Above the Glass: How to Be an Exemplary Leader in Tech

Written by MK Comer

In our first edition of Above the Glass, MK Comer, WWCode Leadership Fellow and Lead Engineer at Booz Allen Hamilton, meets with Katie Johar, a Principal with the Financial Services Organization (FSO) of Ernst & Young LLP (EY US), to discuss balancing work and motherhood, overcoming career challenges, and what it means to be a leader.

What is your background, and how did you get involved with EY?

I started my career in consumer lending in M&T Bank’s management development program. The program provided me a solid foundation, and I was fortunate enough to rotate through different divisions, from credit applications through to collections.

After working there for about three years, I decided I wanted to pursue my MBA. I soon enrolled in an executive MBA program at the University of Rochester. Once I completed my degree, I thought I’d like to try something slightly different. The aspects of my job that I did enjoy aligned with consulting, so it worked out that EY was looking for a consultant with an auto finance background. I applied and fell in love with the firm’s culture and people.

I intended to work for EY for a few years before having a family — certainly, you can’t be a consultant and a mother, I thought — but here I am, 11 years later, with two children and no plans to leave. I was shocked that I would love my job as much as I do, but my passion for it drives me.

That’s incredible. Can you tell me about your day-to-day responsibilities and how technical and financial challenges intersect in your role?

Many people ask me this question, particularly those who want to get into consulting. Honestly, there is no typical day — and that’s why I like it! A mentor of mine once told me that consulting is for adrenaline junkies because you’re always searching for something new and exciting.

Many of the projects I work on are large-scale core system transformations. As the US auto finance lead at the firm, meaning automotive finance is my specialty, my team and I examine our clients’ technologies and devise ways to improve them. Our services are in high demand right now because the pandemic has accelerated many organizations’ digitization and automation agendas. They trust us to automate repetitive tasks in their internal systems so they can allocate people’s time to higher-value activities.

What would you say is the biggest challenge you face regarding intersecting tech and finance, especially with COVID-19 impacting your work environment?

The general, historical challenge of bringing business and technology together is merging languages. The language of tech is drastically different from that of finance, so people who have one ingrained in them can have difficulty learning the other. That’s where consulting comes into play: it can bridge that gap between them because it necessitates understanding what clients are hoping to accomplish from a business standpoint and translating their requirements into functional and technical specifications.

As such, much of my job is recommending technological solutions to clients that solve their business problems without repeating existing processes and then communicating those recommendations in a digestible way.

I imagine creating a product that fulfills the client’s requirements is challenging due to their limited technical vocabulary.

It can be, and the added political landscape, within any organization, influences the process too. The business department usually reports to the COO, and the technology division reports to the CIO. Though they’re all working with the same overall strategy, their detailed plans and ideas for achieving their goals do not always align with each other’s’ or their budgets.

I also want to hear more about how you found your way into the tech and finance industries, especially as a woman in two male-dominated fields. How did you get started, and what experiences led you to technology consulting as a career?

I’ve always been curious about how things work and enjoy solving if-then problems. I remember having to solve a Rube Goldberg problem in grade school that fascinated me; it was similar to the game of mousetrap and required me to think, “If this happens, what happens next, and where do I go from there?”

One of the first projects I worked on when I started my career at M&T was a core system implementation. I enjoyed the challenge of designing something no one had seen before. Over time, I discovered that my strengths lied in translating business needs into technical specifications and thinking outside the box to solve business challenges. How can we use our current technology effectively, and what new tool can we build to address a client’s problem? That kind of thinking pushed me into consulting.

It’s fantastic you were able to identify your strengths and build a career from them.

Can you pinpoint any career-defining moments in your life, such as a success or failure that created your biggest learning opportunity?

I know I mentioned that I’m a career woman, but I’m also a mother, so I measure my success by how my children see me. Balancing work and home is important to me — I have an eight-year-old daughter and a five-year-old son — and hearing them talk about me and my job proudly with their friends is rewarding. I love when they say things like, “Oh, my mommy helps lots of other companies solve their toughest problems.”

I recently had a conversation with one of my son’s school administrators, and she commented, “Your son said your husband is a physical therapist, but his mommy is a boss.” My kids are very proud of the things I do. All jobs can be demanding of our time and challenge us to make choices between work and family, so hearing these conversations and anecdotes confirms that I’m striking the right balance. That’s definitely one of my biggest successes.

That’s adorable. You mentioned earlier how you once believed you couldn’t have a career and family simultaneously, but here you are, succeeding at balancing both. How do you establish the boundary between work and family, and what advice would you give to women attempting the same?

I had to move past my all-or-nothing mentality that drives much of my perfectionism. Perfection is impossible, so it’s essential to learn when and how to say, “This is good enough.”

