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Five Questions with Mark Weinberger

In this month’s Blue Goose “Five Questions With…” feature, Mark Weinberger, who served as Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Tax Policy and steps down July 1 as global chairman and CEO of EY, reflects on having a North Star during fast-changing times, his optimism that the country can address our big challenges through bipartisanship, and a particular leadership skill of President Bush’s that Mark tries to emulate.

June 27, 2019 //   9 minute read

Q: As you approach your retirement as global chairman and CEO of EY, what accomplishments are you most proud of and, in particular, what are some of the more pressing challenges you helped EY successfully navigate?

It’s hard to believe that I’m leaving the organization I first joined as an intern when I was a 24-year-old! I didn’t stay here the whole time, though. I’ve actually joined EY four times. I left to work for two U.S. Presidents, including President George W. Bush, in the U.S. Senate and to start my own business. But what drew me back to EY each time -- and what I’m most proud of as I retire – is our people and our culture. I can honestly say that every day I’ve taken pride in what my 280,000 colleagues around the world do every day to serve their clients, the capital markets and their communities.

When it comes to challenges, it has to be the sheer scale and speed of change in the business world from megatrends such as rapidly advancing technology, increasing globalization and the demographic shifts affecting everything from our workforce to our markets.

In 2013, when I became Chairman and CEO, we could already see those trends at work. So, we had a great team come together to develop a strategy that could take us through the kinds of times we thought were ahead.

Since then we’ve transformed as an organization – adding more than 100,000 people, offering services in new areas like blockchain and artificial intelligence, bringing in great new colleagues and intellectual property through over 125 acquisitions and our alliances – but, most important of all, we established EY as a purpose-led organization.

In 2013, we decided to talk about our purpose explicitly – building a better working world. It was a hugely important decision. It’s our North Star in fast-changing times like these, and it provides the deeper meaning for our people behind everything they do. Since we’ve been more explicit about our purpose, we’ve seen dramatic positive results in our hiring, brand, retention rates and our people engagement. I think setting out our purpose at the beginning of my tenure – and focusing on why we exist beyond making money – was probably the most important decision I made.

Q: In addition to your role at EY leading a global organization, you also served as a member of the World Economic Forum’s International Business Council (IBC), co-chaired the Russia Foreign Investment Advisory Council with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and chaired the Mayor of Shanghai’s International Business Leaders’ Advisory Council. Why do you think it’s important to take on roles like these?

CEOs can’t separate traditional “business” issues like workforce issues and global trade from issues like technology-driven job displacement, immigration or gender equality any more. They profoundly affect our businesses, the people we work with, and our communities. They’re also too big for any single organization or government to fix by themselves – so I’m a big believer in the power of companies coming together with government through organizations like the World Economic Forum to look at the issues and collectively develop practical solutions.

It’s the same with organizations like IBLAC and FIAC whose goals are to create a better business environment for overseas investors. At both councils the focus of members is on promoting the kind of environment that delivers growth and innovation for all – such as transparency, and a level-playing field for foreign companies. I also welcomed the opportunity to serve President Obama on his Infrastructure task force, and President Trump on his Strategic Advisory Council. Members never agreed on everything, but I welcomed the opportunity to be involved in the debate, bringing EYs values and insights to the discussion.

Overall, I believe that as business leaders it’s better for us to be at the table with governments trying to solve problems, even if we don’t agree with all the policies of a particular leader or political party.   

Q: You were responsible for 280,000 employees at EY. Can you describe your approach to leadership and steps EY took during your tenure to help young professionals develop in their careers?… Do you encourage young people to seek opportunities to serve in government?

We make a promise to our people – that whenever you join EY, however long you stay, the exceptional experience lasts a lifetime. We spend around US$500m in training and deliver around 13 million formal hours in learning a year to make that happen – that’s on top of things like mentoring and experiential development.

We always want people to be thinking “how can I increase my long-term professional value? How can I polish my personal brand?” – so we’ve put in place things like a performance-management system that’s based around real-time feedback aimed at helping individuals with career planning; also, externally recognized awards for employees, referred to as “EY Badges”, for developing “hot skills” in areas like data visualization and Robotic Process Automation – which you might see on people’s LinkedIn pages.

There are lots of people at EY with experience in government and public service. I can’t say we encourage people to go into any particular sector when they leave EY, but we do make clear that it’s great to go out and get new experiences, and that the door to EY is always open. I’ve always hoped I’m proof of that – having rejoined EY 3 times.

It’s great to see people take the skills and experiences they get at EY out to do good in the wider world – we’re delighted to have one million alumni doing fantastic jobs in government, academia, industry and as entrepreneurs. 

Q: You advised both President Clinton and President Bush and worked on Senator Danforth’s staff. Do you think we’ll ever return to a more bipartisan, work-across-the-aisle approach in Washington?

I’m an eternal optimist – so yes, I do. In order to get sustainable policies to fix the big issues facing our country we have to get to more bipartisanship. One party doesn’t have all the answers and we can’t afford to see-saw between extremes on every election when the balance of power shifts. I believe we’ll rise to the best interest of the country.

You mention Senator Danforth – and he was a great believer in working across the aisle and a great believer in finding common ground with people. I guess I’d just say that we get a lot further when we look to build on our common ground than to focus on the things that divide us.

Q: Are there leadership lessons from your time in the Bush Administration that served your well in your highly successful run at EY? And can you leave us with a favorite story or memorable moment from your time in the Administration?

President Bush always surrounded himself with people who were high-quality experts in their field; one of the most important job of any leader is to assemble and empower high performance teams. President Bush would create these teams, and throughout meetings he’d always ask the right questions to foster a productive discussion and to move from theoretical to political possibilities. He knew what questions to ask, to get to the right answers. It was an incredible skill, and I’ve tried to emulate that ability he had to really listen and ask questions to get to the right result. In fact, at EY, we now say, “the better the question, the better the answer, the better the world works”.

It sounds simple but actually few people understand that asking the right question is the most essential element of getting to the right answer. President Bush managed to do it really well – it’s a fantastic quality to have, and a sign of truly great leadership.