Conversations with Achievers – Padraic O Ceidigh

The late John O Donohue once said that “the greatest sin of all is the life unlived”.

Padraic O Ceidigh could never stand accused of that.

As a garsun in Spiddle he picked periwinkles and sold them locally. “Periwinkles would pay for my first watch, my first bicycle and maybe most of all for my first lessons in creativity, innovation and self-esteem.”

He went to school in the Jes and later graduated from U.C.G. with a B.Comm. He did accountancy with KPMG and so began the first of his many career diversions. “I was fairly good with numbers but early on I realised I wanted to work with people more than numbers”.

His response was to revert as teacher to his alma mater and precipitate what would become an enduring passion for “facilitating learning”. “Nothing I’ve done before or after can compare to the satisfaction and joy of watching kids grows and develop as individuals”.

He decided to take a break from that too. “The night I left the Jes we went for a few drinks and I overheard two colleagues in the gents saying that ‘he’s a bit of a dreamer and he’ll be back with his tail between his legs within the year”.

This time he studied law, became an attorney, and set up his own business. He developed quite a reputation as Radio na Gaeltachta’s  “legal correspondent” but  predictably he jettisoned that too.

Inadvertently, while walking in his wife’s family place one Christmas day, he stumbled upon a half-finished runway. Contrary to everyone’s advice, including the man who owned the business, Padraig bought Aer Arann.

It was small, seemingly bereft of opportunity and haemorrhaging money. It employed eight staff in high season and turned over e250,000 in a good year. Within a matter of a few short years he would transform the business into a e120 million turnover with a staff of 550 people and become one of the fastest growing regional airlines in the world.

In 1992 he was awarded the prestigious Ernst & Young “Entrepreneur of the Year” award for his innovation and entrepreneurship and is now a promoter in at least another dozen profitable ventures. As we speak, he has just delivered a lecture on Innovation to a class of American students in NUIG where he is an Adjunct Professor.

A self-professed facilitator of learning himself, what can we learn from his attitude, his knowledge and his skills?

1. Everyone Communicates. O Ceidigh Connects.

I met a man once who described to me a three minute meeting he’d had with John F. Kennedy. “The thing I remember most was this impression that I was the only other person in the world and that we had all the time in the world. He was totally focused on me. I noticed later that it was the same with everyone else he met – he connected with them utterly”.

That’s the first thing you notice about being in the company of Padraig O Ceidigh. He connects utterly.

When we meet in Friars restaurant in NUIG I introduce him to two friends I had been talking to. At once the conversation is about them. He’s asking them what they’re doing and where they’re working and within two minutes it’s as if they were childhood buddies. They’re doing the talking. He’s doing the listening.

Eighty years ago Dale Carnegie suggested that 95% of our success in life was predicated on our ability to get on with others. In order to do that he recommended that we “be interested rather than being interesting”. Padraig is genuinely interested in everything and everyone.

Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) is the study of how we communicate and was pioneered by an eccentric American genius called Richard Bandler. It should come as no surprise that Padraig has been an avid student of NLP since long before it became fashionable. At one conference in London many years ago Padraig met Bandler at the coffee break and the two “masters of empathy and rapport” became instant friends.

Dr. Albert Mahrabian, a professor at UCLA, caused consternation some years back when he said that the words we use only account for 7% of our presentation impact. Of far more importance is the tonality of our voice which accounts for 38% impact. Of most impact however, are those non-verbal behaviours such as appearance, eye contact, gestures and facial expressions which impact up to 55%. Padraig could have addressed those American students completely as gaeilge and they’d have understood every word.

When you speak with him he fixes you with eyes as deep as the pool in Galway Bay where the big liners anchor. And when you ask him a question he pauses for what seems an eternity. Every point is embellished with a metaphor or analogy to drive it home and make it memorable. He is explaining to me the significance of continuously asking oneself the question “what the world would be, with or without you”. Sensing my confusion he adds “Padraic, your life is like a piece of string and the interesting thing is we don’t know how long or short it is. It’s up to you to do what you will with it. You can stretch it. You can make it smaller. You make a circle out of it. You can save someone’s life with it or you can choke someone with it”.

Point made, and understood, forever.

2. The Journey is More Important Than the Destination. Enjoy it.

This might sound a bit rich coming from a man who I know for a fact has clearly defined goals. I can recall vividly many years ago a flip chart in an Aer Arann office emblazoned with the vision “We will be among the top 100 regional airlines in the world within 5 years” (They got to 36 within 3 years). Last week I got a glimpse at his personal diary and there were three mind maps, one for his yearly goals, his quarterly goals and his monthly goals all hand drawn in brightly coloured markers.

