Priya Lakhani is centre stage with Amy Ball in a packed room full of over 400 executives at Ireland’s first-ever PwC Leadership Exchange in the Dublin Royal Convention Centre.

Lakhani is an award-winning entrepreneur who founded and leads Century Tech, which specialises in AI-powered learning tools for schools, colleges, universities and employers. 

She says that until recently, she used to always say that every company is a technology company. “Now I’m saying every company is an AI company,” she says. 

Ball, business transformation leader at PwC Ireland, asks Lakhani how business leaders can create a culture of innovation that will ensure their businesses remain relevant. 

“Technology is going to completely disrupt every single sector we operate in,” Lakhani says. “The capabilities of new technologies are absolutely extraordinary.” 

The expectations of consumers, she said, is going to change as personalisation accelerates and this represents an opportunity for business. Digital transformation, she says, is about much more than completing a project. “This is an evolution.” 

“What this technology can do within your business is potentially incredibly transformative.” She says artificial intelligence can deliver efficiencies for all businesses and it is an “urgent opportunity” for business leaders to embrace this change if they wish to remain relevant. 

It is a compelling talk, in a morning packed with insights into the big challenges facing leaders in Ireland.

Among the speakers are Microsoft’s Fiona Carney, Tirlán’s Dr Lisa Koep, AIB’s Mary Whitelaw and experts from PwC. 

(L-R) PwC Partners, David McGee, ESG leader, Trish Johnston, assurance leader, Amy Ball transformation leader and Enda McDonagh, PwC managing partner.

The hundreds of executives in attendance are eager to hear the big questions the event aims to answer, including how ESG can become a competitive edge and how executives can prepare their businesses for tech-powered transformation. 

In between, there is networking and an opportunity to talk directly to both the external experts and PwC’s team, which includes David McGee, its ESG leader in Ireland; Fiona Gaskin, ESG leader for assurance and reporting; and David Lee, Chief Technology Officer at PwC Ireland. 

ESG: The new competitive edge?

McGee is the host of a panel looking at how companies who are best at environment, social and governance (ESG) can pull ahead of their competitors. 

On his panel is Dr Lisa Koep, who became Tirlán’s first chief ESG officer in December 2022. She says that sustainability had always been important to the organisation from when it was part of Glanbia, but the creation of her role reflected her company’s determination to make ESG core to all its decision-making. 

She tells McGee that corporate affairs and ESG teams need to work together. Tirlán, which is behind some of the country’s best-known brands such as Avonmore and Kilmeaden Cheese, is a co-operative owned by 11,000 farm families. It is this unique structure where its suppliers are also its customers and shareholders that position her to understand this need more than most.

“It’s hugely important not just to strategise and implement ESG, but also to communicate, to inspire and take stakeholders with you. Our big job is the transformation of the agri- industry.” 

Mary Whitelaw, chief strategy and sustainability officer at AIB, also contributes to this panel. She took up the position in February 2024 after previously being chief sustainability and corporate affairs officer with the bank. 

“The only way that we will arrest climate change and make a difference is if we reduce the amount of greenhouse gases and emissions that are released into the atmosphere, and that requires significant business model change,” she says. 

“These are big strategic decisions. We’re on a journey to integrate sustainability fully into our business strategy.”

“There’s a scenario where business leaders can stick their heads in the sand, and that’s a really big risk,” she adds. “Meanwhile, others are seeing changes, digesting what that means for their business models, and figuring out how, during this period of change, they can create and build competitive advantage. In AIB, strategy and sustainability are two sides of the one coin.”

Meaningful and measurable 

Fiona Gaskin is a partner at PwC and the firm’s ESG leader for assurance and reporting. Also participating on the panel, she says measuring the S for social in ESG is less mature than in other areas. To deliver the S in ESG requires understanding what is relevant to organisations when looking at the impacts a business has on the world around it, she adds, and what actions it takes to address these impacts. 

