Mairead O'Callaghan Photo: Margherita Mirabella
Mairead O’Callaghan Photo- Margherita Mirabella
Nazifa getting ready for surgery, after been deemed healthy. Photo: Margherita Mirabella.
Nazifa getting ready for surgery, after being deemed healthy. Photo: Margherita Mirabella.

Paul Toms (PT): How are you Mairead, all good today? 

Mairead O’Callaghan (MO): I’m doing well, thank you for having me on the podcast, Paul. As we discussed, this is my very first podcast, so I’m looking forward to it. 

PT: So am I! We have a good list of questions to go through with you, so hopefully none of them will challenge you too much. I think it’s a good range of questions – some of them have come from the guys here at EMEA internally, we had a few externally from the network knowing that you were going to be a guest on the show today – so a good list to go through. 

The first question is something I like to ask every guest on the podcast and it’s obviously linked to the connection we have with Operation Smile. So, given this connection with Operation Smile, what was the last thing that made you smile, Mairead? 

MO: I am always ready to smile, a lot of things make me smile. As I was reflecting on this question, I wondered whether to talk about the squirrel I saw outside my window today or whether to link it to something more poignant – and so, if you give me permission to break the rules, you won’t mind if I give two reasons, will you? 

PT: That’s fine, I’ll let you off! 

MO: So, the first one – recently, within the global Operation Smile organisation, we did a project on deciding what our values are. This is a project that reached far and wide across all of our countries and input from staff and our volunteers all over the world, to come to the four things that we feel define us, which is resilience, impact, compassion and integrity. 

Last week, we had a kick-off call with a lot of our global teams. Representatives from each team picked a word and what it means for them, and that in itself made me smile. But, at the time I was taking the call, I was actually in “the queue” – I’m sure you know what the queue is, right? The lying-in-state queue to see Queen Elizabeth. As I was on this call and in the queue, I was reflecting on the qualities of Queen Elizabeth and I thought, you know, if anyone embodied these qualities, it was her. 

Then reflecting on what the UK brings to Operation Smile – and you look at Queen Elizabeth as being kind of the embodiment of the spirit of the UK – that really made me smile. I was also happy to share the queue with all of our global colleagues as we went through the call – it was only one hour, of seven-and-a-half hours in the queue. 

PT: Was David Beckham in the queue? 

MO: No, unfortunately no celebrities in this section of the queue. But I have to say, it was a very incredible experience that made me smile a lot. 

The second one was recently, we had the opportunity to host one of our Ethiopian plastic surgeons here in London. He had travelled in to attend a conference and we had him in the office. He was able to tell us all about what is happening in Jimma, which is our partner hospital in Ethiopia, but his story was really poignant. 

He joined the team in Jimma a year ago and it was because he had been stationed in Dese, which is in the north of the country and, as you might be aware, there is civil unrest and has been in Ethiopia for quite a while; actually, his hospital in the north was attacked, and he and his family had to flee. 

He made contact with one of our colleagues within Operation Smile and we were able to move him down to the southwest of the country where Jimma is, and he is able to continue his work. It made me smile that we were able to relocate his family safely, but also it makes me smile to think about what a benefit it is for us and for Operation Smile to be able to help him, but also help so many children and the hospital in Jimma and all the benefits that will come from that. So, those were two things that really made me smile recently. 

PT: Two very big things for very different reasons, but really good to hear what has motivated you on that side and it’s always nice to start the show with thinking of smiling in mind, especially given the Operation Smile link. 

Within that, you mentioned the medical programmes that people do with Operation Smile and obviously a few years ago, when we had Phil [McDonald] on the show talking about his experiences in the past, it was very emotional and rewarding, but also I think challenging at the same time, because you always think there is so much more we could still do – have you been on many of these medical programmes so far? 

MO: I’ve been on four over 11 years almost now with the organisation. It’s a really incredible experience; I started my journey with Operation Smile working in the very small Irish office wearing many hats. When I was there, I travelled on a few, because I managed volunteers and it was appropriate for me to go at that point. And then, for many years, I took a break, because I was working in a fundraising role and was much more useful at my desk in the office. And so, for years, I took a break, and then since I’ve been in this role, I travelled to Malawi once and it’s incredible. 