It’s important to start out with a clear destination but nowhere near as critical as enjoying the journey as you go. I believe life is for living. The only failure is not to try. Life is one big experiment. Take for example America. It is the greatest entrepreneurial nation on earth, and failure in business is actively rewarded there because learning to learn is life’s greatest skill. We learn to learn in many ways but very definitely through the process of trial and error”.

He actively encourages people to get outside their comfort zone. His varied career path is a living testament to this. So too is just about everything else in his life. “There’s more to life than a 4 x 4 box. Three years ago I cycled 2500 miles across Route 66 on a Harley Davidson. Before that I had never even cycled a motorbike but I learned how. I learned from the other 60 mad Irish men on that trip. I stood in Winslow, Arizona and I felt at first hand what moved the “Eagles” to immortalise it in their music”.

3. Entrepreneurs. They Live Life on the Edge.

For many, winning the Ernst & Young “Entrepreneur of the Year” award is about the prestige and the publicity. For Padraig,  it represented a massive opportunity to get inside the minds of  the worlds greatest entrepreneurs – to model them, to mirror them and to learn from them.

“Prior to being honoured with the award someone referred to me as a serial entrepreneur. I thought it was a disease. It was only after meeting and studying the best that I began to understand what drove them, what motivated them, what marked them out as different”.

“I’ve noticed a common strand running through the DNA of great achievers. They enjoy living on the edge of the wheel rather than on the centre of the wheel. When you live on the centre of the wheel you’re going around fast but you’re going around the same ground.  When you’re on the edge of the wheel you’re covering a lot more distance”.

“Their bottom line is not whether they succeed or fail. Neither is it about becoming the richest person in their country. It’s about going into uncharted waters and trying something new. Certainty is a boring word for entrepreneurs. They embrace the beauty of uncertainty in every moment of their existence”.

4.Your Body is the Single Most Important Piece of Equipment You’ll Ever Use. Mind it. (Most People Look After Their Car Better)

Achievers exact maximum utility from their time and an Ceideach is no different. When I ring him to organise a location for this interview he is at once decisive and in control. “I’ll tell you what Padraic, we’ll meet in the Kingfisher changing rooms and I’ll tell you anything you want over a five mile run”.

Despite working seventy hour weeks he assiduously makes time for running three to four times a week. “In order to have a possibility of success in business and life you’ve got to look at getting yourself physically right”

He wasn’t always a runner. “I think we need to continuously challenge ourselves and test ourselves out mentally, physically and spiritually. In 1999, I decided to run the New York Marathon and I suppose it was to have a profound impact on the course of my life. I was slow enough but as I’ve told you already, it’s not about the start and the finish; it’s about enjoying the journey. I can remember waddling up to Versano Bridge and seeing a sign proclaiming ‘Most people won’t drive 26.2 miles today’. It gave me a great lift”.

“As I continued, it struck me that I’d a great wife and four healthy kids. I’m very lucky. I decided there and then to bring a bit of New York back to Aran and organise a half marathon to generate money for people less privileged than me”.

Since 2000 the event has generated 1.3 million euro’s to purchase specialised equipment for sick children in Crumlin and Temple Street Hospitals. Two years ago, in his keynote address to the participants after the run, his message was. “You gave up a weekend. You raised a minimum of 750 euro’s for the hospital. You’re helping people that you’ll never meet and never know. And those people will never know you or know what you gave. That is the essence of giving”.

5. It’s in Giving that We Receive.

That too, is the essence of Padraig O Ceidigh. A giver who gives for the sake of giving and never counts the cost.

As we conduct this interview a cloud of ash from an Icelandic volcano threatens to seriously impact his business. There is no moaning. No excuses. No blaming. No feeling sorry for himself.

When you live on the edge of the wheel yet ground yourself in time proven principles you can embrace uncertainty with confidence and comfort.

“I’ve never focused exclusively on cash flows or profits. Don’t get me wrong, they’re important, but never forget that it’s people who put them there.  I’ve never yet seen a business grow. The only thing that grows is people. And as long as you continue to grow yourself and facilitate the growth of those people around you, you’re living life”.

Every October, when Padraig was a boy, his Father, like hundreds of others, would travel to England to pull beat and not return until the following March. It was a supreme act of giving that was not lost on his son.

The world with Padraig O Ceidigh is an infinitely richer place.

Padraic O Maille helps managers to think and perform like achievers. He can be contacted at 091 589340 or or

Continuously Reinvent Yourself Through Lifelong Learning. (phil coulter)

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