Skip to main content

Deloitte Ireland Alumni Leadership Series

with Lorna Conn, CEO of Cpl

Throughout her career, Lorna Conn had a plan – become an accountant, work in a Big Four company, and become a CFO of an Irish listed company. That is until she became CEO of Cpl, a global talent solutions company that employs almost 13,000 people.

Lorna joined Deloitte in 2002 and spent five years growing her career within our Audit team. Her time here provided her with the tools and network to propel her into the industry, where she has had an incredible career journey.

In the first edition of the Deloitte Alumni Leadership Series, Lorna shares what she dreamed her future would look like at 12 years of age, how taking opportunities you don’t feel 100% ready for can be transformative, and why equality needs to start at home.

‘Have a vision, and the steps will follow’

I was a very practical child and knew from a young age that I wanted to be an accountant. I wish I could remember where I got this idea from! I grew up in a single-income household with four children so being on a secure career path that would always have opportunities was really important to me.

When I was graduating secondary school and about to head off to do a Bachelor of Commerce at UCD, we got a letter we had written to ourselves in first year six years earlier. In it, I had a timetable of a typical day in my future, and it included dropping the kids to school, working as an accountant, and then picking the kids up from school. So, I have proof that this was always my plan!

My timetable also included cooking my husband’s dinner, which we’d have a good laugh at now because I’d say I can count on one hand the dinners I’ve cooked for my husband!

If I’d been less of a practical child, I would have loved to have been a singer. I was so passionate about it when I was in school at St Louis High School. I did all of the musicals – I was Hodel in Fiddler on the Roof, Sandy in Grease, and little Mary in Little Mary Sunshine. I have the best memories rehearsing in the school hall. I was always a big studier and as nerdy as it sounds, I loved school, so doing the musicals was a lovely outlet.

I couldn’t be a greater advocate of getting an accountancy qualification though if I tried. I have three young kids and if all of them came to me and told me they were planning on studying accountancy, I’d be over the moon! I wouldn’t worry another day about them. I know they’d be on a career path that has endless opportunities.

I’ve always been practical and a self-starter, and that’s really driven my career. Having a vision of where I want to end up has always helped. Once you get clear on where you want to be, it will help guide all the steps and decisions you make in between.

‘Choose an environment you will flourish in’

After doing a Bachelor of Commerce in UCD, I was lucky to get offers from all the big accountancy firms, but Deloitte stuck out to me. Throughout the interview process, everyone I met was friendly and warm, and I just had a feeling that these were people I could work really well with and an environment I would thrive in.

Luckily this instinct turned out to be right! I had a fantastic experience over the next five years and Deloitte sponsored my master's in accounting. I worked with key clients, including Kerry Group plc and Microsoft , and I got to travel to the United States in my second year and work across various states in the US. The next year, I got to go on secondment to our office in Darwin Australia and I did some travelling afterwards too. Getting to travel to two parts of the world I’d never been to was an incredible experience.

Deloitte was an incredible training ground as an accountant, and having financial literacy as a CEO now is a real plus. I feel like I packed so much into that time and I’m forever grateful for those opportunities that helped lay the foundation of my career. So many of the people I worked with in Deloitte I still consider to be good friends. I learnt so much and was given so many amazing opportunities, but one of my biggest takeaways was how important it is to work in an environment that’s right for you.

‘Don’t limit yourself to opportunities that you feel 100% qualified for'

After five years at Deloitte and as an Audit Manager, I faced a pivotal decision: continue to grow at Deloitte or seek a new challenge. I decided it was time for a new challenge. I loved my time at Deloitte and had great relationships with my colleagues, it wasn’t an easy choice and required deep reflection.

I had begun to struggle with moving from client to client and realised that by continuing, I was doing a disservice to myself and Deloitte. I wanted to focus on one organisation full-time. I had known since I was 12 that I wanted to be an accountant, and I recognized that this move could lead me to become a CFO of a listed Irish company, which did in fact happen ten years later when I joined Cpl.

After leaving Deloitte, I became a CFO of an Irish subsidiary. I was only 27 and it was a big change - I’d never closed a set of accounts before, and I went straight into running a finance team! I had so many moments of doubt where I wondered if I’d made the right decision. I didn’t necessarily have all the experience on paper, and I was self-conscious about some of the gaps in my experience.

But I kept reminding myself that I wouldn’t have been given this opportunity if the people around me didn’t believe I was capable of it. I was lucky to work in a company that looked beyond my age and focused on what I could do.

It’s why I’m so glad that we’ve seen a real shift in leadership styles towards a more autonomous style. More than ever, it means companies are looking for people with positive, can-do attitudes, not the person with all the experience! This is so important because there’s something powerful in been given a role that you’re not wholly experienced or fully read for.

