Face Forward Transcript
Mary Davis, CEO, Special Olympics

I’m here with Mary Davis, CEO of Special Olympics, sitting in her beautiful house in overlooking the sea in Howth, drinking tea and eating some biscuits.




You're very welcome to the home Scott.  We’re only moved in here in July, so it’s very very new for us. In fact, because I spend so much time in the US now in DC, I feel like a visitor in my own house. I’m glad to be back here for 3 weeks. It’s the longest time I’ve ever spent here because we only moved in in July. It’s beautiful to have a sea view and it’s very calming, even when it’s a rough sea. There’s something about water that can be very calming and inspirational. And no two days are the same, I can guarantee you. I looked out this morning and the sea was like flash, beautiful, crystal glass. Yesterday it was roaring, wild, tempestuous. That’s why it’s interesting. It’s like watching a fire, you’re watching the sea roll in and out.


01:45 - Career past and present



I’m going to kick off with a really easy one, and get you to tell me a little bit about your career and then, ultimately as CEO of Special Olympics, what your role is.





I started out when I left college, I’m a teacher so I worked St Michael’s House in Ballymun initially and travelled around. St Michael’s House is a large organisation for people with an international disability, so I travelled around most of their centres. They were all day centres at the time. I coordinated the whole physical activity programme, and as a result of that I got involved in special olympics in the very early days in 1978. So I was definitely straight out of college practically, although I’d done a few subbing jobs before that.


I thought Special Olympics was a wonderful organisation. At that time, for me and for a couple of others, that had begun to work in the field, we had no materials or resources. There was really nothing written here about people with intellectual disability and physical activity and the importance of it, etc. so it was wonderful working with Special Olympics who suddenly had those resources available to us. We learnt an awful lot from Special Olympics through getting involved.  


I just loved what I got involved in, and working with people with intellectual disabilities and working through the programme of Special Olympics was very uplifting. They are wonderfully happy, energetic people to be around, happy to learn, eager to learn. Unlike other students I’d been around in schools where I’d been subbing. So I stayed involved.


I volunteered for 10 years, then I became the first National Director of Special Olympics Ireland and from there, we would keep thinking of ways that we could raise more awareness. Raise consciousness, change attitudes, get more volunteers involved in Special Olympics - how could we do more and more and more.


We always felt if we did something big, the organisation would be better recognised and we were always benchmarking ourselves against other organisations or not for profits that were at that stage. Trying to figure out how to get there.


So we organised a european games in 1985. We had 17 countries come over to ireland, some of whom who never even experienced Special Olympics before. It was a great introduction for them.


We went from there to taking on the world and organising the world games in 2003. I was fortunate enough to be the CEO for those games: worked with an incredible board, Denis O’Brien, a group of people who were just so knowledgeable and who were true leaders in their own field. They were people that I could see had unshakeable confidence and courage to do things, and to be innovative.





I can see it from the other side of the coin, because I volunteered for the badminton venue for the world games.


I look back on those 14 years when you look back and it was an absolutely amazing thing to be involved in. it really got the country behind it. Isn’t it amazing when you drive down the country now, and you still see the twinning signs with the towns in ireland with the countries that came to visit that year?


5:50 - Memory of the Special Olympics

Isn’t it amazing that they’re still there? It’s 17 years ago, it’s hard to believe it’s 17 years since those games, but it is. The memory still lives on in all those towns and it’s not just in the physical presence of the signs. The memory lives in people’s minds, and so many people got involved in a voluntary capacity after those games at a local level. So much so that Special Olympics Ireland has something like 24,000 volunteers on its database. All of those actively involved in one way or another, and there is no doubt that Special Olympics has gone from strength to strength and is an incredibly well respected, trusted and developed organisation now. And that’s really what we set out to do in 1978 when we were struggling and didn't have many resources… constantly bringing people together, thinking and brainstorming how we can do better.


Now we’re seeing the results of that and all the people who worked in a voluntary capacity to make that happen. So it’s great to be at this stage and to see that, then I moved on to work as Managing Director in Europe and I got to bring what happened in Ireland and the experiences and what I learnt to a larger audience throughout Europe.



As I visited countries like Moldova, or Romania or Russia or Uzbekistan and Central Asia, and you see where there is a lot of stigmatisation in relation to intellectual disability, still a lot of institutionalisation. And that’s a bit like what it was for us back in 1978, so we saw how we transitioned and moved forward.


Now obviously the work we’re doing now, we’re trying to do that an awful lot faster, we don’t want it to take 30/40 years for these changes to happen. So we are using the experiences of the past to guide us for the future.