Sometimes I think, as a fundraiser essentially and as an administrator, you feel a bit like a penguin on land when you’re in the field – that is not where we thrive; the medical teams thrive and we are there to observe, help where we can and stay out of the way. But the value that travelling brings us – as penguins in the water – when we get back to our desks, it allows us to understand the voices that contribute to this organisation and amplify them, and bring them to the supporters that we work with at home. I have had some incredible experiences, met some wonderful local staff, patients, volunteers… I feel very fortunate to have such a job – I am a lucky girl. 

PT: You have just passed your ten-year anniversary there as well, you’ve just been promoted, so congratulations! That’s some achievement. You must feel, as you say, very proud to have this time in the business and experience all these different things? 

MO: Yes, I absolutely do. I can’t believe it’s been ten years – almost 11 years now. It’s true that time flies when you are having fun. Something that’s not unusual within Operation Smile is to see so many people who stay with the organisation for so long – many people gravitate towards this organisation; there is kind of an X factor that we vibe with. For some of us, this becomes more of a vocation than a job. 

I am lucky to work with so many passionate people across the world and so many passionate volunteers. I have been lucky to have lots of opportunities; that happens when you find something you are passionate about and something some people think you are good at. 

Mairead O’Callaghan, Executive Director Operation Smile UK, with a child after cleft surgery. Operation Smile in Vietnam programme in 2014. Vietnam Cuba Friendship Hospital. Photo: Marc Ascher
Mairead O’Callaghan, Executive Director Operation Smile UK, with a child after cleft surgery. Operation Smile in Vietnam programme in 2014. Vietnam Cuba Friendship Hospital. Photo: Marc Ascher
17-year-old Yousra with a photo of herself before cleft surgery. Photo: Lorenzo Monacelli
17-year-old Yousra with a photo of herself before cleft surgery. Photo: Lorenzo Monacelli

PT: It’s very true – it’s a conversation that we have on a daily basis with people when they are going through changes in their careers. Often, it is difficult for someone to sit down and think about what they enjoy, what they are passionate about, what excites them about this job or company… 

I think, if you’ve got passion or enjoyment in your role, the role doesn’t feel like a job. I think a job feels like a job if every time the alarm goes off in the morning, you keep hitting the snooze button and it’s not enjoyable. But, if you can get into a role or a business where you’ve got passion behind it, that is a huge advantage to having a number of great years in the business, which you obviously have as well. Are you able to tell us a bit more about your current role, as it’s still relatively new, isn’t it? 

MO: I was reflecting on this and, you know, when you speak about people not knowing what they want to do, not having a very specific idea of what they want to do, I always felt like one of those people, like I’m a bit of a jack-of-all-trades; I like to dip my toe into many different things. 

Although I’m not a master of one thing, I really enjoy watching mastery in action and I feel that my role as Executive Director is really to make other people shine. And that’s to make sure that, within the UK, we have the best team in all of the different areas that we cover and to develop a team of masters in their different areas. 

When I’m not working with directing our team, I might be working with our medical volunteers. And, again, if you want to talk about mastery, the years of training that our medical volunteers have put into being masters of what they do is just incredible. For anybody who’s seen our before-and-after pictures, the results speak for themselves. 

So, allowing them to shine is such a privilege and, ultimately, allowing our patients to shine, because everything that I do – whether it’s working with our board of trustees, working with one of our fundraisers or working on programme plans for the UK – is to bring care to our patients, and, ultimately, to allow them to shine, because we’re all born wanting to shine our lights and having the right to shine our lights. It’s not fair that some children are held back from that because of lack of access to – I won’t say a simple surgery, because surgery is never simple – but a surgery that exists and that everybody should have access to. 

PT: Was that your motivator to join Operation Smile in the first place? Because I know that, even before Operation Smile, you’ve been working with charity organisations. So, this isn’t your first experience in this area. 

It’s something that I think, while a lot of people say, “I’d like to do what you’ve done”, there’s not many people that would be maybe brave enough to do that. So, you must have a very strong “why” behind you, in terms of your reasoning going into charity in the first place and then Operation Smile 11 years ago? 

