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Five Turning Points of My Career

with Yvonne Byrne

Partner and Chief Strategy Officer Yvonne Byrne talks about building a career in customer transformation, her struggle with confidence as she rose through the ranks, and the power of being authentic.

Professional success isn’t where happiness comes from

I couldn’t wait to go to college. Having grown up in Shannon, County Clare, I was eager to meet new people and have new experiences.

I had put Law as my first choice but just missed out and I was devastated. So I went into Commerce in Galway and chose Law as one of my early modules in the hope of approaching it through a different route. I realised within two classes that it wasn’t for me. I wanted to be in conversations around business strategy and new technologies, so I think that was a dodged bullet.

I went on to do a Master’s in Marketing and Strategy and then started applying for jobs, eventually choosing to move to London and join the graduate programme at the Royal Bank of Scotland. I began working in e-commerce and loved it, but London wasn’t for me, so I took an opportunity to move to Tesco Personal Finance in Edinburgh as one of my placements.

There were about 100 people in the company, and it turned out to be one of the most important moves I made in my entire career. I was 22 and it was an environment that was completely unstructured, very entrepreneurial, and where you were given responsibility very quickly, once people saw that you were well able. I learned so much, from great people launching new products and developing new digital customer experiences.

While things were going great with my career, personally I was finding life difficult. In my late 20s, I started to discover myself in terms of my own sexuality. I was trying to keep that part of myself in a box and be someone else at work and I learned over time that was a terrible idea, as my mental health was being badly impacted.

I thought at that time that if I was doing well in work, the rest didn’t matter. But that’s not where happiness and true success lie. 

Find what makes you different and lean into it

I got to a crossroads in Tesco and had to decide whether to stay where I was and keep moving upwards or go and try something different.

I had a hunger to get more variety and learn more about the market around me. I decided to try consulting, with the view that it might give me a springboard toward a more senior position in the industry. I joined a professional services firm in London and was there for four years and had an amazing experience travelling the world. 

In my early career, I rarely struggled with confidence, but I had my first battle with imposter syndrome while working on a project in Australia with a large consumer client. Some of my colleagues had a lot more consulting experience and I thought ‘‘How am I going to go into this client and give them advice when I’ve only worked with one company before?’. I had all these innately confident people around me and I really questioned myself.

The project went really well and I got on really well with the CFO and the Chief Marketing Director. I was in a group of about 10 of us and I quickly realised that they were turning to me rather than everyone else, because I had industry experience, and I knew what I was talking about given the subject matter.

I was asked to stay on a longer term and that was the first time that I realised ‘Jesus Yvonne, you really need to back yourself’. I might not have been as polished and slick as others, but I brought a hell of a lot of experience and substance that they didn’t have.

It was a turning point for me. You get little things in your head and think ‘I’m not the same as them, which means I’m not good enough’. It’s important to remember that while you can’t be good at everything, there are areas where you bring value in a real and authentic way.

I enjoy building relationships and I think I’m good at it; when you combine that with the right experience, it can be quite powerful.

Find somewhere you can bring your whole self

Around that point, I started to lean into my ambition, and it was the first time I realised that maybe I could become a partner. However, when I looked up at the leadership and culture, I knew it wasn’t the environment that I wanted to be in.

Money has never been a big motivator for me, it’s more about the people, the development opportunity, and the inspiring leaders who have supported me. If I believe people have my back and my best interests at heart, that’s where I go and that’s the kind of leader that I’ve always tried to be.

From a personal perspective, I was still closed about my sexuality in the workplace - but I had told my family and I was in a much better place. My now-wife Petrina was living in Dublin, and I was commuting back and forth. After 15 years away from Ireland, it was time to come home.

I was approached about a role with Deloitte and realised that if I wanted to develop a long-term career in the firm, I had to be honest about who I was.

I, wrongly, had a perception that the reaction was going to be worse in Ireland. Having been gone for so long, I hadn’t realised how forward-thinking it actually was.

