This advice from one of her role models, Eleanor Roosevelt, has always resonated with Mary-Kate Ryan.
“This wisdom is still up-to-date as a great analogy of how women must challenge ourselves in the workplace. Men are more apt to claim they are the right person for any given task, while women often feel ‘imposter syndrome,’ where they’re not sure they have the capability they need. But we all know that if you put tea in cold water it’s not very good, but put it in the thick of things, in the ‘hot water,’ and you see how well it works.”
Ryan’s career has been a series of hot water scenarios that she has willingly put herself in and come out stronger. After studying economics and finance in university, she and two of her sisters opened a successful fashion boutique in Dublin which she managed for eight years, attracting a devoted clientele – think Beyoncé caliber!
She says that looking after the business and seeing the fruits of her labor in a niche market was a wonderful training ground throughout her 20s where she had to learn to be adaptable and willing to take on any role; then as she built a team, acquire a comfort level to let go and allow the team to develop as well.
After a brief stint in another business with one sister, she noticed a curiosity about the corporate sector, specifically management consulting, as she approached her 30s. Deciding to act on that gut instinct, she took a career break to go back to university and earn a master’s degree in Management Consultancy at UCD Smurfit in Dublin, something she said feels even more important at that point in your life, because you are more committed and yet able to fully appreciate the freedom of being a full-time student. She made the most of her time there, building up her network and even playing on a touch rugby team that went to the MBA Rugby World Cup in North Carolina.
Learning the Ropes in a Corporate Environment
Earning top honors in her class, Ryan felt confident that she could parlay that success into the skills needed for management consulting and joined PwC Ireland. Some people were confused by her move, expressing that she had been living the dream with her own company, but she enjoyed the leap to the corporate environment. “One of my key skills is my adaptability. I am good at jumping into new situations so I put my head down and figured out the culture.”
Since then she has enjoyed her work on long-term projects in complex environments, overcoming challenges and working with high-performing teams.
She credits her robust support network with helping her along the way. “Sometimes you just need a few conversations that remind you how capable you are and that it’s fine to not know everything because you will learn what you need to,” she says.
Her projects helping organizations integrate after a merger can be quite intense. “The change management and personnel aspect is very interesting, as each situation entails complexity and ambiguity,” she says. “There’s no magic formula and that’s what keeps it exciting.”
When she first started at PwC, she assumed it was going to be a dog-eat-dog environment but was pleasantly surprised at her experience. “Business is always going to be competitive, but I soon learned that high-performing people are also very nice and accessible.” She found that building relationships with clients worked in the same way. “As I got to know them, I found that they were more supportive than you would imagine. We all are just trying to do the job well.” And she adds, PwC offers a diversity of backgrounds that allows its employees to nourish all the aspects that make each person individual.
Along the way, she was able to acquire mentors and sponsors, which she says came about naturally because she showed she was interested, curious and enthusiastic. “Bringing those aspects to the table didn’t have immediate rewards but they put me on people’s radar. A year or so later, someone would think of me and present me with an amazing opportunity,” she says.
For example, even while working offsite, she kept in touch and because of her initiative was offered a project in Dubai with a client with whom she really wanted to work. “It came about because I maintained a network and let people know what I was interested in. If you share the views of what you want to do and have the right conversations, it will naturally happen.”
Multicultural Assignments Feed Her Work/Life Balance
In addition to her work in Dubai, she has enjoyed other international assignments because of what she’s learned about global and multicultural issues. “When I was working in Ireland, there were mostly similarities in terms of approaches, but the international assignments have shown me I can build a team of people with different backgrounds and still be able to see the commonalities,” she says. “You learn not to make assumptions, but instead to really listen and understand people’s motives and objectives.” For example, if someone is being resistant in a meeting, it could be because they don’t agree, but it also could be because they don’t understand and you have to draw them out.
She says that has made her more open-minded and perform better in cross-functional teams, as well as making her gravitate toward more global assignments with an eye to what else she can learn.
Her love of travel extends to her personal life, where she spends as much time as she can trekking and traveling, exploring her interest in different languages, cuisine and cultures.
“As Eleanor Roosevelt said, ‘Life must be lived and curiosity kept alive. One must never, for whatever reason, turn his back on life.’ I believe that approaching life with a curious mind keeps you invigorated and allows me to bring that level of enthusiasm to my work.”