posted on February 7th, 2024

Host of Exceptional NI Leaders Share their Innovative Leadership Experiences with Ulster University’s 25@25 Cohort


Four of Northern Ireland’s brightest minds and household names from across the tech, sporting, education and business sectors spent an inspiring day sharing their journeys with those on Ulster University’s 25@25 Leadership Programme.

Dr Tommy Bowe, TV presenter on Ireland AM – Ireland’s largest morning news show, and former Irish International Rugby player, Dr Sarah Friar, CEO of Nextdoor, Catalyst’s Dr Adrian Johnston MBE and Ulster University’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Paul Bartholomew shared their insights and advice for innovative leadership with Northern Ireland’s future leaders on the Belfast campus this week.

Tommy Bowe is no stranger to Ulster University, having graduated in Construction Engineering and Management in 2006, shared his top tips for leading innovatively on the pitch, the sofa and in the boardroom.

He reflected on the ways in which he planned for a life after professional rugby, his passion for having a career which is different and unexpected and on taking risks: “I think I’ve had a fairly varied career, between rugby, television and business and any little bits of wisdom or learnings that I’ve had, its nice to be able to pass them on. I think that teamwork is so, so important, build a strong team around you. I think making sure you do your preparation, know what you’re going and putting yourself in the right position for opportunities that might arise. Believe in yourself – I think that’s the most important. Believe in yourself, – push yourself out of your comfort zone and have the confidence to try something new and different. Have that confidence to go and take it all on.”

Interviewed by Gavin Nelson, Chief Operating Officer at Third Sector Connect and one of the 25@25, Tommy said he was delighted to participate:
“The reason I got involved in the 25@25 Programme is I feel I owe an awful lot to Ulster University, they were really helpful to me in my early days and I like to try and give back.”

The group spent the morning with Ulster University’s Vice-Chancellor, Prof Paul Bartholomew, where they examined what it means to become an innovative leader and spent time talking about vulnerability in leadership, the process of presenting a new innovative idea to a team and rolling out a culture of innovation by demonstrating it within your own conduct and leadership.

The Vice Chancellor coached the 25@25 participants on his strategies for leading change, reminding the young leaders of the importance of creating space for innovative thinking in their organisations.

They then spent the afternoon with Adrian Johnston, Director of Strategic Business Development at Catalyst and the current Chair of the Community Foundation for NI. Adrian is passionate about Inclusive Innovation and talked to them about the ‘big challenges’ for Northern Ireland and how they might tackle these using open innovation thinking and leadership. Adrian discussed the need for sharing, collaboration and transparency in creating open innovation and disrupting in a safe and confident way and, after sharing the common attributes of an innovative organisation, challenged each of the 25@25 to examine the culture of innovation in their own organisation.

Adrian is also an alumnus, he gained a PhD in Informatics / AI from Ulster University and in 2019 Adrian was awarded the Ulster University Graduate of the year, the same year he received an MBE for services to peace-building and the community in NI.

The cohort finished off an inspiring day reconnecting with CEO of NextDoor, Sarah Friar, who is an Ulster University Alumna having received an honorary degree from Ulster in 2018 for distinguished service to the international technology industry. Sarah shared her experiences of innovating in Silicon Valley and ran an interactive workshop on the Jobs To Be Done framework, a product development theory used in practice at Nextdoor.

In this session, the 25@25 participants were given the unique opportunity to share their own ideas for innovations that have the potential to better society in Northern Ireland with the Co. Tyrone born social network boss, who provided tailored feedback and useful tips on market research, product development, and knowing your competition.

So far on the 25@25 Leadership Programme the cohort have heard from an incredible line up of local and global leaders including Derry Girls creator, Lisa McGee; Glamour’s Americas Editorial Director, Samantha Barry; Head of the Civil Service, Dr Jayne Brady; Chief Medical Officer, Sir Michael McBride; Permanent Secretary of the Department of Finance, Neil Gibson; Former Co-Chair of the Green Party and Director of Friends of the Earth Sir Jonathon Porritt CBE, a writer and campaigner on Sustainable Development; Former CEO of Kainos, Brendan Mooney; Chief Executive of NOW Group and Chair of Clanmil Housing, Maeve Monaghan; and more – all of whom have generously shared their leadership lessons with the group.

To find out more about the 25@25 Programme, visit: https://www.ulster.ac.uk/twenty-five