“When you open the newspaper and see your name on that list, it feels unreal – it’s not something you can ever imagine will happen to you.”
That’s the way Ciarán Devane, ESIA MIPP ’06, describes the feeling of learning this past June that he was to be knighted by Queen Elizabeth II.
“Being knighted is a huge honor,” he says. “To be recognized by the people who nominate you, by the British government, and by the Queen for having made a contribution to society and the country…it is very, very flattering.”
The native Dubliner but long-time UK resident was selected for knighthood in recognition of his leadership of Macmillan Cancer Support, a British third sector organization that he grew into one of the most recognized and impactful charities in the UK. His journey to successful chief executive and knighthood is one that wouldn’t have been possible without his time at GW, he says.
The loss of his wife to cancer in 2003 led Sir Ciarán to pursue a new path in life, one that was a significant change from the two decades spent as an engineer and consultant. “I always had an interest in international politics, and studying that discipline gave me a chance to recover from what was going on at the time and head off in a different direction,” he says.
Feeling that the experience of studying international policy would be richer in another country, Sir Ciarán began looking at programs in Washington, D.C., because “that’s where the work is done.” The Master of International Policy and Practice (MIPP) program at GW’s Elliott School of International Affairs stood out to Sir Ciarán as the perfect fit not only because of its location in the heart of D.C., but because it was so diverse in what it did.
When he arrived in Foggy Bottom, Sir Ciarán found a program with more than half of its students from overseas and a faculty to match. The result was a classroom built on blending point-of-views from around the world.
“You were working alongside people with a U.S. perspective and individuals from different countries whose perspectives you might not otherwise encounter—the community was fantastic,” he recalls, adding that, “My degree from GW helped me with the first job, and that in turn opened the door to a new path that was absolutely way beyond my imagination.”
That door led to him becoming chief executive of Macmillan Cancer Support, an organization that he had a strong affinity for after his wife’s battle with cancer.
When he took the reins of Macmillan in 2007, it was an organization that had seen growth and made significant contributions to UK society over its 100-year history, but Sir Ciarán saw an even better organization wanting to get out. Under his leadership, Macmillan doubled the size of its reach and impact and moved increasingly beyond clinical care to place more emphasis on whole-person care: mind, body, and spirit.
Sir Ciarán says that his proudest accomplishment at Macmillan was overseeing development and dissemination of the “Nine Outcomes”—the nine issues that people with cancer in the UK say matter to them the most.
“When my wife was ill with cancer and dying of it, she had the best possible support,” he says. “I wanted the next person diagnosed to get the care and support we got.”
In January of this year, after seven years at the helm, Sir Ciarán left Macmillan to serve as chief executive of the British Council, an organization specializing in international educational and cultural opportunities.
“I always believe that you don’t want to be the chief executive who stayed too long,” he says. “We were coming to a new phase in the life of Macmillan, and it just felt it was time to give someone else the opportunity to take this on, and for me personally, I knew it was time to take on a new challenge, something new that I felt passionate about.”
Established in the 1934 (it would receive a Royal Charter in 1940) in response to the global instability at the time—Britain was suffering through a depression after the Wall Street Crash of 1929, and Russia, Italy, Spain, and Germany all had extremist-driven regimes come to power—the British Council aimed to create a “basis of friendly knowledge and understanding between the peoples of the UK and other countries.”
Sir Ciarán believes the mission of the British Council is just as necessary today as it was at the organization’s founding, citing the importance of interchanging ideas and forming connections between people in the UK and people overseas as the world becomes more connected.
“The flip side of a connected world is that while there are opportunities for good to be done, there are also a lot of opportunities for bad things to happen,” he cautions, citing the threat of extremist groups and pointing out the parallel to the extremism in Europe leading up to WWII.
“Just as we saw extremism then, we are also seeing it today in organizations like ISIS,” Sir Ciarán says. “A culture of understanding is one of our best tools against extremism, so there is a huge opportunity for organizations like ours to make an important contribution. It is all about giving people those opportunities to connect and better understand one another.”
Looking back on his nearly ten year journey since departing Foggy Bottom, Sir Ciarán says he has learned some valuable lessons as leader: “First of all, you have to be yourself,” he says. “Be an authentic leader, embrace your ability to grow, but don’t change who you are at the core.”
He also feels privileged to have had the fabulous experiences, both personally and professionally, that he did at GW and hopes his fellow alumni do too.
“We all need to recognize how privileged we are to have lived and studied at a great university in a great city,” he says. “We all benefited from a great GW education, so make the most of it, capitalize on it, and make an impact on the world.”
Sir Ciarán Devane returned to GW’s Foggy Bottom Campus on Nov. 16 to help kick off International Education Week activities.