As part of my series about the “How Businesses Pivot and Stay Relevant In The Face of Disruptive Technologies,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Steve Payne.
As the EY Americas Vice Chair- Consulting, Steve Payne oversees more than 20,000 consultants who are focused on helping to create long-term value for clients through sustainable, inclusive growth. In addition to bringing the broad range of EY services to clients through technology and innovation, he cultivates talent and builds high-performing teams that can respond to change and transformation with the agility and empathy needed in today’s world. Prior to this role, Steve was the EY-Parthenon Global Strategy & Operation consultancy Leader, as well as EY Global Transaction Strategy and Execution Leader. He has advised top-tier institutions on operations management and working capital improvement for more than 30 years.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
My path to consulting wasn’t exactly the traditional straight line that many have experienced. The best place to start is up until I was 16, I was convinced I was meant to be a professional football player — and remember, I’m British, so I mean ‘football.’ I put that dream on hold and when I left school, I joined a company to complete a 4 year mechanical engineering apprenticeship, and to be honest, I hated every single minute of it! While the work wasn’t for me, it was where I started to understand the importance of strong professional relationships as my manager agreed to sponsor me to do a postgraduate diploma in Operations Management.
By then, I was married and had kids, so I was working full-time, plus going to school twice a week in the evenings and on Saturdays. After the diploma, things started moving fast. I worked at a start-up in the UK where I was the Operations Director, looking after everything from sourcing, assembly, to quality. This is where I met some Consultants that were helping us implement an MRP system that piqued my interest in the industry. I then joined a boutique consulting firm in London that focused on liberating cash from working capital and got well and truly bitten by the consulting bug.
Fast forward to 1992 and I was asked by a client to head to the US to lead the same work that we had delivered in the UK, and loved the experience and the people. So much so that I brought my whole family back here in 1993 to launch the supply chain practice at the same boutique based in New York. That was a two-year international secondment and we’ve been here ever since. By the time we sold that company in 2005, I was CEO, and while running the same team within the bigger company, I decided after two years that it was time to move on. I spoke to a number of consulting and few private equity firms, but the culture and people at EY immediately appealed to me. I joined EY to launch the working capital practice in the Americas, and have been very fortunate to have been invited to take on a series of different leadership roles until my current one as Americas Vice Chair — Consulting. Oh, and I never made it as footballer, but I did enjoy many years of coaching the local travel ‘soccer’ team in the town that we lived.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? What lessons did you learn from it?
When I first came to the US, I was meeting a CFO on a supply chain project. I started talking to him about how we can reduce his stock. In England “stock” is inventory. But over here, of course, it means something different! The CFO was looking at me thinking “why does this guy want to ruin my stock price?!” I learned that even though we all speak English, it’s not always the same!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person you are grateful towards for helping get you to where you are?
Nobody gets where they are without help. Personally, I’ve been very fortunate to be able to count so many people that have helped me along the way. First and foremost, my wife of 35 years, Jane, has always been incredibly supportive of my career and bolstered my courage to take risks and accept challenges that I may have otherwise dismissed out of hand. She allowed me to travel the world in my various roles while raising four wonderful children as mostly a single parent.
I would have to say I learned a lot from the business owner who gave me the chance to be CEO of what was his boutique company. He must have seen something in me that I wasn’t ready to see. I suddenly went from running the Americas to being the CEO of the global boutique and having to present to the board and to external investors, and he helped me learn what to say, what not to say and even how to phrase things. It was challenging, but he inspired me to learn a lot of the board presence and leadership skills that have carried me to where I am today.
Then there are half a dozen people in EY who have taken a chance on me and given me opportunities that I could never have dreamed of as being possible.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When thinking about how you lead your teams, what has been the vision, what about purpose?
Being purpose-led means drawing a great connection to your organization’s role in the world, and it’s what inspires your people. Most people accept they may have to work hard, and sometimes do activities that they may not enjoy as part of an engagement every now and then, but if they feel they’re working for a firm that’s committed to making the world a better place — whether that’s through sustainability, social justice or any other important issue — they will buy into the journey you’re on. The best talent have options and are attracted to, and stay with, purpose-led organizations.
Can you tell our readers a bit about your leadership role? How does your business help people?
