Getting Business Back: Teri O'Donnell, Founding Partner & Chair, Manara Global

Hanson Search talks to Teri O’Donnell, Founding Partner & Chair, Manara Global

Welcome to our ‘Getting Business Back’ series, where we talk to industry leaders from agency and inhouse backgrounds about the impact of COVID-19 on their businesses and the steps they are taking as we move out of the crisis. Here, we sat down (virtually) with Teri O’Donnell, Founding Partner & Chair at Manara Global.


What impact has COVID-19 had on your business and your sector as a whole?

I think for us, weirdly, it’s been quite positive. We set up to try and bring something different to the market in terms of strategic advisory. Right now, that means helping clients navigate unchartered waters. Suddenly, it’s not about arms and legs, it’s not just about communications, it’s about – ‘OK what do we need to do, what is the problem that needs solving, how do we do it, and have we got the right people to help us achieve that in the right way?’

It’s about having the right people to give the right advice at the top table. The normal playbooks and tactics have all gone out the window – so for us, given the way we’re positioned, that’s meant a lot of opportunity.

As a result of COVID-19, organisations have had to move faster than ever before to problem solve and navigate the crisis. How has this pushed your organisation and industry forward positively and which of the measures taken would you like to remain in place post pandemic?

This is not business as usual anymore. It’s about looking at each different challenge, thinking about how we can solve it, and having the best people around the world at our disposal to achieve that. That’s what we set up to help our clients do. Hopefully, that human-centric and problem-solving approach will remain something businesses see value in.

Which of your company values have truly come to life since the beginning of the crisis?

We have four values – straight talking & honest, smart & humble, energising & empathetic, and brave & bold. With COVID, that last one has been key. This is not a time to sit in the shadows and let the world do whatever it’s going to do around you. It’s the businesses who are prepared to show leadership, go out on the front foot, that are going to survive. They’re the ones who will win.

Internal communications has never been more business critical. How has your business engaged with its employees and what changes in culture has it resulted in?

Again, weirdly, it’s not been all that different for us. Two of the biggest global clients I’ve run globally over my career – EY and Mars, Incorporated – I ran from London, DC, and New York. So, working flexibly, at weird hours, and doing it remotely is something that I have been used to, so not really all that new to me. 

And I think, as a result, flexibility has and will always be part of our culture. Our team know that if you need to drop the kids off, run an errand, or if you’re just not feeling great and need some time for you, then that’s fine. We measure our people’s success on their results. So, we don’t feel the need to question how they achieve them. We trust them to manage their own personal situation alongside their work. I think that’s just part of treating people as adults, as humans really.

What challenges have you faced personally leading people remotely, and how have you had to adapt your style?

I don’t know if I’d call it a style, but, for me it’s always been about empathy – understanding people as individuals and making sure they’re OK. Everyone does have their own needs and requirements, and I think it’s important as leaders we make sure we’re there for them and are prepared to make it work for all parties as part of your work family.

As companies move from reacting to mitigating the impact of the outbreak, what is your strategy to move forward over the coming months?

We constantly look at and review our strategy, and as part of that we’ve been looking at what makes us different. Big strategic thinking and being human centric is what sets us apart. And it’s that combination that we think people are going to need to navigate this new world successfully – solving problems  from the boardroom in a way that puts people first.

What do you feel are the major communications challenges once the recovery begins?

Normal as we knew it doesn't exist anymore. Those that are smart will 'get over it' and adapt. For some more traditional businesses and brands this will be hard.

Any brands or organisations you think have communicated particularly well so far? 

I think Nike has done an incredible job in terms of Black Lives Matter. They have resonated with global audiences as a result. That’s something they seem to always get right.

I also think the New Zealand Government has done a great job. I am a Kiwi (and a Brit) and I was at home when Jacinda Ardern would stand up every day at 1 o’clock with her health advisor, and I just thought she was always so clear, respectful, and human. Every day it was ‘OK, we’re on Level 1/2/3/4. This means that. That means you can do this. It means you can’t do this’. Clear directives, every day, delivered with humility and respect.

The other person who I think has done a really good job – which might sound strange, given it wasn't such a positive message to deliver – is Brian Chesky, the founder of Airbnb. Brian is an old client of mine and sadly he had to let about 25% of his workforce go. That’s obviously such crappy news to have to give. But he articulated it with such grace, humility, and respect. He gave context, he gave his rationale, and he did it in such a respectful and human way. Again, it’s all comes down to empathy.

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Author: Felice Hurst

With nearly twenty years of experience in search and recruitment and a decade of experience working in MENA, Felice set up the Hanson Search Middle East office to develop our offering in the region. Working across the spectrum of high-level vacancies, Felice has had considerable success across in-house and consultancy roles.

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