it at the time I bought it, but it does reflect my world view; making money can be a great incentive that drives creativity, hard work and prosperity, but how you make money should never be at the expense of other peoples’ rights or to the detriment of our natural environment.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

From my perspective, leadership is that moment when something is achieved through combining clarity of purpose with determination and influence. The last of these, influence, is the toughest to get right — as my mentor Tony O’Connor said to me many times earlier in my career, “The soft skills are the hard skills.” Leaders know that it’s not about them, it’s about the collective and it’s about what you leave behind. From the inception of the Special Olympics Leadership Academy, I introduced the idea that ‘great leaders create great leaders,’ to shift perspectives away from the fixation on individual leaders who we often see in business and politics today and towards shared ownership, reward and succession. Last but not least, as I’ve mentioned, leaders never lose sight of the greater good — societal and planetary well-being — in the knowledge that self-interest will not deliver long-term gain.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

It’s different for everyone but for me it’s exercise. I like to run and also do some cycling, and I’ve learned over the years that it’s critical to keep exercising even when it seems there is no time to do it. In the past, particularly when I was finalizing the current Special Olympics global strategic plan, I used to stop everything else because of being “too busy,” but at this point, I see that as an excuse — if anything it’s even more important to maintain a routine when times get tough.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?

To my mind, there are two factors which stand out: ignorance and inaction. The root of many forms of discrimination and marginalization is a failure by the dominant group to acknowledge deep down that there is an issue in the first place. In some cases that failure has been deliberate, however, in many instances, it has been unwitting or passive. Either way, it leads to inaction, which in turn breeds frustration and anger. Over 50 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote that this kind of anger “is a response to the feeling that a real solution is hopelessly distant because of the inconsistencies, resistance and faintheartedness of those in power.” Sadly, those words still hold true today. The difference now is that because of social media, most people have much better access to evidence of injustice. It is a lot harder to ignore, and a lot easier to use as a call for change.

Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?

Early in my career, I was fortunate to work on the Paralympic Games in Sydney, which was a ground-breaking event in raising the profile of people with disabilities and attracting record crowds. That experience led to my first engagement with Special Olympics, as Director of Venues for the 2003 Special Olympics World Games. I worked on a variety of strategies and projects aimed at improving the inclusion of older people and individuals with disabilities before returning to Special Olympics about 10 years ago. Diversity and inclusion are at the heart of my current role — my team is responsible for training people with intellectual disabilities and ensuring they have opportunities to perform a variety of roles. I’ve seen time and again how powerful that can be.

One of my favorite memories is presenting at a major HR conference in the UK with Ian Harper, a Special Olympics ‘athlete leader,’ who spoke from the heart about the barriers he faced in his lifetime. You could see and feel perceptions change in the room as he spoke, as everyone realized their low expectations were the real issue, not Ian’s different abilities.

Based on many similar experiences, we have developed an inclusive leadership model — the Unified Leadership approach — designed to challenge mindsets and change behaviors towards all marginalized groups, not only people with intellectual disabilities.

This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

Many of us are familiar with the old adage that ‘two heads are better than one.’ The reality is more profound. If you go back to the 60s and 70s, Meredith Belbin, a UK researcher, highlighted how a mix of different types of people on a team is better than having a team of people with similar styles and backgrounds. The idea that there are benefits to having diverse teams, at all levels, should not be a surprise. Seeing things from multiple perspectives helps avoid groupthink and identify risks. It lends itself to creativity and innovation and it promotes better decision-making. It may even lead to opportunities with new customers and markets because of the understanding you gain. The bottom line? We need a new adage — ‘two diverse heads are better than one’.

Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. You are an influential business leader. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”. Kindly share a story or example for each.

Target the roots of exclusion and inequity — We have to get past representative diversity being seen as synonymous with inclusion. If power never shifts from a dominant group to a minority or marginalized group, the problem will never go away and it stays at the heart of the system. An organization I worked with previously had meetings to make plans for youth engagement, at first with no youth present at all, and then with youth in attendance but not vested with any decision-making authority. Ensuring representation is a good step, however, it must be accompanied by an authentic commitment to changes in norms, behaviors and who holds authority.

