EY’s Marna Ricker: Why Empathy Can Be Your Greatest “Super Power”

One of my self-proclaimed “super powers” is empathy. And it took time to come into my own and apply that overtly and openly in my own leadership. While I was always comfortable doing it one-on-one or in small groups, doing it at mass scale felt daunting. Was it viewed as a female characteristic? Was it viewed as a weak or emotional characteristic? But I realized that I can leverage my compassionate nature in my leadership and use it to forge deeper trust and connection with others

As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Marna Ricker, EY Americas Vice Chair — Tax.

As EY Americas Vice Chair — Tax, Marna oversees overall tax strategy, offerings and all client services for the 17,000-person EY Americas Tax practice. Her job is to engage and inspire the team to deliver distinctive client experiences and create digitally enabled solutions addressing companies most complex business challenges. Marna is a transformational business leader who’s passionate about authentic leadership development and building high performing collaborative teams. She proudly promotes diversity, inclusiveness and anti-discriminatory ideals throughout EY and more broadly.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I was born and raised in Ohio and am a proud Buckeye. My values and work ethic are grounded in my Midwest upbringing. When considering what I wanted to do in college and then later in law school, I was really attracted to tax because of its blend of law and math, its origin in societal benefits, and its global reach. I’ve also always had an instinctive gravitation toward math and numbers, so the business came naturally to me. I’m proudly a “tax geek” at heart.

I chose EY 27 years ago because of the warmth of the people with whom I interviewed, the alignment of values as well as its breadth and scale as a place to build a lifetime career. I believed EY would give me the opportunity to learn and grow without limitations and that’s exactly what happened. I was raised one generation “off of the farm” and had never been out of the country until business travel took me there. I have had the privilege of traveling the world with EY as an International Tax Services partner and I’ve moved four times for the firm. I never could have imagined the rich EY culture, that embraces differences and rewards outcomes, and led to more opportunities than I ever thought would be possible.

My husband Erick and I have two beautiful boys Colton, 12, and Cooper, 10, and a dog, Bear, and live on one of the 10,000 lakes in Minnesota.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

The global pandemic and economic crisis stemming from COVID-19 has impacted everyone and every business around the globe. Our Americas Tax practice was no different. It was busy season when COVID-19 first hit the US at the end of February 2020. On March 17, we closed all of our US offices and moved to remote work to keep all of our people safe. And yet, our tax professionals had two of the largest filing deadlines before them with March 31 and April 15 for the fast approaching. Our Americas Tax practice produced over 30,000 K-1 tax forms for some of the world’s largest funds. We literally pivoted and mobilized our entire business overnight, embracing virtual teaming and new ways of working to continue to deliver on our commitments to our exceptional clients. We were agile and quick to adapt on the fly and navigate the new landscape. In a crucial time, when our clients needed our empathy and expertise the most, I witnessed the true depth of our resolve and ingenuity.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Back in my early days at EY, I was preparing a tax form during busy season and had to perform some calculations to convert Mexican pesos to U.S. dollars. At the time, I remember being surprised that their operations were way larger than I had expected. But it was crunch time and we filed the return. The next day when I woke up, I had one of those nagging feelings about the numbers — they just seemed off. How could their business be that large? It just didn’t sit right with me so I went back and looked again. Right away, I realized my error: I did the conversion backwards! As a person who prides themselves on precision and numbers, how could I get that wrong? When I informed the partner of my error, I asked if I could be the one to let the client know. When I called the client personally and owned it, he appreciated my honesty and initiative. In fact, it deepened our relationship. Lesson learned: Mistakes are how we grow. Own and fix it immediately. Then, reflect and learn from them. You may just find that they create new openings for growth and build relationships from people who rally to support. Afterall, we are all human and who hasn’t made a mistake? Or two? Or Three?

