Here’s what I’ve learned in the industry

On tips for shy people, dealing with pressure, and the transition from uni to work, EY Partner Kath Barrow shares her career experiences

How do you balance integrity with ambition and getting ahead?

I don’t think it’s about the position – it’s how you do it. When I look back at my career I have never had a door shut in my face and I’ve always embraced the opportunities that were out there – even opportunities that I wasn’t expecting. I think it’s quite difficult to overdo it as long as you are yourself, as long as you are thoughtful to others, you have empathy and you’ve got good EQ, as well as good IQ. Then you can be ambitious but at the same time understand and respect the people around you.  

What advice would you give people who are naturally shy to succeed in an industry with a lot of client-facing roles?

We’re not asking people to stand on the stage and shout about what they do. We’re asking them to engage with one or two other people or to work within a team environment. I think if you can break it down to those smaller activities and tasks then you don’t become overwhelmed. When I had the opportunity to work in London, the thing that put me off was just that sense of being part of an office that was 3,000 or 4,000 people as opposed to the 400 that I knew pretty well in Birmingham. Actually, as with most business environments, you’re not walking into a big room with 4,000 people in it as there’ll always be smaller teams you work with. And when you’re in a client environment you’re not facing a team of 50 people, you’re going to engage with one or two people on very specific things. You’ll be asking for specific information and asking them to talk about what they do – which in that context is much more important than you talking about what you do.

How have you dealt with the pressures of business?

I’m incredibly privileged in working with immensely talented people who have skills that are different to mine. And I think the biggest lesson I’ve learnt in terms of handling pressure is to take advantage of that; to pick the phone up and build my own internal network as much as I build an external network. The understanding, skills and experiences of people within our organisation is firstly, pretty awesome and secondly, helps me do my job better. And I think I have gone through phases, way back in my career, where I felt asking for help was almost a weakness and actually it never is.

What do you think is the best way to convey your commercial awareness?

It’s sometimes about the questions you ask, and not necessarily about being the person who has all the answers. Quite often what clients might be thinking is not what’s going on or the biggest issue. So commercial awareness can be about building rapport, building engagement with people within businesses so that they feel comfortable talking about what they’re dealing with. Sometimes it’s just about asking questions in a way that suggests there’s a certain amount you know but that makes them think more about it.

How do you maintain gravitas while also appearing approachable or friendly?

I think what can make you approachable and friendly is being interested in what’s going around you and interested in the people that you have around you. It’s about the questions you ask, not necessarily about the big statements that you make, then having something to say off the back of that, that can be the gravitas. Allowing yourself to be selective about your interventions by giving the floor to others can mean that what you then contribute is so much more meaningful – and gives you gravitas.

What is the most important skill graduates need when making the transition to the work place?

I don’t know whether it’s different to being a student but I’d say don’t lose that sense of curiosity, that inquiring mind that asks why and what and who and how – all of those questions. Because you never stop learning and 20-odd years on I’m still learning, I still learn from asking does that make sense, does that feel right, why am I doing this why am I being asked to do that?  

What makes a good employee stand out from the rest?

What you can’t teach someone is to really care. Because that’s what will drive you to learn and to ask questions; to actually just be the best you can be and to embrace the opportunities that are out there. So being passionate about what you do, that sense of drive and as I said, really caring about the end result.

About Kath

Kath Barrow qualified as a chartered accountant in 1996 and became a partner at EY in 2006. She has held leadership roles in EY’s Assurance service line, including Audit Sector Leader for Retail, Consumer and Industrial Products and Head of People. Kath chairs EY’s Future Finance Leaders programme, supporting finance professionals as they work towards the industry’s top jobs.

  • Kath Barrow

About the author

Kath qualified as a chartered accountant in 1996 and became a partner at EY in 2006. She’s held leadership roles in EY’s Assurance service line, including Audit Sector Leader for Retail, Consumer and Industrial Products and Head of People. Kath chairs EY’s Future Finance Leaders programme, supporting finance professionals as they work towards the industry’s top jobs.