8:00 - Changing attitudes


I think attitudes have changed worldwide. In many ways I don’t think we’re as old school as we were 35/40 years ago. I think people’s attitudes have changed. I guess there will be pockets where it’s still the same. Of course, now you’re in the role of CEO of Special Olympics worldwide you’re in a position to bring that European knowledge to an even higher level, on the world stage.


8:30 - Special Olympics Programmes

It’s great to be able to do that, and now to be able to see massive big countries like India and China and how they’re progressing and how attitudes are changing there as well. I mean it is great to be part of that and to be able to guide that with the volunteers in those programmes.


Special Olympics itself has come a long way in that time as well, because when I started out in 1978 it was very much an organisation for people with an intellectual disability and that’s what we did. We provided a service for people with an intellectual disability. Mainly through the platform of sport, now that’s still our strength and we still work through the platform of sport, but we’ve so many other programmes that we’ve introduced now.


We have the largest health programme for people intellectual disability in the world. There’s so many disparities in health for people with intellectual disability. That’s a bg part of what we do now.


We have a great, what we call, unified sports programme, which is people with and without intellectual disability playing together on the same playing field and we feel that if we can introduce that programme at the youngest age possible, from age 2.


We have a young athlete programme that’s unified also, where young children and school going children, youth, can interact, learn from each other, whether you have a disability or not, that you recognized that we’re all the same at the end of the day. There really is no difference.


People with intellectual disability can play sport just as well as anybody else and you don’t even notice the difference when you see them on the soccer pitch or on the basketball court. So our programme really has changed from being an organisation for people with intellectual disability, to an organisation with people with intellectual disability and very much driven by people with intellectual disability.


10:40 - Leadership Programme


We have an incredible leadership programme that we’ve introduced now as well, through our organisational excellence division and that’s again a unified programme where our athletes participate in the programme, with some board members as well, in the leadership academy.


We’ve run leadership academies all over the world and they have really helped our athletes as well to be leaders in the organisation, so we’re empowering them all the time.


It’s not so much an organisation for now, like it was when I started, but an organisation from which we learn a great deal about life and about change and about difference and understanding difference, from people with an intellectual disability. So I say now it’s an organisation from which we learn, rather than an organisation for people with intellectual disability. That’s the big change i’ve seen and that’s what will drive us forward.


We’re 50 years next year, Special Olympics started in 1968 and whilst next year is about looking back and celebrating the past, it’s about how that past is going to drive us into the future and how we can bring that message of how our athletes are not to be pitied, neither are they to be forgotten. They are human beings, they have rights, exactly the same as everybody else and please treat them in that way, and give them the support network that they need in order to shine and be the best that they can be. That’s all they ask for, and that’s all that any of us ask for. We just want to be the best that we can be.




I remember around the time of the world games time, there was a bus shelter that stuck with me, 14 or 15 years on, and it was a picture of one of the Special Olympics athletes, one of the golfers. He was a scratch golfer and it just said, ‘where do you see the disability?’ and it was such a poignant message. Actually, when he has his golf visor on, and he’s on the green looking at his ball, about to put and he’s a scratch golfer, which many many of us aspire to be.



We’ll never be as good as that golfer, because I know him actually, his name is Oliver Doherty and when he was young, Oliver was bullied very badly. He had a really tough time, and his dad got him involved in golf, and he pursued it to such an extent that he excelled and won many gold medals at various different world games that he was at. He came back to his community in Donegal, where he is from and he was invited to be captain of the club.


It’s such a change, and a huge achievement, absolutely, but such a change in attitude from a society whereby he was bullied earlier on his life to now, a society where he was totally respected and acknowledged for his abilities which is what he has.


14:15 - What makes a great leader?


You touched very briefly on the leadership academy and how Special Olympics now looks at more unified leadership, so from your perspective, what do you believe makes a great leader? Maybe in Special Olympics, maybe more broadly if there is a difference, if there is one?



I don’t think there’s a difference and for me, leadership is very simple as well. I know there’s loads of theories, and loads of definitions about leadership and tonnes and tonnes of books and materials read about leadership.


To me, it’s about the way you behave. It’s about your actions and it’s about what comes from inside and I think if you can inspire people by what you do, by what you say and if you can empower them, I really think you’re a true leader and it’s authentic leadership as well. It’s not just leadership because I’m a CEO and neither do I think that leadership is about being a CEO.