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

While there are so many I can name professionally, there is one supporter that stands above the rest, my husband, Erick. He has been my stable force, advocate, best friend, my co-parent to our two boys. He’s the nucleus of our family and the boys, dog and I all know it. Our lives would be meaningless without him, or at least a lot less fun and funny. When it comes to my career, his encouragement and inspiration have underpinned my success. Whenever new opportunities presented themselves, I’ve always paused and asked “Am I really ready? Would others be more qualified? How do I balance it with my family?” And, there would be Erick, saying “are you kidding — go, we can figure it out!” which gives me the courage needed to push the “imposter syndrome” to the side, and find the mettle to further stretch my wings.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

If we’ve learned anything in the last decade, it’s that prioritizing mental and physical wellbeing is essential. It’s imperative to establish a regular regimen and understand the unique needs of your body. I do not compromise on sleep and am a regular exerciser and meditator. And without exception before a big “anything”, I always start that day with a workout — even if it’s just for 20 minutes, preferably more. I can’t think of any fact pattern with a major event coming up where I didn’t work out prior. Scientifically speaking, endorphin rushes help us to cope with stress and elicit confidence. I love all forms of exercise, however indoor cycling and competitive high intensity interval training are my latest favorites. In addition, I’ve learned to religiously disconnect from any technology at least an hour before bedtime. This ritual has helped me quiet my mind. I generally use it to talk to the boys, or read with my youngest, or to mentally prepare and recharge for the day ahead.

As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

A diverse executive team should be a priority for any business or organization. At EY, diversity and inclusion is a deep part of our culture and is simply table stakes, a non-negotiable. We are also very focused on creating an even stronger culture of belonging. One that harnesses our unique differences and allows every individual to bring those differences to work every day and to be valued for exactly who they are. That is the culture that we are focused on strengthening and protecting. Those differences ultimately allow teams to bring unique perspectives and create better outcomes in our work.

As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.

I’m deeply gratified to be part of an organization that has an unwavering commitment to stand boldly in support of the Black community and to be overtly anti-racist. EY has vowed to be a voice and a force for change to eradicate systemic racism. It’s not enough to be “not racist” — to make progress we need to be “anti-racist.” Some steps that organizations can take to create an inclusive and equitable society include: evaluating internal talent and business processes, investing in organizations committed to fighting social injustices, funding the digital divide for underserved students, and contributing to historically Black universities and colleges to help foster the next generation. For me, it’s been a massive learning journey around the 400-year history of systemic racism. I encourage others to join me by educating themselves via reading, podcasts, documentaries, and simply engaging in tough conversations which impart fresh perspectives. Then, it’s important to act on that learning with bold, anti-racist actions which create a better future for black Americans.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

Executives are responsible to inspire, galvanize, empower and lead by example while the whole organization watches so closely all while also being responsible for producing the annual financial outcomes and setting the strategy necessary to secure the future. Two key things set them apart from everyone else. First, all the risk and all of the responsibility ultimately lies with the executive. They are the final decision makers. They own the final decision, they “make the call.” And second, they own all associated outcomes including organizational impacts to brand, finances, people, clients and more. In the words of Courtney Lynch, an author and speaker whom I admire, “Leaders inspire accountability through their ability to accept responsibility before they place blame.”

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?

One of my self-proclaimed “super powers” is empathy. And it took time to come into my own and apply that overtly and openly in my own leadership. While I was always comfortable doing it one-on-one or in small groups, doing it at mass scale felt daunting. Was it viewed as a female characteristic? Was it viewed as a weak or emotional characteristic? But I realized that I can leverage my compassionate nature in my leadership and use it to forge deeper trust and connection with others. A common myth is that if leaders they are emotionally connected with the feelings of others then they won’t be seen as powerful and influential. But I truly believe that an empathetic leader is the modern leader of today. People want to be around those they relate with and there’s nothing more powerful than connecting with your colleagues, knowing we are human, and aspiring to do the best we can each day in all aspects of our lives.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

Successful women leaders have to juggle everything, literally everything. They are expected to balance family responsibilities, run a business, demonstrate their credentials as well as walk a fine line of “being tough enough . . . but not too tough.” But what I love about EY is that we are myth busting those gender stereotypes. Let me give you an example, we had just as many men apply for our summer leave program this year as we did women. Another example, we are seeing an increase in men taking advantage of our paternity leave program. This speaks volumes about the EY culture. Shattering old stereotypes that men do not have an equal desire to be deeply involved with their children and family responsibilities, and that doing so is not a sign of weakness (an “outdated stereotype”).

