by Pamela Weinsaft (New York City)
While studying at the University of Michigan, Shannon Schuyler, Managing Director of Corporate Responsibility at PricewaterhouseCoopers, had hopes of one day becoming a sportscaster. She would never have predicted that she would end up spearheading the Corporate Responsibility (CR) effort for one of the world’s largest professional services firms. Then again, this is a woman who once taught English to inmates at a maximum security prison in Michigan for college credit in lieu of classes, and who has built a successful career around taking the uncharted path.
Upon graduation, Schuyler headed to southern France, where she intended to pursue a variety of interests, including teaching gymnastics and the further development of her already-formidable horseback riding skills.
Then, tragedy struck. Schuyler’s mother became seriously ill, and she immediately returned to the United States. After her mother passed away, Schuyler decided to stay closer to home and found a job in Chicago working as an executive recruiter placing senior level actuaries in insurance and professional services organizations, including PwC legacy firm Coopers and Lybrand. There she learned of a senior campus recruiting position with the firm. She got the job and is still with PwC, now 13 years later.
Schuyler’s oversight of the award-winning Great Places to Work initiative within the firm is just one of several groundbreaking programs in which she has been involved. She and her team spent significant time gathering information via surveys and town hall meetings to benchmark PwC’s ability to retain its valuable staff and create an employee of choice culture.
She emphasized how proud she was of PwC for all the efforts on this initiative. “People put the discussion about what would make PwC a ‘great place to work’ first on every agenda. It became the lifeblood of our organization. And this led to more significant change than external experts could have imagined: we made the list after only two-and-a-half years when it was expected to take five to seven years. The pride comes from the fact that we had the full support of our firm’s leadership; the recognition couldn’t have come without our leaders being so responsive.”
Schuyler’s says her career philosophy might best be summed up by her belief that people should constantly re-invent themselves. She feels that a person should not remain in the exact same role for more than three years because they should always drive to broaden their experiences and career options by seeking – or creating – new opportunities. In her years with the firm, Schuyler has held seven different roles in recruiting, human resources, and marketing and sales while working in Chicago, San Francisco, and Virginia.
Schuyler sees consulting as an industry in which women should thrive. “Women have the unique ability to think creatively about complex problems – not always rushing for the solution but being thoughtful in understanding how we came to the problem and then resolving the issue with multiple perspectives in mind. Women deal well with change – we adapt. We like different views; we like to debate and we like to be empathetic. But, I think we also let doubt creep into our minds more often than men and second guess ourselves. We read into things and can let worry fester – we can over think and that can paralyze us.” She added, “I admit that I have found doubt enter my mind more times than I like to share, but I now see the signs and can push past the fear and find an inner voice that speaks up assertively and unapologetically.”
Schuyler encourages women to take the initiative in the workplace, especially with regard to taking on additional responsibilities, adding that she’s “never been turned down for [a position or project] that [she’s] made a cohesive and compelling business case for.” Before assuming her current role, she wrote an unsolicited white paper illustrating the business case for the creation of a corporate responsibility leadership position. The paper impressed firm leadership enough for them to not only create the position, but to offer it to her.
While Schuyler doesn’t regret her “winding path” to her current role, she looks back and realizes how important that go-getter mindset was when she first started out in the industry. “It took me three years to get into the swing and recognize that I needed to take initiative – I needed to own my career. I wonder if I knew then what I know now, if I would have gone a different path and maybe excelled faster.”
“In any role, you have to be willing to take some risks, challenge the status quo, and embrace conflict. You are more respected if you can handle the tough conversations and persuade the most steadfast leader, then just going with the flow. Can this be scary? Absolutely, but that is the only way you can achieve distinction. You have to be completely committed,” she explained.
Schuyler is now working to expand the CR effort outside of the United States and team with other territories to make an impact globally. “This work becomes even more interesting as you realize the importance of understanding cultural norms and values as well as the impact of regulatory and governmental differences,” she explained. “Our challenge as a global network of firms is to look for places where we can align on the truly global issues – to serve clients and to serve our communities.”
She looks forward to a time when coordinated CR initiatives are no longer necessary. “I think if we do it right, we shouldn’t need a CR leader because it will be so embedded into our culture that it will become everyone’s job,” said Schuyler.
In her free time, Schuyler sits on the Board of the Anti-Cruelty Society in Chicago. She also spends her time putting together real and artificial flower arrangements for sale in local shops, and she is an avid antique collector.
And, if all of that does not make for a busy enough private life, Schuyler is also an accomplished triathlete, having completed several triathlons since 1999. Why triathlons instead of just your standard marathon? “I just can’t imagine doing one thing for that long,” Schuyler laughed.
Although based in Chicago, Schuyler has been a formal telecommuter for eight years. Her job requires significant travel, but she tries to limit trips to twice per month, combining meetings and events to reduce her own carbon footprint and manage costs. When not on the road, she works from home in the company of her two dogs, Wrigley and Comiskey (homage to her Chicago roots). But that doesn’t mean her days are any shorter. “The hardest part about working from home is I work a lot; it is hard to pry me away from my computer and my desk. But it is the right balance for me. My average day is 11 to 12 hours, but could be as short as 8 or up to 15 hours. Some people would look at my hours and not be happy, but it works for me and is satisfying. I enjoy what I do and the challenges motivate me even more to keep moving us forward.”