I often say this to my own team, you’re all leaders. You’re all the face of our organisation. No matter where you are, when you step out and represent Special Olympics or represent the company or the agency or wherever you work, you are the leader. You’re the front of that organisation at that particular time, and you either impress people or you turn them off, or you engage.


It’s about how we behave, it’s about our attitude to things. They say life is what happens to you 10%, and how you react to it 90%. And it is. It’s how we react to different situations, to different things in our life and you can react in a negative way or a positive way. I would very much be somebody who would certainly try to react in a very positive way, and would try to lead by what I believe myself, and to show that every day.



Leadership isn’t about being something once every so often and doing something that you say, ‘oh, that’s my leadership box ticked’. It’s not about that, it’s about living every day with people. Showing them, empowering them, spending time with people as well. I think that’s a really important trait of leadership as well, that you’re actually spending the time with them. It could only be a couple of minutes, but you’re making that person feel that it’s their time with you, and that you’re not distracted.




I always think sometimes when we’re in company or at a party, everybody wants to talk and nobody is listening to anybody and you begin to tell your story and you realise, eyes are all over the room, nobody is listening to you, you’re deflated then.


I always feel that’s a bit about leadership as well. With staff particularly, they like to be heard, they like their views to be heard. They also like their views to be taken on board, and as much as you can you should try to accomodate that but I don’t think that you always can.



I think if you don’t, you tell them you can’t and you tell them why.


18:15 - Listening and engaging, trust and respect


Exactly, and you tell them why, but you’ve actually engaged with them right through the process and they feel like, ‘okay, I’ve been listened to, that person really gets what I’m trying to do. Now, they’ve decided not to go down that route but these are their reasons’.


Then, everybody is willing to play on the team. Just because it’s a decision that they don’t like, but it’s how you come to that decision that’s important and that can either turn someone off and put them off ever coming to you again, because they feel they’re not being heard. So I think being listened to and obviously, there’s all the words that we all talk about around leadership as well like respect and trust. These are all important things, particularly respect and trust in people. I feel I have to trust my team, but I feel they have to trust me as well. And it’s building that trust, and that can take time, that can take a long time.



I love the way when you talk about leadership not being about ,‘I’ve done my leadership today: tick. I’m done with being a leader’, because I fundamentally believe that leadership is about being, not doing.


It’s not actually about doing something. We spent a lot of time in a previous company I worked in, talking to leaders about engagement and it all focused very much on the engagement survey, the employee survey. And I kept saying to them, ‘that’s all that is, is an excuse and a reason to have a conversation with people. It’s a line in the sand, that’s all. Get over yourself. All it’s going to tell you is: are you being a good leader or not?’


And actually, many times when you look at some of these engagement surveys, the questions in themselves are just fundamentally basic leadership skills. ‘Am I recognising my staff? Do I know the role they play?’


20:10 - Communication


Exactly, ‘am I communicating?’ because communication is to me, one of the great traits of leadership and it’s not easy. I don’t know, in the world, if anybody has cracked it, truly within a company or an organisation because no matter where you go, you'll hear, ‘there’s been a breakdown in communication’ or ‘such a one thought that they communicated with me, but they actually hadn’t. That’s not the way I perceived it the other end.’


There’s all the various ways we know to communicate: by email, by telephone. Now there’s just so many different ways, with Twitter and all the new technologies, there’s so many ways to communicate. And yet, the face to face is so important in the midst of all that, but it’s not possible to do all the time.


For instance, in our organisation where we have 172 countries and there are 7 regions of the world that are reporting to me as global CEO. You can’t have face to face conversations with these people all the time, but we try to make it better, and I certainly think things like Skype have helped.


We’ve just introduced telepresence in the office in DC to make that experience a better experience and it looks more and more realistically like a face to face conversation because I do think that’s probably the best way. But from an economic standpoint as well as everything else, it’s not possible to do that all the time.


Using all those forms of communication, and as we were chatting earlier when you arrived, the old ways of communicating are as good as the new ways of communicating. So whether it is the newsletter or the written letter.


I mean, I send a Christmas card to every single one of my staff and I think there must be over 200 in the organisation... I write a personal note every year, just acknowledging the work, the positive things that happened in the year and wishing them well for the next year. And I just think, ‘yeah it takes a bit of time, sure it does, but you know what? Everything takes a bit of time.’ So you just set aside a bit of time, if you think it’s important enough.


That’s what I say. I think it is important enough. Now somebody else might dismiss that and say, ‘oh, don’t be ridiculous wasting your time sending a card out to everybody.’



I would hazard a guess that it lands way better and way more impactfully than a bottle of wine, or a €50 One For All gift card.


