Commentary

3 Life Lessons From My Mom That I Use Everyday As A CEO

May 12, 2017

Every year on Mother’s Day, I struggle to put into words just how grateful I am to my mom. She passed away two years ago, and while the hole she left is enormous, so is her legacy. In honor of her memory, I’d like to share three lessons she taught me that continue to guide me personally and in my job leading a company of 46,000 people.

Focus on what you can control

My mom taught me from an early age to stay focused on what I can control, and to try not to lose sleep about the rest. Whether it was a teacher I thought didn’t like me, or infighting among my friends, my mother emphasized the importance of figuring out what changes were within my power, acting on those, and letting go of the rest. So instead of spending my time worrying about the teacher’s attitude toward me, I learned to focus instead on working my hardest and doing my best at school. And instead of getting tangled in roller coaster friendships, she taught me to be kind to all my friends and hope that I could set an example and change the tone of their interactions.

In business, I think about my mom’s advice almost every day. Our business environment is full of uncertainty. From geopolitics to changing demographics to economic uncertainty, there are multiple, massive forces beyond any CEO’s control. It can be very daunting, but by focusing on what we--and our people--can control, business executives can truly lead. Identifying where we can make a difference and steering our resources to those areas result in better client services and a strengthened commitment to our stakeholders, our own people, and our communities.

Lead with honesty and integrity

While I was in college, my mom and I worked at the same supermarket. She discovered that a well-liked employee was stealing, but knew that reporting the employee could have consequences for both of them. She did the right thing and reported the co-worker. The woman was fired, and word leaked that my mom was the one who had told management. That made life at work very difficult on my mom. Notwithstanding this difficulty, what has always stuck with me is how my mom never had any regrets or bitterness about doing the right thing.

We all end up in situations that test our values and our willingness to speak up when staying quiet feels far easier. At those times, I’m so grateful for my mother’s example. I’m proud to lead an organization that prioritizes trust and integrity as part of our core values. Standing up for your values has never been so important in the business world: customers swiftly spot business leaders who waver and are often unforgiving when they feel their trust has been abused. Bringing your conscience to work is not only the right thing to do, it’s increasingly a business imperative.

Value hard work

As the first person in my family to finish college and work for a professional services company, I made some rookie mistakes when I started out. I will never forget my first day at PwC when I showed up in my brand new suit and short-sleeved button-down shirt that my mom and I had bought together the week before. When everyone happily shed their jackets on that warm summer day, I was embarrassed to be the only one in short sleeves. I’ll always be grateful to the partner who took me to a nearby department store during our lunch break to get a long-sleeved shirt so I could fit in on my first day.

While my mother and I didn’t fully understand the culture of my new workplace, I quickly found that it didn’t matter much since I had mentors who helped me along the way. However, something that my mother gave me, which has been infinitely more important, is her work ethic. A solid day’s work was a badge of honor in my household, something to be truly proud of. Leading an organization of 46,000 people today, I try to impart the value of hard work in my teams and people. There is a time and a place for delegation, for short cuts, and for life hacks. But all too often the only way to get a job done well is to roll up your (long) sleeves, and dig into it. My mom taught me to embrace those opportunities and I continue to do so today.

I’m amazed when I think about how far removed my mother was from the business world I work in every day.
And yet, her advice has guided me every step of my career. Thanks, Mom, and happy Mother’s Day to all the other great moms out there.

Tim Ryan is US chairman and senior partner of PwC.

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