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Five Turning Points of My Career

With Anya Cummins

This week, Financial Advisory Partner, Anya Cummins discusses how you need to enjoy what you do, owning your career and more.

Build your career around what you enjoy

When I was leaving school, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do or what I wanted to study. I liked business and I loved languages, so I went to DCU and did Business with Spanish and French. I also thought it was a great opportunity to go to a different university where I didn’t know a lot of people and just meet new people. It turned out to be one of my better life decisions!

I actively deselected any accounting modules when I was in school and college and was much more interested in business and strategy. But when it came to fourth year and the Big 4 were doing the milkrounds, I said I would just go for it and find out a bit more about what it was all about.

I ticked a different box with each firm - audit, tax, consulting and then financial advisory with Deloitte. I had no idea what financial advisory even was but I came to the interview, met with some of the Deloitte partners, got a sense of the culture and the diversity of the role - and thought ‘this actually sounds quite interesting’.

I’m quite an extrovert and really like people, so I went through a few different career aspirations. I even wanted to be a doctor until I spent work experience in a hospital and figured out that it was just too emotional and too much blood!

I was incredibly lucky because a week after I joined, I immediately knew that I loved M&A and I had landed in the right spot and in a culture that I really admired. During my training contract, I dabbled in other things in Financial Advisory, but I’ve essentially done M&A for the last twenty years now, and I still love Mondays and facing into a week of deals!

I made some lifelong best friends in those first weeks and months in Deloitte - we worked incredibly hard as trainees and coming up through the ranks, but we also had an awful lot of fun - whether it was on nights out or having the craic in project rooms. I’d definitely encourage the graduates in our firm to spend time in the office to connect with their peers and the wider team – it’s one of the most rewarding parts of the job, and an incredible way to learn.

Before I chose Deloitte, I had a lot of suggestions to think about what I actually liked doing in a day and pick a role that appealed to that. To this day, it’s some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten. If you love what you do, it makes every day a lot more fun, and I think you’re probably better at it if you enjoy it too.

Sometimes you have to take a leap of faith

By 2010, I was Senior Manager and had just gotten married. The Celtic Tiger was crashing, and M&A had more or less stopped the year before.

I was still relatively young at 27 and was clear that I wasn’t going to be settling down and having kids any time soon. My view was that the Irish economy was going to be quite challenged for the foreseeable future and M&A likely to be quite muted, so I moved to London.

And so, I took a bit of a leap of faith. I quit my job without anything else lined up, packed my bags and moved to London to look for another role. I decided I wanted to try something different and really wanted to work in an M&A boutique firm. The plan was to spend a year in London - which quickly turned into just a few more!

It was such a different environment over there. It was harder to get a job in a boutique firm than I expected. People didn’t really value the Irish experience and I wasn’t networked in London. In order to get the job, I actually took three steps back and joined a boutique as an Executive, having left Deloitte as a Senior Manager. I hated updating my LinkedIn - I had gone from being a leader in the team to the most junior person in my new place!

It was daunting to be back on the bottom rung but I took a view that I needed to back myself. It was a much smaller firm of about 40 people, and very much a meritocracy, so if you did really well, you would get promoted really quickly. I saw a challenge and an opportunity in that.

I was working with one partner, given loads of information straight away and told to go and sell a business. I was thrown in the deep end and essentially it was sink or swim, which was terrifying.

In those early months, I definitely questioned my decision but I put my head down, and I found I got more comfortable very quickly. My training in Deloitte really stood to me, and I just needed to build confidence that I was as good as everyone else.  

They promoted me rapidly over the four years and in 2014, they made me a partner. That was a really proud moment. I don’t think it was until much later that I looked back and realised how quickly I had progressed and how much I had learned in that relatively short time. Sometimes you have to take that leap and back yourself – it’s not always easy but I’m so happy it did it and it had a huge impact on the direction my career took from there. 

Life happens when you least expect it

Shortly after making partner in London in 2014, Deloitte approached me to ask if I would think about coming back to be a partner and lead the M&A business in Ireland. My answer at the time was ‘absolutely not’, as I was loving London life – I had the work hard and party hard balance absolutely nailed at that point!

Then, at the end of January the following year, I discovered out that I was pregnant with my first child - and reality hit that my life was about to change. My husband also had an opportunity to work in Ireland so when Deloitte approached me again in February, I decided that maybe things were happening for a reason.

I felt there was a real window to take the Deloitte brand, with my experience from London, to build something quite different in the Irish market. I figured that, if it didn’t work out, I could always go back!