Shift the narrative towards the positives — Up to this year, efforts to improve diversity and inclusion have too often come from a place of risk avoidance, or in reaction to a particular situation or incident. The Black Lives Matter movement gave rise to countless commitments to do more, to change, in response to injustice. It quickly became the ‘right thing to do,’ a moral prerogative. The benefits of taking action were in the background and yet, as I mentioned earlier, there are many. They need to be brought to the fore, because strong societies are the foundation for healthy, fulfilling lives and economies where businesses thrive.

Create interactions that promote understanding — In my experience, nothing breaks down barriers and changes mindsets quicker than direct interaction between diverse groups in an appropriate setting with the right facilitation. As an example, one of Special Olympics’ corporate partners arranged a workshop between their emerging leader cohort and Special Olympics athletes, as part of a leadership development program. As a direct result, they established an employment initiative which has since led to jobs for people with intellectual disabilities within the business. When I spoke with the corporate leaders about the experience, they all shared how quickly their initial fears disappeared, and how they began to see potential, once the workshop started. Best of all, they all reported that the initiative had a positive influence on workplace culture far beyond what they initially expected.

Shape environments to people, not people to environments — Perhaps understandably, there has recently been a strong push towards achieving representative percentages of people in various contexts, such as on an executive team. What matters most as a measure of success, however, is what a person experiences in that context and how it makes them feel. If there is a dominant group or culture, that makes someone feel unfairly treated or excluded, it doesn’t matter how good the statistics look. The real challenge is to adapt environments by holding events or meetings at family-friendly times, for example, or modifying language so everyone can understand information, rather than simply expecting people from diverse backgrounds to catch up or ‘fit in.’ It doesn’t mean everything has to change, but sometimes even small adjustments can make a real difference to how someone feels.

Lean on lived experiences and make a start — The German writer and statesman, Johann Von Goethe, once wrote, “Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do.” There is no overnight fix to issues around diversity and inclusion, but we must start somewhere. At Special Olympics, we began by training people with intellectual disabilities in sport, then in performing certain roles, and now in leadership skills. As a result, they have moved from being ‘beneficiaries,’ to having a voice, to being more involved in all aspects of how the organization is run. It’s been a journey, but it’s working, and it could apply to any individual or group that currently experiences inequity or exclusion.

We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?

Absolutely. Don’t get me wrong, it won’t be quick or easy because history has shown us that humans have always exploited difference. However, if you told me when I was young that apartheid would end in South Africa, that America would have a black President or that my home country of Ireland would legalize same-sex marriage, I wouldn’t have believed you. All of these things came to pass, which is why I firmly believe things can, with persistence, be changed for the better.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

It would have to be Paul Polman, the former CEO of Unilever. He was 10 years ahead of everyone else in the business world when it came to tackling the huge sustainability challenges we face today. I admire the way he integrated sustainability across all aspects of Unilever and would love to hear directly from him about the lessons he learned on that journey and what, if anything, he would do differently. Why? There is still so much to be done. Specifically, we finally have momentum on environmental sustainability, but far less progress on the social dimensions of sustainability. Issues like reducing inequality are embedded in the UN Sustainable Development Goals, but have not had the same attention, and I feel a deep responsibility to help change that situation over the next decade.

How can our readers follow you online?

I use LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/in/denis-doolan-3105789/ ) quite a bit and would welcome new contacts — not just as followers but also as contributors so we can work together to build a better future for all people and for our planet.

Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success!

    Share your comments below. Please read our commenting guidelines before posting. If you have a concern about a comment, report it here.

    You might also like...

    Community//

    Denis Devigne of VidDay.com: “We can get involved in your communities”

    by Fotis Georgiadis
    Community//

    “Actions speak louder than words” With Mary Davis and Parveen Panwar, Mr. Activated

    by Parveen Panwar, Mr. Activated
    Community//

    Denis Piszczek, CEO of Video Trends, Shares Advice on Thriving and Achieving Success as an Entrepreneur

    by Kevin Leyes
    We use cookies on our site to give you the best experience possible. By continuing to browse the site, you agree to this use. For more information on how we use cookies, see our Privacy Policy.