I lead the Americas Consulting practice which has +20,000 people, and we are executing our strategy of being the transformation partner of choice for our clients. The skill sets that we have are broad and deep, and we work each day to bring the power of those capabilities, along with the skills of all of EY to bear to provide a holistic response to our clients’ most strategic needs; Transformation Realized.
We help our people develop their capabilities to help them have the greatest success that they can and wherever they choose to ply their skills. If they spend their whole career at EY that is wonderful, but if not, we hope that they look back at their time at EY and value the experience we gave them. From a broader perspective, I could not be more proud of the people of EY and their community engagement which helps people in so many impactful ways to help them have a better life.
Which technological innovation has encroached or disrupted your industry? Why has it been so disruptive?
I like to think that there are many technological innovations over the years that have allowed our industry to become even stronger. They have allowed us to deliver greater insights and solutions to our clients, in faster and more cost-effective ways. Some have been touted as being the demise of the consulting industry, but what we have seen is that these in fact have been embraced because of the value they deliver to our clients. It has allowed our people to become expert in the design and use of technology, while also allowing others to focus on the architecture of solution and lead the essential change management that inevitably comes with transformation. AI is really allowing our people to be better consultants.
There are many innovations that have allowed us to support our clients in this pandemic triggered environment, and the investment in these technological tools has led to tremendous advances in a very short period of time. The overall digitization of the world has impacted our industry in so many ways. But if I had to pick one tool that has disrupted consulting, it would be collaboration platforms. Not just communication tools like video conferencing but the shared sites where we can now store data securely for teams to access and collaborate on in real-time. These platforms allow us to connect data, insights and people seamlessly. We have brought together people with different skillsets, sector experience and country expertise on a single client engagement, no matter where they’re based. That’s a game-changer in terms of our ability to deliver great services for our clients.
What did you do to pivot as a result of this disruption?
There were infrastructure investments required to ensure that our people were able to operate from their homes so that they could effectively participate in client engagements and contribute to our work efforts, and these investments continued as the pandemic has remained a constant in our lives for what will be more than a year.
It was also key that we invest in helping our people learn and leverage new teaming and data sharing technologies to ensure the transition to the new operating model was seamless. EY has always had a globally connected mindset to supporting our clients, but the acceptance, and growing appreciation of our clients to value the connectivity of technical, sector and geographic capabilities in the remote delivery model has driven teaming to a new level. In the past, many clients wanted to see this expertise inside their physical four walls, which at times could be a challenge, whereas now, it is far easier. Our ability to use collaboration tools to service clients in a very quick and cost-effective way is huge. We don’t have to fly someone overseas, or even cross-country, when we can get the best people with the right expertise in front of the customer instantly using technology.
Was there a specific “Aha moment” that sparked the idea for the pivot? If yes, we’d love to hear the story.
I don’t think you can really say there’s been a specific ‘aha’ moment; this is a process that’s been developing and iterating for a while, but the pandemic triggered the global change to remote working, which forced the changes over night versus over what may have taken years. The technology was never going to be the constraint, rather the speed at which people would accept the change in the operating model. The pandemic changed this very quickly — it’s not just us who are offsite of course; our clients are too.
So, how are things going with this new direction?
I think it’s fantastic and look forward to reading the studies that discuss the scale and speed of change, the resilience and adaptability of the industry, our client and our people. There is no doubt that this has been tragic for so many people around the world with the loss of life and suffering, people losing their businesses and jobs and even the significant recovery of the economy that is being discussed will likely be a ‘K’ recovery which means there will be significant winners and losers and that the economic divide that we have today will be exacerbated. With that said, there have been so many learnings and benefits. Our ability to service clients on a global basis and deliver for them in a more collaborative and cost-effective way is better than ever. There are challenges with it too of course — not so much in terms of our work with clients but for us as human beings. There’s no separation between work and home at the moment, so it’s very easy for people to put in longer hours than they should. Plus, lots of us miss the nuances of true in-person teamworking. Things like the coffee chat, the dinner, the drink with the team in the bar after work etc. The way we work I believe is changed forever, but the future will be a balance of pre-pandemic life and now, not the complete transformation we have at the moment.
Other silver linings of this is we have demonstrated our people can contribute significantly remotely, and this will help us look at new and more diverse pools of talent that could not travel or even work from an office. The changes in how we deliver our work will also support EY’s ambition to be carbon negative in 2021, and this aligns us to the values of our people and our clients.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started this pivot?