If you’re 80% of the way there for an opportunity, take it! That leap to 100% can be bridged. And you wouldn’t be given it if someone didn’t believe you could do it. I’d especially encourage female professionals, who might be less likely to make that jump, to grab any opportunity that comes their way.

Looking back, the transition from Deloitte to industry was so impactful for me. I think part of my success is that I've experience across several different companies, each of them was great but I knew when it was time to take that next step. When you challenge yourself and go for new opportunities, it gives you that space to grow.

‘Lead with authenticity’

I’ve always had a vision for my career path and the end goal was becoming a CFO of an Irish listed company. I never imagined or aspired to become a CEO. And I really mean that! But Cpl captured my heart and my imagination in such a profound way that my thinking gradually evolved, and I started to wonder what it might be like to lead the organisation. I give huge credit to Cpl and the previous CEO, Anne Heraty, for creating that environment and seeing that potential in me to become CEO. It’s been nearly seven years since I joined Cpl as CFO and I’ve been CEO for nearly two and a half years, and I’ve loved every second of it.

Even though becoming a CEO was never part of my plan, the move felt natural when it happened. I think part of that was the support I’d gotten from Anne in the handover process and the space I’d been given to really be myself as a leader. I believe the best leaders are unapologetically themselves. It sounds like a cliché, but it’s so true! When I was in my twenties, there were times I felt I had to fit a certain mold, but the times I leant into my personality were the times I got the best buy-in.

I was lucky that during the succession process I had Anne to guide and support me. We worked together closely while I was CFO and she had always given me autonomy and support in equal measure, which was so empowering. It really influenced how I lead Cpl, I‘m not a micromanager at all and I’m always happy to be surrounded by experts who know more about a certain topic than I do. Anne’s leadership gave me that space to believe I could become CEO of Cpl, and while as CEO I’m ultimately always accountable, I want to make sure I give that space to the exceptional talent around me to grow.

‘Equality starts at home’

I’m a CEO, but I’m often referred to as a female CEO because unfortunately, it’s such a rarity. I love my job and I love where I work, sometimes though I find it frustrating that I get asked so much about balancing my home life with my work life. I know this question comes from a place of empathy, because we know that the caring responsibilities are likely disproportionately balanced on female shoulders, but do men, especially male CEOs, get asked that question as often as I do?

I always wanted a career, but I wanted a family just as much, and I was never going to compromise on either. It all goes back to that letter I wrote when I was 12 – I was working as an accountant, but I was also there for my kids. Both my husband and I work, so I know how challenging it is for families when you’re juggling childcare and trying to balance the competing needs of two careers and raising a family. And families who have one parent working or families who have single parents and don’t have that additional support have their own set of challenges.

I think raising children is the most difficult yet rewarding job I will ever do. And no matter what, my children are my top priority. It’s still a real juggle though and it doesn’t ever get easier. I’m lucky to have a great support network around me with a creche for our two smaller kids and grandparents who are healthy and happy to take the kids one day a week each.

I don’t know if I’d have been as successful in my career without that support. I really hope I’d have found a way, because my career is an essential part of me, and I’d hate to have lost that. I do believe equality starts at home though. There is still this expectation that women take on the disproportionate load of caring responsibilities whether it’s with children or caring for elderly parents.

One of the most important pieces of advice I’d give to younger generations is to have a conversation with your partner early on – make it clear that your career is just as important and set the expectations that the caring responsibility will be shared equally.

Of course, I never want the impetus to just be on women. We need the support of businesses too. Organisations can do more to offer family friendly rather than female friendly policies and more can be done to encourage male members of staff to take paternity leave or parental leave. If we don’t see it, we can’t be it, and we need to see more men taking that leadership and taking this time to make the playing fields more equal and fairer.

Male allyship and advocacy are crucial. As an advisory board member of the 30% Club, I’ve seen authentic male leaders agree that better gender representation leads to better business. The core premise of the 30% Club is that businesses thrive with gender diversity, and I fully support this. No team composed entirely of men or women can represent society or drive an organization effectively.

While I haven’t felt impacted by my gender in my career, that’s not everyone’s experience. I draw motivation and inspiration from female leaders who support gender representation and feel a strong responsibility to do the same while we remain in the minority. No woman wants a career driven by tokenism. We want to be recognized as the best person for the job and to sit at the leadership table alongside our male colleagues because we’ve earned that right.

Reflecting on my career, I know my 12-year-old self would be delighted to see I achieved what I set out in that letter, bar the cooking! While becoming CEO was never part of that plan, it’s testament to what the right environment and leadership can do, and what happens when you work for an organisation you really love. Leaving Deloitte was the first real inflection point in my career and so much of the foundation of my career was set while I was there. Not just from the skills I learnt but from the alumni network I’m still connected to.