23:00 - Acknowledging everyone’s presence



I would hope that it would, because first, we couldn’t afford the bottle of wine or the €50 gift card for everybody in the organisation, we’re a not for profit so we couldn’t afford that. But, it means it’s a personal touch, comes from me and I really do want to acknowledge their presence in the organisation and what they’ve brought to the success. I think having people understand that no matter role you play, whether you work in finance, whether you work in administration.  Whether you work in legal, or whether you work coaching on the ground, face to face with people, you play an important role.


I remember reading somewhere, and you’ve probably seen this over time as well, I think it was president Kennedy, when he went to visit NASA and he met the janitor, and he asked ‘what do you do around here?’ and he said, ‘oh, I help people on the moon’. And I thought, yeah good for you, that’s what you do, because if somebody didn’t do that job, then yeah they wouldn’t be as successful as they are.



Agreed, and what I think NASA did very well, and whether they did it on purpose or by accident was they had their ‘why’ very very simply put out there and they communicated that to their staff very, very well.


What’s NASA’s why? To put a man on the moon. That’s why we exist. And everyone knew that, and I suspect it’s really interesting when you look at purpose for an organisation and actually that’s what gets people brought in. That’s what gets them emotionally bought in to your organisation, and I guess you’re lucky as the head of a non-profit because people choose to work there because they believe in what you’re trying to achieve as an organisation and that galvanises them and the organisation to a point where everybody is forcefully, not just going in the same direction, they are pushing the same direction and you’ve got all those people behind you all pushing for the same thing. It must be phenomenal to be the head of.


25:00 - Strength and empowerment of team


But that’s so powerful, when you do get that and I mean, it’s not always the case either. Of course you do get people who want to go a different direction or whatever, but generally speaking, when you can mobilise people to work together. That was the strength of 2003. The team that we had in 2003, the team of staff that were assembled, the volunteers, every single one of them, and there were 30,003, including yourself in the badminton in Baldoyle, but every one of them knew they were contributing to something bigger, that was going to be massive. Not just for the country, but for the world, and it was going to do something that was magical in that it was going to change the lives of people. Change lives of ourselves, I’m not just talking about people with intellectual disability.


Yes, it was going to that, but it changed all of us, inside of us, and that was a very powerful message for people and people understood that. Therefore they were prepared to do whatever they had to do to ensure the games were successful. Now I try to do that in the organisation all the time, bring people along, get everybody mobilised towards the same goal, communicate as much as you can, in all the different ways, and empower them. Once people have the skills and that you’ve done the training, and again going back to 2003 is what we would have done with all the volunteers, we made sure they were well trained. Then go and empower them.


Don’t try to micromanage them, or looking over them, trust. That’s where the trust bit comes in, trust them to go out there and multiply and do their job and get other people bought into the organisation. That’s enabling them to be leaders. That’s where, to me, when leadership cascades all the way down. That’s when, I would say you’re a good leader.



I’m smiling because I remember, while you were talking there, an empowered volunteer in the badminton centre, when you mentioned Denis O’Brien earlier. O’Brien’s Sandwiches were the food sponsor and they provided all the food for all the volunteers.


I remember one of our more elderly volunteers, Denis O’Brien came to visit the venue one afternoon, and he came in the door, introduced myself, I was showing him around and this volunteer came up and shook his hand and went, ‘Mr O’Brien, thanks very much for the sandwiches’. We just ushered her away, ‘very sorry Denis, very sorry’.


28:20 - The role of leader during times of change

Let me ask you one thing around change. I think Special Olympics, like all organisations, go through change, and have to go through change to remain relevant in a changing landscape. What do you think the role of a leader is during times of change? And how can they support change to make it successful?



Well change is inevitable I think, and change is good too. It has to happen, but it’s, for a lot of people, it’s a four letter word: fear. Fear, fear, fear.


For some reason people think that it’s going to worse, rather than better when change happens. So it’s trying to reduce that fear in people and it’s a bit like what we spoke about earlier: it’s how you communicate with people and bring them along in the process of change. That can influence them. It’s about influencing or persuading people as well, and bringing them along with you, and them understanding why you want to change in the first place. Why do we want to change something? Is it broken? Is it that there’s some new innovation now that we want to introduce into the movement or into the organisation? So why are you doing it in the first place, and then how is everybody who’s going to be impacted going to be involved in the process. I think when you do that and you bring people along all the steps, the various steps and listen to them, it’s easier to accept the change if you feel that you’re a part of it.



