As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing, Carolyn Slaski, EY Americas Vice Chair — Talent.
As EY Americas Vice Chair — Talent, Carolyn leads the Americas efforts to create exceptional EY experiences for each of the organization’s 75,000 people. She leverages her understanding of the issues facing EY client-serving and professional teams across every aspect of our business to develop strategies that support the organization’s momentum in the market, attract top talent, and increase the engagement and retention of EY people.
Prior to this role, she was the US member firm’s Northeast Region Managing Partner of Assurance Services. In that position, she led more than 2,000 Assurance professionals and managed all strategic, client service, quality and operational matters. She has also served as the Global Client Service Partner for several of the Region’s largest clients in the media and entertainment, retail and consumer product, and pharmaceutical industries.
Carolyn was the first female partner in the Metropark office in New Jersey, and she later became the Office Managing Partner.
Carolyn holds a BA in Economics from Rutgers University in New Jersey.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
As Americas Vice Chair of Talent, I am proud to lead Ernst & Young LLP’s (EY) efforts to create exceptional and transformative experiences for our 75,000 people in the Americas. In this role, I prioritize the overall well-being and development of our people so that they can have the opportunity to find their purpose and feel empowered to bring their best selves to work every day.
Prior to my current role, I served as a managing partner of Assurance Services for the Northeast Region, leading more than 2,000 professionals. I was also the Global Client Service Partner for several of the Region’s clients in the media and entertainment, retail, consumer products and pharmaceutical industries.
My career and EY journey began even earlier, as an intern in our Metropark, New Jersey office, and later as the first woman partner in New Jersey and then Office Managing Partner.
Throughout my time at EY, I’ve had the opportunity to work in several areas, and with each role, I encountered a new set of experiences, lessons learned and moments of self-discovery. My purpose — unlocking and nurturing potential so that everyone has the opportunity to be the best they can be — has remained at the core.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
As a first-generation college student, I had a hard time deciding on a major. I knew I enjoyed math and was quite good at it. So, I chose engineering, but after just one semester, I knew it wasn’t the right fit.
I was working as a bank teller while in school and turned to my manager for advice. He asked me a very simple question: “What do you enjoy doing?” I took some time to really think about my skills and passions. What I liked about working at the bank was not just the opportunity to put my math skills to work, but also interacting with people every day. My search for a field that combined my love of numbers and desire to work with people led me to transfer to the business school as an Accounting major. I haven’t looked back since.
The experience of uncovering what I really liked to do was the first time I started to fully uncover my purpose — something I now get to help EY people discover every day.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
So many people have helped shape my path and success throughout my life, but one person I am especially grateful for is the coordinating partner I worked with in 1991. Nearly 30 years ago, I was newly married, newly promoted to manager and newly pregnant. The working world then was a much different place and organizations, EY included, did not offer flexible work arrangements or the flexibility that is now widely accepted.
I wanted to continue to grow in my career, but I also wanted to be the best mother I could. I approached my coordinating partner to talk about rearranging my schedule so that I could better manage my priorities — both at work and at home. Not only was he happy to have the conversation, but my entire team was also supportive of the schedule I proposed.
The most important lesson from this? Have the courage to ask for what you need to be successful. Today, I am a big champion of flexibility and have the opportunity to help ensure our people’s needs are met so that they can succeed as well.
Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
I’ve made it a priority to stay hyperconnected to EY’s people and leaders across our entire organization. And this year, amid the uncertainty with the health and social crises, EY doubled down on these efforts, helping our people adjust to remote work and prioritize their well-being. As part of that, my top priority has been to ensure our people have the tools and support they need to succeed inside and outside of work.
At the onset of the crisis, we quickly realized that we needed to adapt our benefit offerings to best support the current needs of our people — many of whom were not only facing hurdles at work, but also in their personal lives. We also expanded the 24/7 resources offered through EY Assist — our single-source solution for connecting our people and their families to consultants or licensed professionals — to include webinars on topics like living alone, virtual medical visits and drop-in mindfulness sessions, to name a few.
At the end of the day, every one of us wears multiple hats, and although we each have unique situations, we are united by one commonality: we’re all in this together and are navigating through an unprecedented time as best as we can.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
This year, we all encountered difficult challenges as we’ve faced the uncertainty around our personal well-being, extended period of remote work, family concerns and various mental health implications. While I’ve also grappled with the effects of the global health crisis, I continue to be motivated every day by how our people are really stepping up to support each other, both personally and professionally, and with the ways in which everyone has adapted to this new way of working.
As a leader, I’ve not only worked to ensure our people have the tools and resources they need to serve our clients and in various life scenarios, but also that they continue to have the opportunity to grow professionally. For instance, when it came to our annual Americas Milestones event, which brings our newly promoted managers and senior managers together for a multi-day learning event and celebration, we were faced with a tough choice. Do we cancel, since the event couldn’t be hosted in person? Or, do we switch to a virtual format? Ultimately, we decided we couldn’t risk putting an event like this on pause as the learning was too important. Through virtual booths, breakout sessions and volunteer opportunities, the event provided an inspiring look at how we can all continue to work, team and lead together.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
In times of uncertainty, leaders can take a people-first approach by prioritizing overall well-being and transparent communication. This means providing benefits and resources that allow people to care for their whole selves, regularly sharing information with teams and being accessible so the lines of communication are open.
This year, we focused on keeping our people engaged and on preventing burnout. To do this, we offered various touch points, like group counseling sessions and daily mindfulness drop-in calls, giving our people an opportunity to focus on their holistic selves and to connect with each other. We also encouraged all leaders to work on being authentic by sharing their own challenges and solutions for overcoming them, as well as being intentional about checking in with everyone on their teams. As a result, our leaders have been able to establish a sense of belonging on their teams and instill motivation.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
At EY, we practice open and honest communication through courageous and constructive conversations. Being candid is about being truthful and straightforward, and proactively tackling what can sometimes feel difficult and uncomfortable to discuss. This helps create certainty about where everyone stands.
While communicating difficult news or feedback is never easy, it is important to ensure leaders have the tools and training they need to help them lead with empathy and honesty, successfully navigating through both the ups and the downs.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
During turbulent times, it is critical for leaders to role model purposeful and transparent behaviors in order to effectively manage teams. This can be done by:
- Leading with empathy. Expressing sensitivity and compassion while helping your people find solutions during times of crisis can forge long-lasting benefits.
- Offering flexibility. Flexible work arrangements can help employees maintain a healthier work-life balance, prevent burnout and handle their various life scenarios.
- Encouraging collaboration. Gathering various perspectives and constantly learning from our differences are essential to professional growth.
- Looking ahead. Advocating for lifelong learning and upskilling opportunities is critical for the future of work.
- Empowering your people. Build an inclusive culture so that your people feel valued for their differences and like they belong.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I’ve always connected with Walt Disney’s quote, “You can design and create and build the most wonderful place in the world. But it takes people to make the dream a reality.” As a leader at EY, I think this speaks to our innovative spirit, the needs of our people and how we’ve embraced disruption.
In today’s age of increased digitization and disruption, companies should adapt and evolve to meet the changing needs of their people. I’ve learned that empowering your people to find their purpose and further developing their skills are the ways forward, and for staying ahead of the curve.