MO: Yes. Like I said, I didn’t grow up kind of thinking I want to be the Executive Director of an NGO (non-governmental organisation) or anything like that. I didn’t have a specific idea about what I wanted to do, but I think I knew how I wanted to feel in my job. And, if I was going to be spending a significant portion of my life working, I wanted to enjoy it. 

As you say, I wanted to be able to bound out of bed every morning and feel like I was contributing. And so, I kind of fell backwards into the charity sector; I just followed my nose, in a way. I followed my passions and followed what I was good at, kept an eye out for, as a marketer, iterative opportunities that were closer and closer to what I wanted to do. 

It’s funny because, when the job with Operation Smile showed up, I had heard of Operation Smile – not because I was madly interested in global health or anything like that, but actually it was back in college when, amongst my other serious reading, I would also frequently read People magazine. I read an article about Jessica Simpson, who at the time was one of Operation Smile’s brand ambassadors and she had traveled to Kenya on a surgical programme. 

And it kind of stuck with me. At the time, I wasn’t looking for a job – I was in college – I was looking for a meal at the time! But, it stuck with me, so when I saw the job posting, it clicked and I went to my first interview with Operation Smile, and I was interviewed by several trustees from the Irish office, who were all super impressive people, super inspirational people, including some of our medical volunteers, and it was just a real click. Immediately, I felt like I wanted to get to work. I think my only question to them was, “Where’s the kettle?”, because I was ready, at that point, to jump in and make a difference. 

It had this really entrepreneurial feel; Operation Smile, we are an NGO, but we’re still kind of a mom-and-pop shop at the same time. So, it felt like I could make a real difference and I think that’s why, 11 years later, I’m a true Op Smiler now. They’ll never get rid of me! 

Vanessa having a health evaluation before cleft surgery in Mozambique. Photo: Zeke du Plessis
Operation Smile patient coordinator with baby with a cleft suffering malnutrition
Operation Smile patient coordinator with baby with a cleft suffering malnutrition. Photo – Henitsoa Rafalia
Volunteer speech therapist Othman El Hammouni during a therapy session with patient at the care centre in Casablanca. Photo: Lorenzo Monacelli
Volunteer speech therapist Othman El Hammouni during a therapy session with patient at the care centre in Casablanca. Photo: Lorenzo Monacelli

PT: Who’d have thought Jessica Simpson would have such an impact on your career? 

MO: I know – on my style and on my career. 

PT: I guess one of the challenges everybody has had over the last three to four years is dealing with the challenges of what COVID has thrown up – especially any charity has had issues over the last three/three-and-a-half years. How have you found it at Operation Smile? Have you had to change the business model at all to adapt to the challenges that COVID has brought around? 

MO: Yes – absolutely. The pandemic, when you think back to those early days of panic and not really knowing what was going to happen, even over the next week, I’m so proud of being a part of Operation Smile at that time, in terms of how we managed ourselves through the pandemic. 

Immediately, we galvanised, we stayed in touch with each other globally and, during the pandemic, every three minutes, a child was still born with a cleft – that did not change because there was a pandemic. And so, we banded behind the mantra of, “The caring never stops”. 

Our goal during that time was to still care for our patients, regardless of what was happening in the world. Of course, the way that we did that changed, because we weren’t able to deliver surgery. But we were able to do a lot of housekeeping in terms of the other comprehensive care that we provided. 

We really improved the nutritional care that we provided, which, as you know, is so important, because that’s one of the early risks for babies who were born with cleft conditions. We were able to make sure that our patients were fed during the pandemic and that they were healthy enough to receive surgery. 

We worked on our speech therapy programmes, which we were able to do remotely, and we focused on all of those elements of care that we could provide. As well as that, we helped our hospital partners. Of course, as an international NGO, we work with hospitals and we rely on our partnerships with them to be able to deliver care. Many of them came to us to ask for our help, and because of the access that we have to global suppliers and supply chains, we were able to provide PPE (personal protective equipment) and help them equip themselves to deal with the pandemic, which, ultimately, was the quickest way of getting back to the work that we want to do. 

So, in a very, very difficult time, we really came together and it was a real testing of the metal, I think, on many levels. I was really proud of our whole global team for how we pulled together to deal with that. 

