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Sing for your supper

Sally O’Neill explains how the ACA qualification can get you where you want to go!

July 2016

The Royal Opera House’s COO Sally O’Neill was the recent star turn at the ICAEW’s International Prizegiving ceremony. It meant everyone was treated to a first – a five-minute video of Carlos Acosta dancing in Carmen (which was spellbinding). For those not in the know, the Royal Opera House does a bit of ballet as well!
What was immediately obvious from the start of her talk was the fact that O’Neill has utilised her ICAEW qualification to get her exactly where she had always dreamed of being, and she is loving it.
At work she is in charge of a wide range of operations including finance, facilities, technology, planning, technical and HR. She is also heading up a major new capital project at the Opera House, called Open Up, a cultural transformation project to ‘open up’ the building to new audiences, improve facilities and overhaul the small Linbury Theatre.
O’Neill joined the Royal Opera House as director of finance in 2009 and for six months acted as interim CEO before assuming her current position. In truth this was created after she had done such a great job as acting CEO!
She told the audience she was extremely proud of her qualification, but admitted studying the ACA with Deloitte felt “like still being a student while wearing smarter clothes”. O’Neill stressed that the ‘technical bit’ of the qualification is the bedrock of what you will need. Then, as you go through your career, you will begin to call on those leadership skills.
Your journey is a series of choices, she explained. After an all-girls’ school she went to Cambridge and studied natural sciences. Once qualified, she took a mixture of commercial and not-for-profit roles. She moved every three to five years, discovering what she liked and what she didn’t. Her first FD role was with Historic Royal Palaces.
O’Neill told the prizewinners she reads a lot and wanted to encourage them to do the same. Stephen Covey’s ‘7 habits of highly effect people’, which she read in the 1980s, has stayed with her, and she shared his seven habits with prizewinners:
1) Be proactive. You have to control your environment, rather than letting it control you. So focus on what you can influence.
2) Begin with the end in mind. Covey said this is all about personal leadership and defining practical outcomes.
3) Put first things first. Keep focused on what is important not just urgent.
4) Think win-win. Covey explained that win-win is based on the assumption that there is plenty for everyone, so success follows a co-operative approach more naturally than the confrontation view of win-or-lose.
5) Seek first to understand and then to be understood. Communication is key and Covey believes you must diagnose before you prescribe.
6) Synergize. This is about co-operation again and challenges you to see the good and potential in other people’s contribution.
7) Sharpen the saw. You need to renew yourself, and feed the spiritual, mental, physical and emotional you!
O’Neill said that it was also important to know when to take good advice. A good friend had told her to go for a job she didn’t feel ready for, but they loved her and she got the role.
Mentors can be another key to success. You may have to seek them out though, as they won’t just fall in your lap. O’Neill admitted that you will sometimes find yourself lying awake at night, but that this can be a good thing if you write your answers down before you forget them! And she has learnt to make painful changes in good time and not just when things get bad. By then it can be too late. Finally, she advised the prizewinners to keep learning.
Then it was back to the Royal Opera House for O’Neill, where rehearsals for Tannäuser and The Winter’s Tale were taking place. Which is nice work if you can get it…

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