Recognising Potential in a Crisis – The CEO’s Moment with Mark O’Donnell

Mark O'Donnell

2020 has been a period of unprecedented change in all aspects of our lives, from how we interact with friends and family, to how we run our businesses and organisations.

At Livingston James, we understand that great leaders must be adaptable, ready to respond positively to this period of disruption.  As such, we are launching our ‘Recognising Potential in a Crisis’ series.

In this series, we connect with the CEOs of Scottish organisations across sectors to find out how they are using this period of evolution to reimagine their own potential, and that of their organisation, to have the greatest impact.

The next CEO to feature in our series is Mark O’Donnell, chief executive of Sight Scotland and Sight Scotland Veterans, formerly Royal Blind, the charity providing support, care and education for vision impaired people of all ages in Scotland.


During the pandemic, many organisations have accomplished what had previously been thought impossible. What have you learnt about yourself through this crisis?

Primarily what lots of people have learned about themselves, I suspect, that we all have resilience in some shape of form.  It is also clear that the situation affects each and every one of us in different ways and that we need to try our best to look after ourselves and those around us.  I supposed I have learned that focus, compassion, communication, and personal wellbeing are more important than ever at the leadership level.

What beliefs or long-held assumptions have you needed to reset in your organisation to ensure your business is moving forward?

Like many organisations, we have been trying to learn and adapt as we have gone along, doing everything we can to support service users and staff in unprecedented circumstances.  When we are more clearly out the other end, there may well be a sense of believing we can achieve more for people with sight loss than we previously even thought possible because of the resilience and determination we found ourselves displaying, even in the toughest of times and because of being forced to think differently and creatively about ways of working and supporting those we are here to serve.

In your opinion, what learnings should we bring forward into the organisation for the future, and how will this change the CEO’s day to day?

I expect we may have a different approach to flexible and remote working in the long-term for those functions where that makes sense – like a lot of organisations probably will – with some kind of constructive hybrid-model once we’ve had the chance to properly digest what we’ve learned and engage colleagues on this.  Clearly some direct-services will always be just that, and need the physical presence of staff and volunteers, but also taking the best bits of ‘remote support’ and making sure they’re adding value in the mix going forward will be important.  I’m not certain how it will change the CEO’s day-to-day ultimately, but I think flexibility, creativity and pragmatism will be important in refocusing on the outcomes for service users which is our ultimate purpose.

How has your leadership style evolved over the course of the pandemic?

Others would be best placed to judge that ultimately, but it has been a conscious process of continuing to try to provide leadership and direction in previously uncharted territory.  It’s also probably more important than ever not to try to pretend to have all the answers personally.  I’ve also tried to recognise that everyone in management teams has their own personal and professional challenges as a result of the pandemic and that acknowledging and trying to support that wherever possible allows them to support their own colleagues more effectively.

What personal qualities have you found most effective when leading your senior team and wider business through such uncertainty, and why do you think those qualities have shown over others?

Again, one’s own view of this might be different to that of colleagues but I hope that focus, clear communication, and compassion have been evident – these things are key leadership tenets in ‘normal’ times – but probably even more critical in the the extended ‘crisis’ the world has found itself in.

Beyond role modelling, how can CEOs encourage their senior teams and other leaders to enrich their networks and the velocity of learnings with their peers across industries, particularly when face to face interaction has been disrupted?

We are all getting so used to online meetings and events already, that I think we need to accept that this is the new world for many leaders in many organisations, at least for the time being.  It’s important that senior teams don’t opt-out of those networks automatically just because they’re no longer face to face, although it is important to recognise so-called ‘Zoom fatigue’ and that there is a balance to strike.  I had to miss an exciting online conference recently because of a pressing priority – which can happen to us all – but I was actually gutted because I was really looking forward to ‘seeing’ familiar and new faces with lots of common interests.  The fact that it was ‘only’ virtual actually made no difference to that.

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