Posted by: Competing In A Borderless World | October 30, 2011

Leadership Lunch Keynote: David O’Brien

The keynote speaker at today’s Leadership Lunch was David O’Brien, Partner, Americas Director of Communications & Marketing, Ernst & Young. He introduced the metaphor of skiing – particularly timely given yesterday’s surprise blizzard – and in particular, the challenge of overcoming the fear of speeding down a steep hill, and mastering the difficult black diamond trails – by leaning forward, over one’s skis, and forging ahead.

He spoke about the “global mindset,” and our constant need to “think about what this means.” While looking out to the audience, he noted there were many “young people managing accounts” here, as well as “some people who are partners,” and he asked of them, “for your clients, are you actually doing things for them – like taking them on trade missions,” and helping to “create opportunity, create a dialogue?” He further asked, “What are we doing right now with our sensitivities to create more opportunities” and to get “terrific, terrific results – getting teams to think more expansively?”

He suggested that the “team that is going to succeed is ultimately going to be that organization with the best global mindset.” And that mindset, he added, “has to permeate all the way through the organization,” from the top all the way through. He explained that “building those teams, strengthening those processes, creating that opportunity, creating more seats at the table: this is how the game is going to be won.” He added that “What this means is not giving up our culture, but leveraging our culture so people see opportunities in it.”

He cited the case of his colleague, Linda Lam, “the head of our insurance practice in NY. She tells this story – how she was a terrific student, and had done everything culturally and was very focused. But she was with a client one day and saw two senior people arguing about a position. She had to summon every strength within her to say to the two senior people on the account, ‘you’re wrong!’ This is what has to be done. And Linda was absolutely right. I look at her today and her strong leadership, and her elegance and how thoughtful is,” and think, “maybe that was her breakthrough moment. But she said no, no, no – I struggle with that every single day.” O’Brien explains that “the important thing is with leadership you have to be true to yourself,” and citing Washington SyCip’s remarks, echoed his advice to “never give up your integrity!”

Looking to the audience, O’Brien observed, “The people in the seats in this room have the greatest opportunity going forward.” He noted, “Many of us are in the accounting world, in the financial services world.” And if we look ahead ten years, he predicted, “we will find ourselves in a lot more leadership positions” – even “having board opportunities.” He observed that with regard to “what we have talked about, the expansion of the economies in Asia, your skills, your perspective,” will be of great value, as increasingly, “we are looking for people of diversity, with financial and accounting backgrounds and who can understand risk from a lot of different dimensions.” He cautioned that it’s “going to take a little while, years of perspective.”

Returning to his earlier metaphor of skiing, he advised: “Get back over your skis again,” and “look for your transformative opportunities. When you get there, don’t forget who’s behind you – don’t forget to open the doors,” and to “look at ways you can change the world.” He added, “Here I think the opportunity is even more vast! The number of people that have to get recruited to replenish our organizations” is large, and they can thus “help shorten that cycle of experience.” He closed by asking, “Where you can take your personal path – like SyCip did – where you can make a personal difference?”

He noted how in his own personal life, he has endeavored to do this, and he and his wife adopted two special needs children from China, and that he also serves on the Children of China Pediatric Foundation, “with some of the top doctors out of Columbia University. We go work with the orphans over there.” He thus counseled, “Find those that need it most, and use your capital to help those – there’s plenty of need out there.”

He ended his keynote speech by saying, “I am truly, truly honored to come out here to share with you,” and that he “wanted to hold a mirror back on what I saw last year – the power of the Asian community, the power of inclusiveness, and to talk about that and share the perspective on that – to push you toward the leadership level. It may be a little uncomfortable – but you’re going to make it down the hill! It’s a little bit fast at first, a little bit harrowing – but it will encourage you to get back up that hill, and try the black diamond!”


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