PT: We are obviously recording this in 2022, so we’re back to some kind of normality now. Now we are in this situation, have you got more medical programmes lined up and what is in the pipeline for Operation Smile for the next six to 12 months? 

MO: Again, I’m really proud of Operation Smile at the moment, because it’s doom-and- gloom… I don’t know if you looked at the news this morning, but there’s such doom-and- gloom, and it feels like there’s so many problems in the world that seem hopeless in many ways. 

Operation Smile this year is celebrating our 40th anniversary globally. With that, we’re planning for our next decade. In the midst of all of this doom-and-gloom, we are setting the ambitious target over the next ten years to treat one million patients. 

I think, having the courage, as an organisation and our leadership all over the world, to put that stake in the ground and say, “That’s where we’re going”, I feel really inspired by it and excited to lead our team or facilitate my colleagues to play our role in that and do whatever we can to meet that target. 

That’s going to be delivered in a variety of different ways, whether it’s direct patient care that we provide through our medical volunteers – be they local volunteers or international volunteers – or the education and training that we do, the infrastructure projects that we do to help equip hospitals so that they can deal with surgical cases, or the research that we’re doing to make sure that we’re headed in the right direction. It’s a very exciting time for us all over the world. Lots in the pipeline, Paul! 

PT: High targets to try to hit as well. So, anybody listening to the podcast now, you’ve got to click the link and make some donations to get us on the way to hitting that target! That’s a seamless link to getting people to donate. 

MO: A natural fundraiser, Paul. 

Seven-year-old Yohane with Speech Language Pathologist, Morgan Silungwe from Malawi, during patient screening. Photo: Margherita Mirabella
Seven-year-old Yohane with Speech Language Pathologist, Morgan Silungwe from Malawi, during patient screening. Photo: Margherita Mirabella
Ana tender for Zoe post cleft surgery. Photo: Carlos Rueda
Ana tender for Zoe post cleft surgery. Photo: Carlos Rueda

PT: Everybody we’ve met on the podcast from Operation Smile and everyone I know there is always super positive, full of life and energy. Also, in the environment that you’re in and the things that you see, the challenges that you have, it’s a bit of a rollercoaster of emotions, especially on medical programmes. 

How do you overcome the situations where you come back from the medical programme and obviously you want to do more, but how do you get through that mentally? That must be pretty tough. 

MO: You know, it is. I think I lean in; there’s a whole bunch of emotions that are available to us as human beings, right? And I lean into them. Feeling things in the field or in my day- to-day life only makes me a more compassionate human and I want to respond to that with integrity. Taking a moment and maybe standing outside myself and observing how I’m feeling, and giving myself time to process that – when I am feeling upset, not making any sudden decisions. 

I would agree with you that there’s a lot of positivity within Operation Smile, but we all have our days. For me, when I am having a day where I feel less motivated than on another day, I look at Operation Smile’s videos or our before-and-after photos and reconnect myself with what we’re here to do; basically, what my goals are to leave the world a better place than I found it, and make sure that I act with passion and integrity and make an impact. That’s how I do it, but all of us wobble, I think. 

PT: Well, we were saying off-air, it’s hard not to, because even when you hear the stories, it’s very difficult to not get emotional when you hear about some of the children that can’t be helped on that particular trip because of time or whatever it may be. And you think, it is going to be a while, the resources are limited, there’s only so many people you can see and so many places you can be at one time. It’s very difficult not to feel the emotion on that side. 

You mentioned it a bit yourself, about the passion that you have and the drive. One of the questions I was going to ask you – it links into some other podcast episodes we’ve done recently, where we’ve had senior level females on the show who’ve done extremely well for themselves in their career, as you have – I thought it would be good to ask if you had any advice for someone looking to follow what you’ve done, what advice might you give someone who wants to follow this path? If you were giving advice to yourself ten to 15 years ago, what advice might you give to them at that stage in their career? 

MO: I do have a couple of pieces of advice. The first one is talking about the importance of mentorship; finding mentors and leaders that you admire, people who you can befriend and can help you along the way. I was very fortunate to benefit from some great mentors. I think, while you’re driving yourself, the value of a mentor is that they can see things in you that maybe you don’t see in yourself yet. They see your potential; you might be limited by what you think you have right now, but they encourage you to make leaps that you wouldn’t make on your own. 

