• Laura Hay, Leadership |

If we’ve known each other for a while – or you’ve read my Mind the Gap blog – you know that I’m seldom at a loss for words or ideas.  So, it’s funny how today, as I prepare to retire as Global Head of Insurance at KPMG International, it’s hard to sum it all up for those who come after me, particularly women building their careers and the next generation of leaders.

But looking back on an amazing nearly 40-year career – including thousands of wonderful professional relationships with team-members, clients and industry peers, 10 years of leading confidence and risk-taking workshops for 25,000+ women and allies and interviewing 64 inspiring female Board members and C-suite executives on six continents as part of my blog (Thank you to each of you) – here it goes!

Reflecting on my life and what I’ve learned, I’d say, “Find your joy, don’t wait, and speak up to make it happen.”   This seemingly simple credo is distilled from a lifetime of hard-learned lessons, and a few thoughts on how you can actually do it. 

Identify your joy and lean into it:

People often tell me that it’s obvious I’ve found my joy, since I literally glow when I’m immersed in my favourite thing, helping to develop and promote future female leaders.

What might surprise you is that I discovered this joy just a decade ago, by chance, while reading a New York Times article entitled “The Confidence Gap,” written by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, who later wrote a book called “The Confidence Code”. This hit me like a bolt of lightning, and this epiphany moment told me that my life’s work would be to help women develop the confidence to achieve their potential as future leaders.

This was an important discovery, because, although I felt immense joy in my family and friends, and great satisfaction working for an organization that truly supported me, it’s easy to lose sight of things in a fast-paced life. I realized that I can also do something else that brings me joy, just for me.

So, that day, I began dreaming up a workshop to share practical advice with women on a larger scale, based on my personal learnings, the tips I had shared with women I had individually mentored and sponsored, and a raft of research on this seldom-discussed topic. 

It wasn’t easy, since I spent my days heading KPMG in the US’ insurance practice and serving on the US firm’s board, my evenings raising my family, and weekends coaching my son’s soccer team. Regardless, I’d come home to work on the project, and I loved every moment of it, especially when I presented to my first corporate group in January 2015, it felt so perfect! 

Start following your joy, today:

While this sounds a bit like a fairy tale – and I’m so happy with where I am today – I do wish that I had realized my joy much earlier. This struck me when I recently read an advice book that urged future retirees to visualize what will bring them joy, and don’t wait until retirement to pursue it. In my case, I wish I had read these words 30 years earlier.

So what can you do to accelerate your own path to joy? First, allow yourself the time and space to really think about what does, or would, bring you joy. Then, take small steps to make it happen, whether you can weave your joy into your current place – as I did, leveraging my platform at KPMG to engage with my clients and community – or, if you need to make a bigger change in direction. This also means ‘checking in’ and reassessing now and then, since the things that make us happy could shift, and we might need to ‘course correct’ or re-invigorate our journey.

But what about the barriers that stand in your way? I’d say, find ways to remove them, one by one, and build your own support network along the way. In my case, my father (also an actuary) was my first mentor and he always told me, “You can do anything you want in this life. It’s your choice.” This reminded me that I have the ability to overcome things that might hold me back. This is a powerful feeling, if you truly embrace it.

Today, I tell women, “You always have choices. You may not want to see them, and some might be difficult, but use your support network or personal advisory board to help you really consider them.”  I believe that there are always solutions, so don’t give up because someone says ‘No.’

Strategies to speak up and be heard:

The other puzzle piece to finding joy is mustering the confidence to speak up at crucial moments. That means taking the chance to share your point of view during a meeting. It means advocating for yourself when a new opportunity arises. It could be setting boundaries if you face unjust treatment or expectations. Or, it can mean speaking up for others when they need ‘back up.’

These behaviours are invaluable if you want to advance in your career. For example, a Harvard Business Review article pointed out that, “In many organizations, our leadership readiness is measured in part by our willingness to speak up in meetings. How we speak off-the-cuff can have a bigger impact on our career trajectory than our presentations or speeches because every single day we have an opportunity to make an impact.”1 Clearly, expressing your point of view is one of the most powerful ways to prove your leadership potential.

On a personal note, while many of you know my own extroverted style (I love to apply my background in  theatre arts and deep love of singing), many years ago I faced my own pivotal moment when I had to speak up and advocate for myself. On an occasion when I was at risk of missing out on an utterly career-shaping opportunity, I had to challenge a senior leader and implore them to let me prove myself in the role. It wasn’t easy to speak up, but I succeeded, and this action was an absolute turning point in my subsequent career rise. It also reinforced for me that you can’t let your career fall in the hands of others. You need to speak up for yourself, in the right way, at the right time.

Unfortunately, while the reasons for speaking up are indisputable, I’ve seen over time that many women simply don’t speak up enough. There are many reasons for this, including previous bad experiences – for instance if a woman was interrupted or ‘talked over’ in a meeting – you second guess yourself or fear criticism, or you find self-promotion or disagreements distasteful. It’s also possible that your organization doesn’t genuinely provide an open culture that encourages speaking up.

Whatever the case, women do need to find ways to speak up and ensure their voices are heard. The good news is that there are many tactics to do so, in ways that are comfortable for you. You can find many great tips in my previous blog posts, but to name a few: enlist a buddy to support you in a group setting, rehearse your point of view prior to the meeting, and train yourself to embrace deliberative conflict, instead of fearing it.

Just like the path to finding your joy, you can take bite-size steps to master the art of speaking up. In the words of Susan Cain, best-selling author of Quiet, the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking, “The magic answer to overcoming a fear is exposing yourself to it, but do it in really small steps. And if you do it little by little you can nearly or completely overcome your fear.”

This wisdom really complements my approach over the years, as I’ve tried to help others surmount their own ‘confidence gap’. Since confidence is based on the belief in your ability to succeed, if you take small actions or risks, with hard work, each success, and failure too, your confidence will grow and inspire you to aim for bigger, better things.

What’s next for me, and you?

After racking up many ‘miles’ to learn all this, I can truly say today that I feel ‘joyful’ with where I am, and ready for what comes next. In my case, my new journey will include time with family and friends, hiking in Peru and tango in Argentina, serving on boards of directors, including the Girl Scouts of Greater New York, and, on the Saturday morning after I leave the office, helping to support a local fundraiser.

But make no mistake, I won’t be silent around the development and promotion of female leaders. On that note, I’m really excited about what comes next for you, my followers, friends, peers, clients and colleagues all around the world. Thank you for sharing your time with me, and, starting today, please pursue your own joy, and find ways to speak up for what you want your life to be.


1 Harvard Business Review, March 2019, “How to Speak Up When it Matters”

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