Financial Services Careers


The Path to Partnership: What is the impact of a more diverse leadership team?

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Ciara McKenna started her career at EY as a graduate. Sixteen years later, she’s one of the youngest Partners at the firm in Dublin. Here, she talks about her career journey, work-life balance, and advice to  younger colleagues who want to follow in her footsteps.

When I joined EY in 2001 as a fresh-faced graduate, the One FSO concept didn’t exist, and the FS practice was only about 60 people across audit and tax, and no advisory services!  I was not the type of person who had my career planned out in my early 20s, and certainly didn’t have my sights on becoming a partner at that stage of my career. I remember signing my training contract, which ended on 30 April 2005 and thought I was signing my life away! There is often an element of luck involved in career success, by being in the right place at the right time, and being willing to take a chance as opportunities present themselves. This applies equally to me.

“When I qualified the pace of growth in financial services was exceptional so I stayed on, rather than leaving when most of my peers were handing in their notice.”

There are particular events in my career that stand out to me.

  • The period of the financial crisis was an extremely tough, somewhat chaotic time to work in FS audit. One of my audit clients was the first of many Irish casualties of the crisis, in the summer of 2007. For those of us that experienced it, we learned the benefits of working collaboratively in a close-knit team, and got used to working under extreme pressure.
  • In 2012 I transferred from Banking to Insurance, which was a defining time for me. It was a huge challenge for me, both personally and professionally – I faced a new industry, new regulations, new clients and new teams. It took a lot of resilience to make it a success.
  • I was seconded to a client’s finance function, which confirmed to me what I most enjoy about working in EY – the variety of clients I deal with, the different challenges that I encounter every day, and seeing other people develop and progress their careers.

At various points over the last 16 years I have considered whether it was time to move on from EY, but conversations with peers and other colleagues set me back on course, helped me find a new direction or a new challenge to keep me interested.

For me, many of the aspects that attracted me to EY, and kept me here post-qualification, are still part of the culture of EY today, the openness, accessibility of senior people, and the commitment to the People agenda. Other aspects are unrecognisable from my early days, including the FSO/host model and Pan-European connectivity, and the pace of change we are experiencing now in terms of Innovation and adapting to new ways of working.

“As a mother to two young children, having some balance between my work commitments and the needs of my family is a priority for me.”

As my children get older they need less care in some ways, but they equally need my time and attention, to help with homework, to bring them to activities, or just to hear all the day’s events first hand. I have always felt supported by EY in this respect, and never felt it was an issue to take time to attend a school concert, care for a sick child or simply go home on time. In my view, this is no different to what any of the Dads in our teams should expect, or people caring for elderly or sick family members or other personal commitments. That is often easier said than done when working in an environment centred on client service and meeting deadlines, and there are certainly periods when I feel I don’t have the right balance.

“Our internal partner promotion process itself is a long, intensive process of interviews and assessments, and I definitely felt pushed beyond my comfort zone.”

So to finally receive “the call”, in my case from Marcel Van Loo in May 17, to hear I was successful in my ambition to become a EY partner is a moment I will always remember. The relief, joy and sense of achievement were fantastic, definitely a time to celebrate. I am immensely proud to say I am a partner in EY.

It’s still early days but so far my life hasn’t changed dramatically since becoming a partner, nor did I expect it to. Through the final stages of IPP, there is lots of discussion of how becoming a partner is a transition, and I do feel that I am very much in the transition phase. Other people’s perception of me, both clients and colleagues, is different, magnified. I probably don’t yet fully appreciate just how much of a difference that is, so that will continue to be an adjustment. Partnership brings its own challenges, with additional responsibility and accountability in running the firm’s business. But it also gives me the freedom to make my own mark on our business and our clients, which is what excites me most about this next stage of my career.

I will finish with some advice to others who have ambitions to become a partner:

  • in the words of Sheryl Sandberg, lean-in and embrace the opportunities that are offered to you;
  • ask for what you want, don’t be shy about it;
  • accept the support and guidance of people around you, your sponsors, coach, counsellor and colleagues, and;
  • be yourself, not what you think someone else wants you to be.


Ciara McKenna

FS Partner, Assurance, Insurance
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