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Five things that made me

How Lara got to where she is now

Five things that made me’ explores compelling stories of human leadership as we speak to senior role models in the firm. Every month, we put the spotlight on a different leader to find out how they got to where they are now. This time, we chat with Lara Okukenu, a tax partner and new mum for whom success is the result of hard work and following her own path.

Meet Lara

Meet Lara. Lara tackles life head on. For her, life is not about the destination, but about the journey. She follows her instinct, she tries things out, she rethinks, she reframes. Her willingness to give things a go takes her to incredible places. She is inspiring and refreshing and can teach us all so much.

1. Success is…

“My mum was one of my earliest role models. She was a single parent, who didn’t have much growing up, and although we didn’t have much money either, she wanted something different for me. She filled my childhood with fun and experiences; she wanted me to try everything! Karate one week, guitar another, dance classes…

I do recall spending much of my childhood just trying to “fit in” … with my mum’s white Irish Catholic family versus my dad’s black Nigerian family; with the people on the West London estate I grew up on versus the affluent sixth form I got a scholarship to. But throughout it all was this strong undertone that hard work leads to success.

One of my earliest ambitions was to become a lawyer, because they looked successful in films. I ended up being the first in my family to go to university. I studied economics and did a summer internship with Deloitte during my second year. After my studies, I wasn’t convinced I wanted to become an accountant, but I took a job with the firm and decided to figure out what I wanted along the way. And here we are.”

“Always trying to fit in played a big part in where I am today.“

2. One move ahead

“I’ve been with the firm ever since, in various roles, all in tax. At first, I didn’t imagine myself becoming a partner here. I just didn’t see many people like me in senior leadership positions, and it wasn’t something I thought I could aspire to. But moving around and being successful in trying new things made me believe that, actually, I could make partner. And a couple of years ago, I did.

I didn’t realise I was considered a “role model” until people started to point out that my upbringing and ethnicity make me a bit different. I guess as one of the relatively few mixed-Black female partners in transactions, there’s some truth in that! But, I didn’t get to where I am because of those labels. I’ve got here with hard work, by showing up, growing in confidence and most importantly becoming comfortable in who I am.

My other secret has simply been going after what I enjoyed doing. Seeing when the tide is turning and staying ahead of the next move is a thrill. But some of the biggest challenges in life are the ones you don’t see coming. Like how I ended up in New York…”

“I’ve got here with hard work, by showing up and being comfortable in who I am.“

3. Concrete jungle

“When I was still a director, I spotted an opportunity supporting clients headquartered in the US. I pulled together a business plan, took it to my sponsor and asked for six months to see if I could make it work while keeping my UK responsibilities ticking along.

I moved into an apartment by Times Square with all the hustle and bustle (and the smell and the rats). I remember one night sitting there, alone, with a siren wailing past the window at 2am, wondering what on Earth I’d done. There I was in a completely different country with no family, no connections. The self-doubt kicked in.

But I was here now. And owed it to myself to give it a go. I met with every client that would see me: even if I met with 100 to get 1, it would be a win. But after four months, nothing. I nearly gave up when in month five, I secured a huge project with a big US name, and it all kicked off into a global million-pound project. All the hard work was starting to pay off.

During that time, I also met my fiancé and started to see a life in the US. But him moving to the UK wasn’t an option as his children were still school age. For life to work, it had to be in the US. With a lot of courage, I asked my sponsoring partner if I could stay on. He’d been expecting it all along. I’ve been here ever since.”

“I wanted to try something new, spotted a business opportunity and just went for it.“

4. Work to live, not live to work

“I’ve always wanted to be a mum. Always. But when would be the “perfect” time? How long should I wait? Now, there’s Kairo, this little human who is boss baby, and it’s perfect. I look forward to finishing work and spending time with him before he goes to bed… the first time. I know he’ll be up several times in the night!

Switching off from work is really important to me. It’s easy to be consumed by work, especially when working from home, so I have my own set of clocking-off rules. One is to always make bath time, and I’ve not missed one since Kairo was born. I know at some point I will, and that’s okay, but I’m aspiring to be present and be with him as much as I can.

I definitely believe in working to live, not living to work. You spend so much of your life working that you need to embrace your passions outside of your job to make it all worthwhile. For me, that’s travelling. And it’s looking that way for Kairo too. At six months old, he’s already visited his first two countries!

All of this is only possible because I have an amazing team. My whole career, senior leadership, peers and teams I work with have supported me. Being surrounded by such great people is fantastic. But it’s a two-way investment – I have to be there for them too, making sure they’re getting the most out of their job and their life.”

“Switching off from work. Making bath time. Enjoying weekends. All these things make work worthwhile. “

5. Be your own person

“If I wasn’t doing what I’m doing now, I’d probably be a teacher. Apart from my mum, my first memory of someone who really inspired me was my primary school teacher. I was different as a little girl, but she encouraged me to be me. I still do maths tutoring for kids to keep that side of me happy.

I’m also a firm believer in paying it forward. Just think, if you have 10 people support you and you support 10 other people, that’s an incredible ripple effect. During my career I’ve been a formal mentor to people as well as just being open for a coffee catch-up when someone just needs a bit of guidance – just holding space for someone can be so powerful.

One of my biggest pieces of advice is don’t assume you have to follow a pre-determined path. I spent a lot of my early life trying to fit in rather than embracing who I was and finding my own path. I’d also encourage people to rethink ‘failing.’ Those moments are learning experiences, a nudge in a different direction. There’s a multitude of other ways to get to where you want to.”

“Don’t assume you have to follow a pre-determined path – there’s always more than one way.“

Five things we learnt from Lara

  1. Don’t worry about not fitting in. Become comfortable with who you are.
  2. The secret to success? Go after what you enjoy doing.
  3. Try new things. Dream big. Ask people to take a chance on you. They will.
  4. There’s no pre-determined path. Discover your own.
  5. Rethink ‘failing.’ Those moments are learning experiences, a nudge in a different direction.

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