Having worked with many Fortune 500 companies in the US, Susan Houlihan, a Tipperary-born woman who has lived in the Bay Area, California for the past 16 years, is now looking to do the same with blue-chip firms in Dublin.
Houlihan is a communications consultant and executive coach, and formerly an electrical engineer working for Cisco. She is chief operating officer with the Berkeley Executive Coaching Institute, an organisation intent on setting up a subsidiary in Ireland.
The institute, which was founded in 1995 and is affiliated with the University of California, provides coaching to business executives. Its client list reads like a who’s who of top companies with Adobe, Avis, Facebook, Novartis, Pixar, Qualcomm and Salesforce among them.
“We established a base in Thailand two years ago and now have a coaching institute up and running there, so the next location on our agenda is Europe. There are a couple of reasons why we’re interested in Dublin in particular, one of which is purely business-related, the other, personal, ” she said.
“Clearly, Dublin is the European base for a lot of international companies, many of which we’ve already worked with and so we feel we can use our existing relationships with companies to get business here.
“In addition, both my colleague Siobhan McCann, who is based in Montreal and I, have been pushing for Ireland over other locations because we’d love to be able to spend a portion of the year working back there, ” Houlihan said.
“I was over in September to gauge the appetite for the type of work we do and the feedback was very positive. Ireland is obviously coming out of recession so training is back on the agenda for many companies.
“As well as talking to clients, I also met with a number of educational institutions about establishing a similar relationship to the one we have with the University of California and that is also something that might possibly happen, ” she said.
While being able to spend a few months of the year back in Ireland appeals, Houlihan doesn’t see herself returning for good. Having lived in California for so long, it’s very much home. With a good contingent of Irish friends nearby, it also means she doesn’t feel too far away from Ireland.
“I worked in Ireland for four years after finishing college, but followed five friends from my course over to Silicon Valley for what I thought would be 12 months. All these years later and four of those five friends are still here and I’ve plenty of other Irish-born friends close-by as well, ” she said.
Having studied engineering at University College Cork, Houlihan worked initially for Analog Devices in Limerick before getting a job with Cypress Semiconductor when she moved to the US. She then ended up at Cisco for more than 10 years in a number of roles before deciding to retrain as an executive coach.
“I loved my time at Cisco and got to do loads of travel but, while I enjoyed the work, I felt there was something missing so I decided to go back to college and do an MBA at Berkeley. As part of that I took a class in leadership communications and that really got me thinking that I wanted to do a lot more on developing people, ” she said.
“I started shifting over to this slowly, doing an executive coaching certificate and then some consulting on the side in around 2012. Originally I thought I’d do this in tandem with my day job but, by 2012, I was spending pretty much most of my weekends and vacations running workshops around leadership development.
“By this time I was also lecturing on the topic at the University of California and thought that, with this as a base, I could take a risk and try and become a consultant. I have been working in this space ever since, ” Houlihan said.
Now working with the institute for close to three years, Houlihan said her primary areas of focus include integrating company culture, strategy, communications, organisational design and employee development programmes.
“Soft skills have become increasingly important in recent years at executive level. There’s less cynicism now about it than there might have once been and because we’re affiliated with the University of California and have worked with so many well-known companies we have a lot of credibility, ” she said.
“The type of issues we typically deal with would involve companies looking to make a cultural shift internally, so we will often work with them to help them spend sufficient time together, to connect about what the values of the organisation are and how they might work together more fruitfully in the future. This type of coaching has long been popular here and we’re very hopeful it would be in Ireland as well, ” Houlihan said.