I interviewed while heavily pregnant and decided that I would leave my job in London at the end of the summer. Darcy was due in September so the plan was to join Deloitte the following March once I had the baby. Deloitte didn’t think it was fair for me to not receive maternity leave from either firm while I was off, so they strongly encouraged me to join the partnership before I had the baby and go straight on my maternity leave - which was so supportive and forward thinking and really stands to the culture of the firm.

I left my previous role on 31 August, joined the Deloitte partnership on 1 September and had my baby on 2 September - I actually signed the agreement while in labour! (That was not planned, he came a month early!).

The first 18 months after I came home and joined Deloitte was the most challenging period of my career. The role was brilliant and it became really clear to me quite quickly that the market opportunity was huge – so that was exciting! However, I also had a young baby, had just moved country, and was trying to renovate a house we had bought (whose idea was that?). My
work/life balance for the first few years was absolutely horrific and it was a
constant roller coaster!

The one factor that allowed me to do what I did is that I had a lot of support in terms of childcare – from my husband, both sets of grandparents and a great creche.

I think that’s so important for women who are trying to progress in their career. You can’t do it all and there’s a societal shift needed to really help to address this. My husband has a more flexible job so he does all of the heavy lift in running our house and our kids. I think he’s still very much in the minority - in terms of men taking a bit of a back seat or a step back rather than women - but the reality is that it’s impossible for both parents to run 100 miles an hour in work.

Childcare is also a major issue in this country, and it’s really expensive. I remember trying to find a place in a creche for our first and I had his name down literally everywhere. It was like winning the lottery when he got accepted somewhere! And it just shouldn’t be like that.

I’ve gotten much better at balancing work and life in more recent years and I think it’s hugely important that we respect flexibility and allow our people and teams to find that balance that I definitely did not role model for a while.

You still get the mom guilt but now I try to get an hour to myself a few times a week for the gym and get more time to see friends. It puts me in a much better headspace and, as my mother says, you can’t burn the candles at both ends! 

Find what sets you apart

When I think about how I have achieved success in my career, I think I’m really driven and pretty competitive. I grew up in a very normal house where my parents worked lots of jobs and did everything to give us every opportunity in life.

I’m massively appreciative of what they did as they instilled a very strong work ethic in me and my brothers. I’m of the mindset that nothing gets handed to you on a plate, nobody gets to a senior leadership position without really wanting it, being really driven and working hard to get there. Sometimes if you want something to exist, you have to make it happen.

I’m also a little bit competitive and love being able to deliver on some of the biggest and most exciting deals in the market – and that thrill of the chase is something I love!  

I have a lot of fun every day in what I do and as a result, I build good relationships with people - whether that’s clients or team members. I love spending time with clients, getting to know them, their families, what’s worrying them and what’s on their list - I think that relationship piece has always stood me well. I still work with people I’ve known for 15 years, and they’re some of my biggest clients.

In more recent years, I’ve also focused on building relationships with other senior leaders around our business. When you do that, you have no hesitation in picking up the phone or asking for a view from someone and that’s been really valuable to me as I’ve built my career in Deloitte.

The feedback that I’ve gotten my whole career, which drives me mad now that I’m senior, is that I don’t have enough gravitas and that I need to be a bit more serious if I’m going to be really taken seriously by clients. I’m sure plenty of women have been told similar, although I hope less these days. I did go through a period of trying it – but it didn’t last very long!  I think authenticity in a leader is huge so I try to be myself in work all the time – even if that
means I’m a little bit loud, as the financial advisory team can attest to!

I think that being a little bit different can be an advantage for female leaders, at least in my world which is still largely dominated by men and I am very often the only female in the room. You are more memorable; more distinct and you bring a different perspective – which our clients hugely value. 

Find your sponsor

I’ve taken a few leaps of faith which have influenced my career and getting out of your comfort zone is so fulfilling – it’s definitely where I’ve learned the most in my career.

However, I will say that I’ve been guilty throughout my career of not putting my hand up or asking for that promotion, when often my male counterparts would have been much more vocal.

I’ve been lucky enough to have some amazing sponsors in my career – mainly men – who have pushed me, driven me to take on new opportunities and given me the confidence to take on new leadership positions, and that has probably been the biggest influencing factor in my career to date.

I can’t underestimate the importance I would place on sponsorship and we, as leaders in this business, have a huge responsibility to pay that forward and to actively sponsor high potential talent in our business, as the impact on someone’s career can be huge.