At home, I started having conversations with my children about my career and what it means to me early on. I told them that they’ll always be able to tell me when they’re not happy with my choices regarding how I spend my time. Doing so has helped our relationship tremendously because they’re still very young, and I don’t want them to feel qualms about telling me that they would prefer I spend more time with them over attending another work event.

My husband and I also set childcare expectations together. As a consultant, the first two to three weeks of any new project are chaotic, so it’s up to my husband to pick up the slack because I’m going to be familiarizing myself with a new client and figuring out my new balance. For instance, I might decide to work late on Mondays and Wednesdays and devote Tuesday and Thursday evenings to my family because that’s what works best for the client and me.

It sounds like you’ve done an excellent job setting work-life balance expectations at home, but how do you navigate those conversations in the workplace?

One of the things that drew me to EY in the first place was its culture. I knew coming in that it was a people-oriented environment, so establishing open communication similar to at home is essential. When I walk out the door (or turn off my computer, nowadays), my coworkers know I’ll only respond to emergencies. During work hours, I dedicate 100% of my attention to the task at hand, and that’s more than enough for my managers and colleagues.

What about any challenges or failures you’ve faced in your career?

I started managing teams very early in my career. I managed a team where everyone was older than me and had been in the department much longer. They had more experience than I did, and I made the naïve, and improper, assumption that everyone would meet the position objectives because that was the expectation.

This wasn’t the case. So, my first year was an enormous learning opportunity to understand what motivated my team members and how I could build trust with them to collectively achieve our department objectives. Recognizing what everyone brought to the table and allowing people to play to their strengths is how we achieved our best results.

I empathize because I recently switched to a management role, even though I’m the youngest on the team. Is there a specific story that comes to mind when you had to lean on someone else for advice or realized something you needed to do to succeed in your management role?

Once I had established expectations everyone was prepared and able to meet, I realized that holding people accountable would require documenting those expectations. It was beneficial to provide people with written feedback as well as verbal. I put spreadsheets together that detailed how people’s roles overlapped, their duties, and how well they were meeting their goals.

I then met with each team member one-on-one every month to discuss their performance. I prepared ahead of time with qualitative and quantitative feedback so that there were no surprises when the time came for official performance evaluations. My boss provided me valuable advice for handling these conversations and fitting everyone’s role in the bigger picture.

It sounds like you’re an open and honest communicator, which is a hallmark of an effective leader. How would you describe your leadership style?

Kind but fair. I’m a fan of the saying, “Don’t mistake my kindness for weakness.” I speak with a softer tone when providing candid feedback because I’m a big proponent of building people up instead of beating them down, but I won’t sugarcoat my advice in a way that prevents people from learning.

It’s understandable how you felt in over your head with your first management position. What advice do you have for women dealing with impostor syndrome, and have you felt it at any other point throughout your career?

I certainly suffer from impostor syndrome now and again. I’m actually the co-leader of the firm’s Professional Women’s Network in Charlotte, so I’ve had many conversations with women about the issue and talked about it with my executive coach.

My best advice is to take a fact-based approach and ask, what is the story you are telling yourself? When we’re experiencing symptoms of impostor syndrome, it’s because we’re trying to fill in a gap we perceive in our place at work. Write down what you’re feeling and why as specifically as possible. Put down facts about your experience and skills and identify skill problems versus will problems that prove you’re not an impostor.

Once you’ve reflected on these things, find a trusted mentor or friend who you can talk to about your feelings. It’s not healthy to suffer silently, so ask your mentor to opine on your strengths and advise how to take care of yourself mentally. If you don’t have a mentor, then a career coach or therapist works just as well.

I can attest to the value of writing down your strengths and areas for improvement as well.

You brought up mentorship. What should people look for in a mentor, and how should mentors take care of the people under their wing?

It’s all about communication, which is becoming the theme of our conversation! Be open and honest, whether you are mentoring another woman or anyone else. Highlight the positives of your mentee’s skills and personality, but focus on how they could grow. Many women in the tech industry desperately seek out constructive feedback they don’t receive elsewhere. Sharing that kind of feedback demonstrates how much you care about your mentee and their success. Those kinds of honest relationships are the strongest and can quickly evolve into sponsorships.

Would you consider EY a vertical organization, and if so, what advice do you have for women who are climbing the management ladder?

There is some form of tiered structure with partners and managing directors at the top, but, ultimately, EY is a relatively flat organization. We emphasize the entrepreneurial spirit, and how people drive the business as a whole and less on ensuring Person A reports to Person B.

As such, I don’t have much experience climbing the corporate ladder in a traditional sense. Our company culture enables communal mentorship and opens multiple, unconventional doors for people.

That’s a cool environment to be a part of.

What would you say is the greatest challenge for the next generation of women inside and outside the tech industry, and how can those of us who are already established be strong role models for them?