“The key around good targets or good metrics that you’re reporting for social is to make them relevant to your organisation so that they’re meaningful. And then obviously, as with any metric, they have to be time-bound and measurable, but the key thing is that they are actually meaningful in the first place.”

How can business leaders develop a culture of innovation?

Priya Lakhani trained as a barrister before becoming an entrepreneur. Her fascinating fireside chat with PwC’s Amy Ball is frank and insightful. 

She says that executives do not need to know how to code or be overly technical to be innovative and encourage others to be the same. 

She said a key challenge is getting people to buy into innovation and the benefits transformation can bring, and to foster an organisational culture to support that.

“What you have got to do is try to explain to your team that technology empowers your organisation. We love to talk about AI – and Elon Musk loves to get up on stage and say it’s going to replace all of us. It is not,” Lakhani said. 

“You’ve got to go to your people and ask; don’t you want to spend more time doing the HI (Human Intelligence) work than the grunt work that AI can do? You need to give your people a challenge, give them information or let them go and find information and then let them come up with ideas… It is curiosity. It is problem solving.” 

“CEOs are problem solvers, but actually if you can get people to own what they’re doing and come up with ideas, then that’s how you create an innovation culture.”

Amy Ball, PwC, and Priya Lakhani, founder of Century Tech.

Lakhani says a task for all CEOs attending PwC’s Leadership Exchange is to ensure that everyone in their organisation understands what Generative AI and other non-Generative AI are capable of. 

“This technology is here, and it’s coming fast.  The train has left the station and is not going away,” Lakhani says. She says it is important to empower employees by educating everyone in a company to understand what Generative AI and non-Generative AI are, so that they can figure out relevant use cases.  

“Let them come up with the ideas for you,” Lakhani said. “Do things in an agile way. Test things out. See if your stakeholders prefer that approach, see if it’s creating efficiencies, and then you can all move on it.”


Amy Ball hosts the final session at the PwC Leadership Exchange where her panel is made up of Microsoft’s Fiona Carney, chief marketing and operations officer at Microsoft EMEA; David Lee, Chief Technology Officer at PwC; and Lakhani. 

PwC opened a GenAI Business Centre in partnership with Microsoft last November. Ball starts her panel by asking Carney how Microsoft is using AI in its business in Ireland. 

“When we think about generative AI and how we are trying to roll it out across Microsoft, our approach is on being the first users – customer zero. By integrating it into our own processes, we are gaining insights and are learning every day” Carney says.

She emphasises the significance of thinking through how to strategically incorporate AI, especially generative AI tools like Microsoft 365 Copilot, into organisational workflows to meet business objectives. One way to do this involves pinpointing specific use cases where generative AI can swiftly enhance productivity and efficiency.

“We have to look at things that we have to do every day where we can use generative AI to assist us with our workload, allowing us to focus on priorities and maintain a healthy work-life balance,” she says.

She gives the example of how Copilot, when used within Microsoft Teams, can generate notes and action points, making meetings more efficient. 

For companies working across multiple time zones, this is especially useful as team members can review calls afterwards at their own convenience during normal working hours. Other use cases, she says, include drafting emails, creating presentations, and generally managing your workload more efficiently. 

“This is not intended to do all the work for us,” she adds. “There is a reason it is called Copilot and not auto pilot! Having this tool as an aid that can help kickstart the creative process, assist with graphics, or simply help conceptualise ideas can significantly reduce stress and encourage people to take the first step.” She emphasises the importance of considering the human aspect, such as people, culture, and hands-on learning, in the context of AI. “Another critical factor is to strategise on data governance, accountability and the application of technology across various business sectors. Establishing an AI governance council is one approach to achieve this.”

“The only thing you know with certainty now is that in three years’ time, the world you’re operating in will have changed.”

David Lee, Chief Technology Officer, PwC Ireland

David Lee, as Chief Technology Officer with PwC, has three decades of experience helping companies deal with major technological changes. He says companies used to talk about business cycles and three-year transformation programmes. 