We’ve all gone through this challenge of building community through laptops. One thing that really impressed me was when one of our teams staged a live talent show to raise money for charity — all online obviously. Our people used this opportunity to display their often-hidden skills, and we had comedians, magicians, musicians, bands and dance teams, all knitted together through technology. Between the ticket sales, and a raffle where people could buy tickets for prizes donated by our own people, this event raised over $100,000. The top three in the talent competition got to have a check written to their favorite community-based charity. The camaraderie around it was just absolutely fantastic. The previous year this had been done in person, which was a lot of fun and more engaging because of the crowd, but this was amazing in its own unique way.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during a disruptive period?
You have to show people empathy and that you appreciate and understand the stresses they’re going through. For example, some of them might be living three to an apartment in New York while others may have young children running around the house. As a leader, it’s my job to be completely sincere in responding to their individual needs and pressure points. It might be reassuring them it really doesn’t matter if there’s background noise on a call. It could be making sure they take breaks to protect their mental health. Sometimes, it’s as simple as checking in and asking if there’s anything more we can do to support them.
The pandemic has been such a difficult challenge for everyone but it has also been brilliant in helping us learn about and understand each other. It makes me very proud that we have shown our people we can be successful as a business and they can have a great career, but at the same time we really do care about their physical and mental wellbeing.
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?
EY has done a tremendous job at recognizing the challenges our people are going though and has been sending all of our people a series of gifts and tools designed to help them reset — emotionally, physically, financially and socially. These gestures are important and helps to reassure people that EY cares and we have their backs.
It is also very easy to be ‘all business’ when one gets on the team video conferences, so build in time to converse with people, ask them how they are doing, ask them how their families are around the world, and just have fun chit chat — be human. You have to be sincere and genuine.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
You need to be honest and authentic. It’s hugely important to understand that the team is a collection of individuals who all will be experiencing the ups and downs in unique ways. It’s not just about what they are experiencing at work, but in their own personal ecosystem. It is really important to use the organization structure to interact with people in all roles at the individual level while broadcasting headline messages to all.
Can you share three or four of the most common mistakes you have seen businesses make when faced with a disruptive technology? What should one keep in mind to avoid them?
Definitely denial. Some companies think they’ve got the answer, so they fail to see what’s going to disrupt them until it’s too late. Not looking outside your industry is another risk. To be innovative, you have to be willing to take examples from everywhere. And being too focused on the here and now. If you’re going to disrupt rather than be disrupted, you need to be open-minded, willing to learn from anywhere and always think ahead. Look at where capital is being invested, disruptive technologies and solutions are often created and incubated in smaller start-ups.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to pivot and stay relevant in the face of disruptive technologies? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Having an open-mind for change. We live in a constant state of disruption and upheaval. This past year has brought this variability to the forefront. Don’t think about your business as a static thing — to be successful, keep your mind open to other possibilities, other ways of doing things — even if they seem unimaginable at first.
- Thinking ahead. This is really important. While no one could have predicted a global pandemic, some organizations were better prepared than others. Do scenario-planning to identify potential disruptions and create plans for how to respond.
- Learning from other industries. Diversity of thought is critical. Don’t get stuck in your sector or your industry or you’ll miss the next big disruption. Engage with people that are different to you and have different experiences. Be sure to keep your eye on broader business and technology advancements and find ways to leverage for an advantage.
- Leading with empathy. Putting yourself in others’ shoes not only helps leaders build trust and inspire teams internally through disruption, it also helps to provide a more thorough understanding of the customer. This shift in perspective can drive tangible business benefits. Have a servant mentality, a leader is there to help their teams succeed. Put the band on stage, don’t be taking the light and have the band seated in the pit.
- Adapting the way you service clients. The pandemic has accelerated an existing trend toward remote delivery models. Think about how your clients want to interact with you and how you can wow them — it probably looks much different now than a year ago and will look different still a year from now. Stay flexible!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? How was that relevant to you in your life?
You’re going to be a long time dead, enjoy this life as much as you can as it is finite. Choose “marvelousness.” There will be challenging times but choose how you respond — get to feeling marvellous as quick as you can — it’s your choice!
How can our readers further follow your work?
I post regularly on LinkedIn and love to hear people’s comments and thoughts on the latest industry news and trends.