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Alan O’Neill: Scaling up your organisation needs leaders with strategic vision

One in four children in Ireland has a special educational need. A lack of affordable private services means that too many children are struggling to reach their full potential.

The waiting list for public occupational therapy services can take up to two years.
Given that early intervention with a child is critical, that’s just too long to wait.

Because Karen Leigh had experienced these challenges within her own family, she founded Sensational Kids in Kildare town in 2007 to bridge the gap.
Sensational Kids now employs a team of 21. This includes a skilled clinical team of dedicated professionals committed to supporting children of all abilities.

Revenue comes from selling educational toys in their online store, running educational workshops for teachers, parents and therapists, and – of course – fundraising activities.
This income enables them to provide clinical services to families at a heavily-subsidised rate. Since it was formed, 4,500 children have received support.

Now a registered charity, I was privileged to spend a few years as the company chairman. I was always impressed with the ethos, the concern and the genuine desire to support families.


The unfortunate noise in the charity sector in recent times has now compelled voluntary boards of directors everywhere to be even more transparent in all dealings.

Adherence to the Governance Code is essential, which of course is right and proper. Sensational Kids is on the journey towards full compliance with that.
Recent Challenges

Over the years, the charity has been supporting families from all over Ireland. The ambition now is reach out and be “the leading, innovative, child development social enterprise in Ireland”.

That means opening more centres.
Fortunately, the Dormant Accounts Fund has recently earmarked a grant of €45,000 to open a new centre in Clonakilty to service the Munster region.

And the Community Foundation for Ireland is providing €60,000 for a centre in the Connacht region.
But the challenge now is to scale up in quite a short time frame, and move from being a local service to a national one.

Finding qualified therapists is one part of the challenge. The bigger issue is how to build further on a great brand reputation and culture, and achieve consistency in quality of service across all sites.
Change tips

Sensational Kids is a classic founder-led SME. Karen’s passion and imprint has an impact on all facets of the company. Previously a manager of a contact centre, she has had to grow with Sensational Kids over the years.

Transition from manager to leader

Being so operational is not an option going forward. There are only so many hours in a day and Karen can’t be in all three sites at the same time. Standards would slip and targets would be missed.

Picture a pyramid and you will see that Karen has to step up to the next level. Letting go of some tasks and transitioning from manager to leader is essential.
Managers focus on the day-to-day operational tasks, getting things done in line with targets.

But leadership is about setting the strategic agenda for the longer term, being a custodian of the heritage, the vision and the culture, and role modelling the behaviours that support all of that.

As leader, Karen should also have more time to coach and mentor the teams.
Get the structure right

Because plans are already in place for the new sites, it’s time to think about the best structure to deliver the new business model. The added advantage here is that it provides opportunities for current people to step up, grow and progress in the company.

The next task is to specify what each job role entails. This means writing role guides that outline clearly and unambiguously the key responsibilities, reporting lines, tasks and measures of success. It should also detail the competencies required for each role.

Select the right people

Once that is all defined, the next phase is to find the best fit, ie the right people for the right role.
The good fortune here is that there is great talent in the existing team. Before going to the wider market, they will be given every chance to advance in the new structure.

Train so your people stay

When people are hired into a role, it will take time for them to maximise their performance.

You can do that the slow and potentially painful way through learning by discovery, or you can speed it up in a structured way through training. Whatever way you deliver that training will be determined by your time and resources. In my experience, training sets them up for success rather than failure.

Scaling up is a big step for any organisation. Having the cash to invest in such growth is great but there is so much more to expansion than that. Quality planning plays a big part.

Shaping the key roles is essential. Getting the structure right and having the right people that are willing and able to deliver that plan, will significantly improve the chances of success.

Alan O’Neill is a change consultant and non-executive director. For 25-plus years he has been supporting global and iconic brands through change. Business advice questions for Alan can be sent to

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