I went for lunch with some colleagues on my first day and when they asked me about myself, I mentioned my wife. Nobody batted an eyelid, and you can’t imagine how much of a relief that was. Any grad coming into the firm now wouldn’t think twice about it but, over 20 years, you really build it up in your head!

That was a massive, massive turning point for me. It was the first time in my life that I had ever been able to bring my personal life and my work life together, and the difference that made for me was astronomical. It was such a relief off my shoulders, and it allowed me to be a completely different person at work. I was unleashed a little bit and it was such a powerful thing, even in terms of my relationship with clients.

Four years later, I became partner - which was the proudest moment of my career. However, it turned out to be quite a different experience from what I expected.

Your mindset is the most powerful tool you have

There are mental switches that you have to make in your career. Sometimes you can get yourself into a bad place and you must get yourself out of it. I’ve had a few of those times, where I’ve found myself in the wrong mindset and hitting a wall. I found that once I managed to figure out how to push through those obstacles, my career really developed.

When I became partner, I noticed that I lost some confidence immediately. You might be at the top of the tree, but it’s a very different dynamic and I had a few shaky points where I thought ‘Am I able for this’. COVID hit nine months after I was appointed and as someone who thrives on interaction, I really struggled with feeling disconnected.

I allowed myself to unravel a little bit and let too many people try to tell me what to do instead of listening to my own voice. When you listen to other people, you get confused in your head and it makes it hard to move forward.

I came to a point where I thought ‘I’m going to have to leave this job because it’s doing my head in, but I can’t leave it because it’s all I’ve ever wanted, and I know I’m bloody good’.

I have certain people I really trust in the business who I know have my back and they are so important to me; it’s really important in this environment that you have people like that. I went to them and got some advice in a safe environment where I knew they weren’t going to judge me. 

I was talking to a partner who I really trusted, about a particular issue that I was dealing with and he said ‘You’re not going to be able to control that situation, the only thing that you can control is yourself, so stop putting energy and time into them. Focus on yourself and what you’re going to do about it’.

It was such a simple piece of direct advice delivered in a supportive way and it was a penny drop moment. 

I realised I wasn’t going to let any situation drive me out of a company that I love and a career that I’ve built. I got very focused on what I was trying to achieve and was much clearer in terms of where I needed to focus, disengaging from situations that weren’t giving me energy, and stepping into opportunities that gave me the energy I craved. The next year went on to be one of the most fulfilling of my career.

Those situations still come up from time to time, but I’ve probably grown a little in my own shoes now and built the confidence to stand up against that and check myself now and again.

Build people’s confidence with actions, not words

Sponsorship has been unbelievably important for me in my career. I’ve had an incredible amount of support and I think it becomes even more vital later in your career when you’re tackling bigger challenges, your personal life is often changing a lot, and you’re in a constant state of ‘juggling’. In my mind, that’s when leaders need to step in and really help to drive people’s progression and build their confidence.

Harry, our current CEO, was one of a few partners who hired me into the business and is a great example of how to do that. I had come from an environment where I was very micromanaged, and my senior leader was quite controlling. I remember Harry ringing me at one stage very early in my career in Deloitte on my first client and saying ‘What are you doing? I trust you, it’s great, just keep doing it’.

That empowerment really gave me confidence. He didn’t get in my way, he backed me, he gave feedback where he needed to, but he really empowered me to do my job. When I believe that leaders have trust in me, and they have shown me that through their actions, that turbo charges our motivation and enjoyment. Words aren’t enough. That’s the wonderful thing about Deloitte - there are many fabulous examples of leaders who do that very instinctively and naturally, but with good guidance.

There is still so much work to do when it comes to supporting women through to senior levels of the business. Having that representation and diversity is a huge focus for us - and I wouldn’t be with the company if it wasn’t - but we need to be more disruptive in how we think about things, challenge how we go to the market and hire, and have uncomfortable conversations with each other.

I’ve seen from my own teams that many women can be reluctant to take that step to become a partner and struggle to decide ‘Is it up or is it out?’. We need to give them the confidence that we can make this work. People are genuinely trying to find balance in their personal and professional lives, and we need to be better at providing an environment that allows them to operate in a different way that makes sense for their lives.