My Road to CEO: Cormac Whelan, Nokia UK & Ireland
Tell us about your early career path; what attracted you to your first position?
I was unwell in my final year at school. This meant that I missed a large part of the year, as I was required to stay in bed. To keep busy, I borrowed a friend’s Sinclair ZX Spectrum, one of the first colour computers ever made, and began to learn programming at home. I had planned to study accountancy at university, but my enjoyment of working with the computer convinced me not to follow this path. Instead, aged 19, I enrolled in a computer programming course funded by the Government. I then went on to work for a very entrepreneurial money and stock broking firm in Dublin, National City Brokers. While working full-time at the brokers during the day, I completed my degree in computer programming in the evenings.
Major Events in Cormac’s career:
- Working at National City Brokers I was introduced to the best entrepreneur I ever met, a man called Dermot Desmond. Dermot was CEO at NCB and later became one of richest men in Ireland. He set me a whole bunch of learnings in terms of being entrepreneurial and going after your goals. Meeting him was fundamental to my career growth.
- In 1987, I upped sticks and left for the UK. If you were interested in computer programming, the UK was where the industry was going. The financial markets were thriving and the computer programming industry was taking off. I chased the market.
- In 1989, I got married. My wife has always been the person who has supported me through all of my career moves and encouraged me in all of my international roles across the world.
- Working for Motorola was a defining role. This was my first truly international role that allowed me to see the world. I spent about nine years traveling the world for a great company and had the sole responsibility for a product line. This role gave me the opportunity to expand my career beyond the technical side and allowed me to get involved with product marketing and sales.
- In 1997, I joined US Robotics, which was then an extremely dynamic and aggressive tech company. Twelve months later, 3Com bought them and crushed them. My experience during this acquisition showed me the pitfalls of how not to acquire and integrate a fast-growing, dynamic technology company, which I would later learn from as a CEO.
- I left US Robotics following 3Com’s acquisition and later joined BT. While there we acquired a couple of companies in the mid-2000s, around 2005/6. These were small, successful companies and I was responsible for ensuring their growth while integrating them into a much larger organization. My experience at US Robotics was invaluable during these moments.
- Setting up my own business was a significant personal step. In 2010, I established my business and did some consulting work, specifically focusing on non-technology companies and small technology businesses. I felt that I’d spent a long time with big technology companies, so I wanted to expand my learning by working in a different space.
- Finally, I joined Alcatel-Lucent in 2011 and became CEO, UK & Ireland in 2013. In January 2016, Alcatel-Lucent was acquired by Nokia. I now hold the position of CEO of the combined companies in the UK & Ireland.
Which one of these experiences was foundational – and prepared you for your role as CEO?
No one can be prepared for the role of a CEO through a single event. It’s the blend of the experiences that teaches you it’s all about your people, and it’s all about clarity of direction and purpose. The main thing you realise as a CEO is that creating a successful business is all about your people. Strong product and a strong brand are bonuses.
Additionally, it’s all learning as you go. What one learnt at university is rarely what gets applied in real life. Learning to be a CEO comes from experience on the job.
What’s your piece of advice for young entrepreneurs?
Believe! Believe in yourself. Most successful people tend to be quite self-doubting. But if you are truly passionate and believe in what you are trying to achieve and the ideas you have, then you will be successful.
Secondly, it’s okay to fail. I’ve learnt more from things that have not worked than from things that I glided through successfully. To borrow a quote from Nelson Mandela – which I actually took from Conor McGregor – “I never lose. Either I win or I learn”.
What excites you about the near future?
From a personal perspective, my daughter is in her second year at university studying psychology. So, seeing her graduate and finding out where she goes next is what I’m looking forward to.
From a Nokia perspective, I’m extremely excited to see the combined capabilities of Alcatel-Lucent and Nokia come together to create the industry’s leading networking and software portfolio.
And from a technological point of view, I’m excited about our increasing ability to apply technology for good. This has never been more prevalent than now.