My second piece of advice would be to be yourself. I think there’s so many misconceptions about what it means to be a leader or what a leader should look like, how they should act or how they should respond to things. There are no rules – listen to all the podcasts, of course. 

I understand the leadership theories. But, at the end of the day, you have to be authentic to yourself. If you allow yourself to be yourself, you are also allowing other people to be themselves; I think people do their best work when they feel safe and able to be themselves. That’s something that I certainly try to live by and that I feel exists within Operation Smile, as well. So, those are my two pieces of sage advice. 

PT: It’s very true. It’s advice a lot of people give, but the reality is, it is true. You look at anybody who is successful in any walk of life, whether you are talking about Finance, any business discipline, sports, anything you name… they’ve all got people who they class as mentors, who they get help and advice from. They may not necessarily refer to them as mentors, but I think it is always good to have those people around you, to help guide you in the right direction. Are you prepared to say who your mentor is? 

MO: Well, I’ll definitely give kudos to my predecessor at Operation Smile UK, who’s now our Senior Vice President for Sub-Saharan Africa. But, you know, I can certainly say that she nominated me to succeed her in this role and, if she hadn’t done that, I probably wouldn’t have applied for it. 

PT: So, she shaped the next 11 years of your life, as well as Jessica Simpson. 

MO: Yes, exactly and that’s important. I’ll pay that forward, as well, as I progress. 

Mairead play with child during Operation Smile Programme in Malawi. Photo: Margherita Mirabella
Mairead play with child during Operation Smile Programme in Malawi. Photo: Margherita Mirabella
Regional Senior Vice President for Africa, Karen Jaques. Photo: Margherita Mirabella
Operation Smile runners
Operation Smile runners
Adelmo walking to cleft surgery. Photo: Carlos Rueda
Adelmo ready for the long waited cleft surgery. Photo: Carlos Rueda

PT: That’s great. So now, the last question. To anyone who is listening to this and wants to try and get involved and help raise funds and awareness, is there any advice you can give them to try and get involved in the charity and move that forward? 

MO: Yes – it takes all of us. All of us can play a role in making change and align with Operation Smile. If what you are hearing today is something that interests you, then we would love you to be involved. 

There are many ways to get involved – it can be as simple as making a donation and speaking that way, getting your company involved, getting your friends together and running an event. If you have a medical qualification, potentially you could become one of our medical volunteers. So, I would encourage you to go to our website, it’s There’s a section at the top called “Get Involved”, and it describes the different ways that you can get involved and points you to the correct people in our team that you can reach out to understand more. 

If you’re not ready yet to get in touch, there is a box where you can sign up to the newsletter and just start to read about what we do. It goes out monthly and it’ll tell you about what’s going on in the field, any upcoming events; something might click at some point down the line. So many people have become integral to Operation Smile from just a random encounter or listening to a podcast or whatever it might be. There’s absolutely opportunity for people to get involved. 

PT: Excellent. The more people that get involved, the more chance of that target being hit, as well! 

It’s been awesome to have you as a guest on the podcast today – I really, really enjoyed it. I mean, I knew I would do. We obviously know a lot about your background and, speaking to some of your colleagues, I knew it would be a great conversation. It’s really inspirational what you’ve done in the 11 years at Operation Smile and what all of you guys do at the charity there, so I’m hugely honoured to partner with the business. Hopefully, we’ll be able to keep doing more and more in the future together. 

MO: Likewise, I feel honoured to be on this podcast. Thank you, Paul, and to everybody at EMEA as well for your incredible contribution to what we do and for continuing to raise awareness. It’s invaluable and it’s really going to make change in the world, which is what we all want. Thank you for inviting me. 

PT: I can’t think of a better way to close off the podcast – “make change in the world”. That sounds like a good way to close! A huge thanks for being on the show and we’ll be in touch again soon. 

Taken from a recording of the Make Change in the World episode of the EMEA Recruitment podcast. 

Listen to the episode at: 

To find out more about the EMEA Recruitment and Operation Smile partnership, visit: