How She Empowers 80,000 People From Home

Kelly Grier '91 leading from home during COVID-19Kelly Grier ’91 is a powerhouse. Rising through the ranks at EY, a global leader in assurance, tax, transaction, and advisory services, Grier is globally astute, razor sharp, and decisive. As the EY US Chair and Americas Managing Partner — the first woman in the history of the company to hold this title — she manages a jaw-dropping 80,000 people across 31 countries. In 2018 and 2019, she was named one of Fortune magazine’s Most Powerful Women in Business. Now Grier is having to lead her team and guide EY’s $16.7 billion division through a historical pandemic crisis . . . all from home. As women of Saint Mary’s College, we can’t help but wonder what it’s been like for Grier. We checked in with her to find out:

Saint Mary’s College: Your team spans the globe, so virtual leadership is already familiar to you. Was this an “easy” transition for you?

Kelly Grier: This truly is an extraordinary time, and we’re all in uncharted territory. Throughout this challenging time, my highest priority has been the health, safety, and well-being of our 80,000 people across the Americas. 

EY Americas encompasses 31 countries, so we’re accustomed to working virtually and remotely across borders, service lines, and capabilities. In fact, the majority of our people are client servers who travel to client offices, so they are used to relocating their entire work experience and obligations through their laptop and their briefcase. We made the decision to move to a full work-from-home paradigm fairly early on. Although the transition was relatively seamless, it still required a different level of collaboration and support from everyone. Early planning allowed us to rapidly assess and enhance our current broadband capabilities in anticipation of the virtual meetings going forward. Additionally, the impactful investments we’ve made in our technology practice and digital capabilities over the last few years positioned us to enable innovation across the business and bring our people and our clients together, through virtual webcasts, team meetings, and more. 

During this time, communication and trust within our teams has never been more important. I am speaking to my leadership team every day, making decisions minute to minute. I am also encouraging our people to communicate regularly with their colleagues on how best to achieve their objectives and meet their deadlines, while also offering both personal and professional support.

It’s incredibly important that we do stay well-connected so we can get through this together, even if our “togetherness” needs to be virtual. I’m proud to say I’ve seen our people work together with compassion, support, and understanding for one another in totally new ways. 

"Instead of viewing the crisis as a marathon

I’ve told our people to view each week as if they’re crossing the finish line of a short race”

SMC: How do you empower your team under these circumstances?

KG: “This is not a marathon.”

Persevering through this extraordinary time requires a tremendous amount of mental and physical endurance. Looking ahead at the scope of this crisis can feel incredibly daunting, like you’re on mile one of a marathon. So, instead of viewing the crisis as a marathon, I’ve told our people to view each week as if they’re crossing the finish line of a short race.  

During this uncertainty, leading with empathy, honesty, and transparency is of paramount importance. I’ve been communicating frequently and openly with our people, sharing real-time information about decisions related to our business, how we’re supporting them, and our expectations in the near and long-term. It’s truly never been more important for us to lead with our values and demonstrate the strength needed to navigate these uncertain times.

I’ve also shared incredible stories of how our EY family is going above and beyond to empower one another. I believe it’s so important to celebrate each success, to acknowledge how our people are rising to meet each challenge before them, week after week. I’ve used the analogy that they are putting on their capes and demonstrating the courage and agility to be the superheroes our people need them to be to lead through this crisis. Whether it’s organizing communities to source masks for healthcare professionals, or hosting virtual check-ins with their teams, or showing tremendous client leadership by adapting and adjusting to solve new challenges, their efforts are creating outsized impact for our people and their communities.    

SMC: What have you discovered about yourself, as a leader, during this time that you believe others could benefit from?

KG: As leaders, we know how important it is to plan for the unexpected, but no one could have predicted the extent of what we are experiencing now. While I have tremendous conviction in our preparedness, strength and resiliency to prevail over this crisis, I am acutely aware of the brutal facts of the reality that we, and the entire world, still face. 

Reminding myself to “control what you can control” has been a guiding principle for me both personally and professionally. For EY, this includes how we lead our teams, how we serve our clients, the creativity we bring to the delivery of existing services, the actions we take to retain and protect our revenue, and elevating our game to help our clients navigate the extraordinary circumstances they are also facing. 

I’ve also learned a great deal about hope and optimism, particularly as it relates to the “other side” of the challenging times we are in now. The world will be permanently altered in both positive and negative ways, and I’m increasingly focused on those positive changes.

I’ve realized that we all have a unique opportunity to reimagine our future.  It’s one that looks very different from our past – and we will need to absorb a great deal of change – but I strongly believe we are uniquely capable of realizing that bright future together.    

"It’s truly never been more important

for us to lead with our values and demonstrate the strength needed to navigate these uncertain times.”

SMC: Sister Madeleva’s famous address about the promise of discovery actually begins with a discussion about security . . .  “We will not promise you happiness. We will not wish you security. For we remember that ‘security is mortal’s chiefest enemy.’ And we know that you can be secure only when you can stand everything that can happen to you. If your school has prepared you for this, it has been a good school.” How has Saint Mary’s prepared you to manage during this time of deep insecurity?

KG: Throughout my career, the values I cultivated at Saint Mary’s have been my touchstone during moments of turmoil and tribulation. They’ve encouraged me to put myself in other’s shoes to better understand what they’re going through. And in turn, that has made me a stronger thinker and a more compassionate leader. 

Never has it been more important to lead with empathy, grace, and compassion, and I truly believe that the values instilled in me at Saint Mary’s have prepared me to guide our EY family through this unprecedented time. Personally, I’m comforted by the unwavering support of the Saint Mary’s community. So much is uncertain right now, but my SMC friendships have remained steadfast. The deep sense of belonging and rapport that I felt at school gave rise to some of my closest, life-long friends who have seen me through countless highs and lows. We have really leaned on each other over the past several weeks. 

I realize there is so much we don’t know about this crisis and what will happen next. But having a sense of belonging — of being anchored somewhere —  has helped me to stay optimistic and grounded through all of this. 

SMC: Name one unanticipated “win” that you have encountered during this time? 

KG: There's a lot about this crisis that is well beyond our control, but there’s also been a lot of positive developments that have emerged, including a real opportunity for us to rethink the conventional wisdom of how we do things. To reimagine how we do business, how we support and enable our teams, and how we conduct major business processes, including the capability of working from home in a very efficient and productive way. The recognition that we can actually work quite productively and effectively from home allows us to redefine what balance means to our people.

In fact, there are many examples where stronger relationships have been forged with clients during this period of “virtuality.”  Additionally, this move to a virtual model is reducing our carbon footprint. While relationships will always remain at the heart of our business, less travel to and from client sites is allowing us to reduce the negative impact we have on the environment — something we’d like to sustain going forward. We’re looking for the silver lining in this and not wasting the opportunity to think boldly about transforming our business for both our people and our clients. 

SMC: We know a lot of Saint Mary’s women can relate to the challenges of working from home while family is there as well. Any ‘tales from the front’ you’d care to share?

KG: I’ve been with EY for 28 years. During this time, my family has grown accustomed to my extensive travel and long days at a client site or at the office. However, like many leaders, my work life and family life has converged and contracted, and I’d be remiss if I said it wasn’t complicated and a bit stressful for everyone. It’s important to remember that our spouses and children are also doing their best to navigate the rough terrain of learning and working from home too, and we have to be sensitive to those challenges as well. 

It’s not all tough times, though. I am filled with gratitude for the little things —  dinners with my son and my husband almost every night, fierce family games of pool, and, of course, long runs to focus my mind and replenish my energy. At the end of the day, it’s the support, accommodation, love, and patience from family, loved ones, and each other that gives us all the energy to face down the challenges of this uncertainty and come out on the other side stronger than ever before.

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