By Tom Hanlon
Mark Peecher, Jon Davis, Tim Ryan, Tim Reierson
Tim Ryan never planned to be an accountant. In fact, he never planned to go to college. No one else in his family had. He could have easily stayed at the supermarket where his mother worked as a part-time cashier, and where his brother and sister worked.
But he decided to try college. He took a risk. And he felt completely like a fish out of water. “I’m not going to make it, Dad,” he told his father at his orientation at Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts. “This isn’t me.”
But he stuck it out. And it turned out, he said, to be four of the best years of his life. It was Richard Bruno, an accounting professor at Babson, who got him to give accounting a chance as a profession.
“I would never have come to PwC had it not been for Richard Bruno,” Ryan told accounting students at a recent Lyceum held in Deloitte Auditorium. “He was a tremendous mentor to me.”
It was Bruno who told Ryan that a person who wanted to succeed needed more EQ – emotional quotient – than IQ. “It’s about how you get along with people,” Ryan said. “It’s about how you interact with people, your desire to learn, your desire to follow your curiosities, and your desire to follow your passion.”
Ryan, who in college had fancied himself running his own business one day, found his passion at PwC, where he has worked for more than 25 years. Along the way, he has learned three lessons that shape both a personal and a professional life, and that have a far greater influence on success than do money and prestige.
Those lessons, he said, are on integrity, optimism, and perseverance.
“Inevitably you will be faced with things in your professional career – small things or large things – that will test your integrity,” Ryan said. “I would argue that rationalization is the enemy of integrity. You can rationalize anything. Very few people believe they are breaking a law or doing something that lacks integrity. Integrity is something you have to make sure you’re protecting every single day.”
Ryan shared a couple of stories that spoke of the importance of integrity, including the following.
“In 2001 I took over our banking practice,” he said. “Two other partners and I began to see a number of risks in the subprime mortgage phase.” One risk, he said, was a lack of cash flow in some cases. Too much money was tied up in residual assets and structured securities. Another risk in some cases was that some companies were charging high interest rates.
“Our recommendation was we shouldn’t be doing business with standalone subprime companies,” he told the students. “If a company was part of a larger organization that had the capital and the control and compliance procedures in place to manage the risk, we thought it was appropriate. But if it was a standalone company, our recommendation was that we shouldn’t be doing that business.”
Ryan, with the support of the other two partners took his recommendation to PwC’s leaders, and they listened to him – though they knew by taking his recommendation they would be losing millions of dollars in audit fees from the companies Ryan was recommending they no longer audit.
“We saw a risk inconsistent with the culture of the organization that we were lucky enough to be part of,” he said. “They analyzed our recommendation and accepted it. They walked the talk. Integrity is one thing to talk about. To have it is another thing when you’re faced with a decision of how to engage”.
“I would encourage you to go after whatever your dream is and I would encourage you to remain agile because things change in life,” he continued. “But no matter what you do and no matter how you define success, recognize the thing that is most important is your integrity. It is something you either have or you don’t. Once you lose it, it’s hard to get it back, and some would say it’s impossible to get it back.”
Also important, Ryan said, is a sense of optimism – not blind optimism, but an optimism in the face of challenges.
“In life there are plenty of challenges,” he said. “Every challenge is an opportunity. It’s there waiting for every single one of us to grab. From a leadership perspective, the big challenge is being optimistic in the face of something that others see as a struggle.”
Leaders, he said, have to have the passion to be willing to say “I’m going to lead and I’m going to take people into very difficult situations and I’m going to be optimistic.”
He gave the example of leading people through the regulation changes of recent years. “If you believe in something, and you have the objectivity to really call out where you need to improve as opposed to being defensive, getting people through that change is actually very comfortable,” he said. “It’s been incredibly rewarding to see our people come through that ride and see them get better and better as a result of some of the changes. Easy? No. Rewarding? Yes. And having a sense of optimism, believing in what we do, was incredibly important.”
Perseverance was the other key factor that Ryan touched on. He said when he was a sophomore in college, working in the supermarket, he was taught a valuable lesson. He was teasingly picking on an employee who was a bit slow. His store manager heard him and said, “Hey. He’s giving you one hundred percent of what he’s capable of giving. What more do you want from him?”
“I will never forget that lesson,” Ryan said. “I was being destructive. Richie Ordway, the store manager, taught me how to be constructive. And that’s perseverance. When you come across challenges you’ve got two choices: You can jump on the bus of being destructive and critical. Or you can be a leader and say how am I going to make it better. That’s why every challenge is an opportunity. I would encourage you as you go about your career and on your personal side as well, to ask yourself: Am I taking the easy way out by being critical or am I going to come up with solutions?”
Taking Time for Yourself
In wrapping up his talk, Ryan told the students to make sure they had fun along the way. “Twenty-five years has gone by for me in the blink of an eye, and one of the mistakes I made is I was a little too serious early on.
“Make sure you leave time to be a whole person. Get to the gym. Take that art class. Find the time for yourself.
“And find an organization that is consistent with your values. Money is a big part of the equation, no doubt about it. But a much bigger part of the equation is taking your goals and your values and your own life goals and finding an organization that’s consistent with those goals. If you remember to have a little bit of fun, and find an organization consistent with your goals, you’ll have a very rewarding career.”