I fear one of the most significant challenges the next generation of women will face is complacency. We’ve recently achieved tremendous success in the workforce, but I don’t want anyone to think that the work is done.

We also live in a time when young people often compare themselves to each other on social media. This comparison can be stifling because we only present our best selves online, so responsible mentors must guide the next generation of women by creating positive online and offline communities. Building women’s courage to lead and innovate is paramount to their success, and comparing their failures to everyone else’s selected victories is dangerous.

Women can be particularly critical of each other, so building one another up is essential.

How do you ensure your colleagues hear you when you speak, and what do you recommend other women do who struggle with this?

I took an executive presence and public speaking course, and I learned that being heard is much more physical than I realized. Much of the curriculum emphasized breathing from your diaphragm and consciously thinking about your pauses in a conversation. Do you open your mouth wide enough when you’re speaking so your words don’t sound jumbled? What does your posture look like? It was amazing how focusing on those habits could change your message’s impact.

The most influential speakers are also the best listeners. It’s necessary to know your audience and match their communication style to come across as confident.

Would you advise women to participate in speaking engagements or practice with friends before they give presentations?

I would, especially before major presentations. Practice with your friends and record yourself alone. Remember, what you say on the day will not be the same as when you practice, but that’s okay; it’s more about building your confidence. Watching or listening to yourself can be uncomfortable, but it’s fascinating to see yourself from your audience’s perspective. Where are you stumbling? Where could your delivery be stronger? What is your body language like? You’ll improve each time you catch something new.

That’s excellent advice. On a different note, if you could provide HR leaders with one recommendation to help promote women in the workplace, what would it be?

Put energy and effort into your organization’s culture. Your company needs to make women feel valued and comfortable speaking up. Organizations can recruit as many women as they want at any level, but if their cultures aren’t conducive to those women’s success, they have no reason to stay. Culture is a foundational component of promoting women in the workplace and helping them pursue their goals.

Absolutely. It’s essential to not only look at the women present in a company but at the women who left and why.

How should HR leaders go about shaping such cultures? Does it entail reaching out to women in their organizations and asking for feedback?

I think focus groups are an excellent place to start. Understanding the organization’s pulse, what people like about it, and what people want to change is essential to building a culture everyone wants to be a part of. If an organization realizes that women don’t feel valued or don’t feel like they belong, it needs to enlist feedback from all women members to create a solution and get everyone on board.

I agree. Has there been an instance at EY where you had to improve the environment or a process to be more inclusive for women?

EY was actually one of the first consulting firms to grant 16 weeks of parental leave and continues to discuss ways to improve company policies that favor new parents. In our local office, we created a space to have discussions that identify ways our current policies impact new parents, address their concerns, and factor in their recommendations. We make a point to be public about it so that other organizations hopefully follow suit.

Another question for you: what characteristics would you say make a good woman leader?

I don’t think the characteristics of a woman leader are different than those of any leader. I would say, however, that the best leaders are enthusiastic and passionate about their goals. They are adept at striking a balance between being strategic thought leaders and working in the trenches. By doing so, they’re able to share empathy with their teams and understand what motivates them. They also freely admit when they’ve made a mistake, which exhibits integrity and self-awareness that builds trust with their team members and inspires them to do the same.

That’s an interesting point. On the subject of being a thought leader while working in the trenches, the tech world increasingly demands us to specialize in something. How do you advise people to be generalist yet visionary?

It’s important to know what the world and the industry need and what you’re passionate about. It’s advantageous to have both depth and breadth. Many people think they need to be one or the other, but it’s good to have expertise in a particular area and still be able to pull pieces together from across the board to enrich your client or team’s experience.

If you do identify as one or the other, though, then team up with people who are the opposite. That’s what makes teams stronger. For example, say I need to execute an overall consumer implementation. I have a depth of knowledge in automotive finance, so I would be remiss not to pair myself with someone with a broader perspective of consumer lending or depths in other areas. Our collective vision is what we aim toward, and our synergized skills are how we get there.

On a different note, many Women Who Code members are hoping to transition into technology. If you were to return to the beginning of your career, what advice do you wish someone had given you?

Ask questions whenever an opportunity presents itself. If you’re in a room with an expert in a field you don’t know much about, inquire about their work. Reach out to people after meetings or presentations you found interesting. You’d be surprised how many people are responsive when someone asks to pick their brain for just fifteen minutes.

In addition, read up on the industry at large. Find publications that discuss the things you’re interested in and how they intersect with other fields. Publications exist for everything from automation to cloud computing, so take advantage of those resources and build a basic knowledge of multiple subjects you can use when opportunities arise.

Where do you see yourself in the next few years?

I see myself progressing as a leader at EY in the automotive finance space. I also intend to pursue my passions of diversity, equity, and inclusion, so I am equipped to bring up the next generation of women technologists.

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