“My job is to be chief cheerleader and chief storyteller…”

How do you go from flipping burgers to heading a communications giant? By not being in a hurry, says O2 CEO Ronan Dunne.

As the head of telecommunications giant O2, Ronan Dunne is paid to keep a lot of plates spinning. There are high-pressure pitches to big-name suppliers, mentoring and after-dinner speaking, all alongside running a national mobile network. But he definitely doesn’t run the O2 arena. That’s someone else’s job – as he often has to remind people…

Things often don’t go to plan “Originally, I wanted to be a lawyer, but the year I sat my State Exams, the examiners went on strike. So Terry O’Rourke, then managing partner of Touche Ross [now Deloitte], contacted our college to see if any students caught in the strikes wanted to pursue accountancy rather than wait. I jumped at the offer and, at 22, was a qualified accountant. Now, I’m glad those examiners went on strike.”

Find positivity in unlikely places “O2 suffered one of its biggest network outages in July 2012. The network went down for 19 hours, leaving millions without service. Every media organisation in the country rang to see if I’d resigned. It was the toughest time of my life, but it was also a positive one. It got nasty on social media, but the good humour of our social-media team meant that customers started defending them.”

Don’t wait to do good “In my early 20s, I thought I needed to be in a hurry for everything: personal development, career, financial gain. When I first embarked on my career path – which began in McDonald’s, flipping burgers – I assumed that hard graft should be where I focused my energies, but spending time mentoring someone or volunteering on a local project is just as rewarding.”

Go with it “Being the boss can create some amusing situations. For example, when people you meet at business events assume that I’m the boss of the O2 [entertainment arena]. After the third or fourth question about what a certain artist is really like or how many litres of beer are sold, I often don’t have the heart to tell them what I really do. It’s when they then ask for tickets to a sold-out gig that I have to own up.”

Hire people better than you “I used to be finance director here at O2 and when I was appointed chief executive, I made a point of hiring someone to take my place who would be better at it than I was. The important thing wasn’t massaging my ego, it was about getting the right person for the job. When you do that, it liberates you to be the best leader you can be.”

Be innovative “In 2007, there was a lot of excitement about the new iPhone, and Apple was negotiating with a competitor over a big deal. The talks had been going on for months, but we had an opportunity to speak with them. The temptation was to go and talk figures. We decided to make life-size mock-ups of our retail stores and literally showed how we would engage with our customers and build an experience for them. It won us the deal.”

Take your time “Sometimes, when you get that first, big promotion, you’re keen to show how you can make bold, quick decisions. But a far more empowering course of action can be to say: ‘I can’t make a decision on this, because I don’t know all the facts.’ I did this in my days as finance director, when someone came to us with a seemingly great way of offering our customers cheap international dialling. Our marketing people loved it, but it just didn’t sit well with me. We took a different approach in the end and it worked out better for everyone.”

This interview was carried out by SIM7’s Simeon de la Torre and first appeared in easyJet Traveller magazine. To read the latest issue (and the entire back catalogue of magazines), visit: http://www.ink-live.com/emagazines/easyjet-inflight