I agree, I absolutely agree and I think once you get brought on the journey, you feel part of that journey and part of that change, back to a point you made earlier: even if you don’t agree with it, you’ve had your say, you’ve had your input and now, as a team, we have to get on with it for the betterment of ourselves and for the betterment of the organisation.



Now, does everybody then always behave like that? No, not always, but then I always say, there’s always people at either end of the spectrum. Then there’s the people in the middle.


I think our job as well, or the job of leaders is to try and bring the people on the fringes in as much as you possibly can, and get them in towards the middle, but I think you have to also accept the reality that it’s not always possible to bring everybody along. But at least, I think, if you can feel you have really made the effort and tried to, then, for me, it’s all about my conscience. I can feel, ‘well look I did the very best thing I could do in relation to that’.


31:30 - Leadership role models


Let me ask you who some of your leadership role models are? Who have learned the most from from a leadership perspective? Who do you look up to?



Eunice Kennedy Shriver, because what the woman did was incredible. When you think that she grew up in that powerful family and she had a sister with intellectual disability who nobody would talk about. And she was brave enough and courageous enough to come forward and say, ‘Rosemary has an intellectual disability’. When really it was never talked about. And then to go on and rally her own brother who had become the president of the United States, and got him to change legislation and then provided funding through the Kennedy Foundation to pay people to work in sport and recreation around the States. And then to start the first games in 1968. She did all that before she started the Special Olympics in 1968.


A truly courageous, brave woman that never took no for an answer. It doesn’t exist, that word, in her vocabulary. It was yes, we can make this. Even when she came to ireland and she visited many times when I was both National Director and when I was volunteering, and you had to be inspired by her, because she always arrived to the airport and she never even wanted to go to the hotel. She couldn’t care less where she stayed. Never wanted to go in and be looked after with hospitality. She wanted to be on the field of play, where were the athletes, where were they competing, where were they practicing, where were they training, that’s where she was and that’s where she was happiest.


And that influenced me, definitely. That’s actually the way I try to conduct my presence in special olympics and i’ve gone on in my career as well. So she was very inspirational.


I mean yeah, there are lots of other people that you would look at and say, were they good leaders, were they poor leaders because you can have leaders that are not so good leaders.



I think you can learn from both.



I think you do. I had great experience with the people I worked with in 2003. I mentioned the board earlier, you mentioned him earlier in your funny story. He was a great leader.


Moya Doherty is another for me, a female role model, which was important. What she went on to do with her life and the way she did it, I think was fantastic and you learn a great deal from people like that. She was also very involved with, her husband, john colgan in the opening ceremony of the games. They put an amazing show together.


Working with those people was an incredible experience because you’re working with people who have made such an impact on the world stage, really. All of those I’d say would have an influence on my life.


My own mother as well and my mother in law. It’s funny I seem to be referring to women most of the time, but it is true. My own mother was an amazing woman, who grew up, we were reared in rural ireland, didn’t have a huge amount. But was steeped in community and understanding the value of people and understanding the value of your neighbour. I think that was probably instilled in me from a very young age: it takes a village to raise a child. And it takes a village to get anything done, and it does and we saw that in days when everybody gathered together and did all the work together. And now it’s the same thing, I look at my organisation like a village and it takes all of us in that village to make great things happen in the world of special olympics.


36:00 - Leadership advice to your 20 year old self


In 30 seconds, what leadership advice would you give to your 20 year old self? Looking back over the 10 years or so



Id first of all say: be yourself. Because even when you're younger you're a bit more tempestuous, and you’re less patient as well. I know if I go back to my own career in the beginning, you’re less tolerant I think. I talk about myself.



I’m finding it the other way around. I’m finding that as I get older I’m less tolerant.



I find that I’m more tolerant, more understanding and I wish… it’s like life, you have to live life forwards but it would be fantastic to be able to live it backwards. There’s definitely a quote about that, and it is true. I think you live your life forward but if you could live it backwards there’s so much you’d have learnt. But unfortunately you can’t do that, we have to live it forward and we learn from our mistakes.


Maybe I could have been more tolerant in situations or with people maybe, maybe i’d have got further in particular situations that now I deal with in a totally different way. But maybe you have to go through these experiences to learn as well, so I would say be yourself for starters. I think attitude is critically important and just what you do and how you do it, and who you are as a person.

If you can live everyday like that, at the end of the day saying, ‘well am I happy with myself today?’. It’s a little bit that self actualisation that Mazlo talked about, and it’s getting to that stage and hopefully, I’d like to think I’m getting close to it.