“The only thing you know with certainty now is that in three years’ time, the world you’re operating in will have changed,” he says. 

He says the PwC Ireland 2024 CEO survey found that 28 per cent of Irish CEOs believe that their current businesses will not be viable in 10 years’ time if they do not change. 

“So that’s a scale of transformation that we haven’t yet absorbed or internalised,” he says. “And you’re not going to deliver against that in the same manner that you did in the last 10 or 15 years where you talked about implementing technology over a three-year period.”

Carney says Microsoft runs Prompt-athons, where its team and customers work on figuring out how best to instruct AI to assist. 

“The art of prompt engineering becomes really, really important when we start thinking about generative AI, because the answer you get is only going to be as good as the question that you ask it,” she explains. 

Ball asks Lakhani how rapidly is the landscape that businesses operate in changing?

“I always say that you either disrupt or be disrupted and you’re trying to catch up,” Lakhani says. “There’s a tsunami coming.” 

She says in five years’ time, new companies will emerge that will be among the biggest firms in the world with products and services that don’t exist today. “I know that’s scary,” she says, adding that companies have to accept that AI is going to disrupt their business models. 

“What you need to do is create a strategy that says: Right now, this is my value proposition, but what might my value proposition look like once that tsunami is here?”


Trish Johnston, PwC assurance leader, delivers the closing remarks at the PwC Leadership Exchange. 

She speaks about the importance of companies tackling ESG at a deeper level. “When it comes to ESG, the low-hanging fruit has already been picked,” she says. “Organisations need to integrate sustainability into their strategy, to measure progress and to adapt continuously. With the CSRD (Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive) now on the horizon, there is absolutely no time to lose.”

“It is never too late to leverage technology for positive change, and to embed a culture of continuous innovation. Using technology to transform your organisations and modernise legacy systems to enhance customer experience and power data-driven decision making has never been as important.” 

Johnston also reveals the results of a survey of the over 400 business leaders attending the Exchange, which asked five questions during the course of the session.

Survey results

Johnston says the survey reveals that Irish leaders are “very optimistic” about continued revenue growth. She says this positivity is consistent with PwC’s 2024 Irish CEO survey, which managing partner Enda McDonagh had discussed earlier at the Exchange. “It demonstrates that organisations are adapting to change, and are ready to thrive in a constantly changing environment,” she says.  

Geopolitical risks, she says, are identified as something that is of major concern. “But while some of those issues are beyond our control, what’s really important is that we focus on how resilient our organisations and people are to ensure that they can weather any storms as they arise.”

Over 70 per cent of leaders feel that their businesses are being impacted by business model disruption. According to Johnston, this means: “It’s absolutely clear that the ability to change and adapt is not a nice-to-have, it’s absolutely essential.”

Trish Johnston, assurance leader at PwC Ireland, wraps up the PwC Leadership Exchange.

The survey found that the majority (55 per cent) of Irish business leaders believe that ESG will be a source of competitive advantage for their organisation. “What we would say is that actually integrating ESG criteria into your strategic planning framework is going to be important to help you meet evolving societal expectations and to enhance your organisations’ long-term sustainability,” Johnston says. 

Almost all (98 per cent) of the survey respondents believe that AI and GenAI can expedite transformation in their organisations over the next twelve months. Johnston says leaders agreed that AI held “great promise” in terms of business transformation. 

“We have to harness its potential in a way that is responsible and also focuses on the human-centric piece of the outcomes,” Johnston comments. 

Johnston then reflects on the conclusion of the day’s sessions and on the survey results. “It is clear that transformation and transformational leadership are needed for sustained success in the future,” she says. 

“As we’ve learned from today’s speakers and our interactions with business leaders, we’re in a period of volatility and change. While existential threats are converging, the businesses that are most likely to survive or to succeed are those that can balance the long-term macro themes of risk, ESG and changing consumer demands with short-term demands on their businesses. Clearly, there are significant challenges, but we’re here to help.”

The Currency is the media partner for the PwC Leadership Exchange event.