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

As the Americas Vice Chair, the key difference is my additional role with the EY Americas Operating Executive Committee, United States Executive Committee (governing body for the US partnership), both of which are responsible for enabling and executing our Global Strategy. Having that broader stewardship responsibility has been a significant difference. That has been the biggest learning opportunity and it’s something I’ve also enjoyed tremendously.

Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?

Servant leadership is first and foremost, especially in a partnership like EY. I ultimately serve my fellow partners and all of my EY colleagues and our collective clients. A successful executive must take the challenges and opportunities that come every day. You have to ask yourself . . . Do you get joy out of helping others solve hard problems and working through adversity? If you don’t, then these executive roles may not be your thing. At the end of the day, being an executive becomes less and less about what you do and more about what you achieve in working through, empowering and inspiring others.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

First, as mothers — and as daughters, sisters, aunts and friends — we manage so much. Things of astonishing importance and also things that are equally and incredibly mundane. We do them all with the same vigor and that makes us amazing. Yet it’s not an easy road and not one with many restful detours. Give yourself a break. Second, Life events happen. Take it day by day, quarter by quarter, year by year. Don’t leave before you leave. See what you’re capable of every day. And finally, if you are struggling with a decision, you probably already have your answer. Default to your family. Or, if you are over-analyzing a decision, you probably already have your answer too. Just go for it. This philosophy really hit home for me in the first few years after I had kids and learned to balance working mom status. As a female leader, I have the responsibility to foster a sense of belonging for all women and to pay it forward. To lend a hand, to champion other women, to inspire, provide advice and professional guidance and ultimately to achieve gender parity as fast as we can.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

Providing incredible and rich career opportunities for every tax professional at EY is a privilege, literally a privilege and what makes EY special. To give everyone an opportunity to develop tax technical skills, business acumen, and personal leadership abilities and work with the world’s leading companies is deeply gratifying. I get to coach and shape our most promising tax professionals to become world-class business leaders as well as balanced and fulfilled individuals. Like the many mentors who have guided my journey, I am committed to understanding others’ aspirations so that they have the confidence and courage to achieve their ambitions and dreams.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

Enjoy the journey. We all have aspirations and goals, but it’s imperative to enjoy the journey and the lessons along the way to achieving them. Otherwise, you may just end up at the destination and wonder what happened along the way.

Invest in relationships. Recognize that relationships are two-way streets. The only one-sided relationship you will ever have is with your child. So invest in them accordingly. Seek common ground wherever you can to sustain them for the long-haul. As an International Tax Partner serving global clients, I was lucky enough to work with some of the world’s best tax advisors who helped me learn and grow while we served our clients together. Little did I know how the investment in those relationships and our shared commitment and interest in serving our great clients would prove valuable over a lifetime EY career. I honestly didn’t know how strong and wide my network really was until I stepped into this role.

Be curious. Throughout my life and career, I’ve always been super inquisitive. If I didn’t understand something, I didn’t hesitate to ask. I challenged myself to be voracious in learning new things. If you become a really good question-asker, you can really get to the heart of whatever issue you’re facing. What I really love about EY is the endless learning opportunities — I’ve certainly never stopped asking questions here! And in fact, this approach is literally part of our tag line: “The better the question. The better the answer. The better the world works.”

Find your personal work and personal life equilibrium. Ultimately, only you can find and institute the right balance. Any job will take as much as you will give it regardless of the role, responsibilities, or the organization. It is up to you to define your aspirations and figure out the right individual path. Find what works for you!

Follow your instincts. Before joining EY, I researched the organization to make sure it aligned with my values. I assessed my interviewers in similar fashion and asked questions to understand what mattered to them and to EY. What did they value? Were these the type of people which I would thrive with? Would I belong? Did it feel like they were energy takers or givers? I did my due diligence, but ultimately I trusted my instincts in landing at a place like EY.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I look at my own kids and think that every child regardless of where they live or the color of their skin should have access to a quality education. I have tremendous respect for the LeBron James Family Foundation and its “I PROMISE” program which helps children in Akron, Ohio with programs, support, and mentors to succeed in school and beyond.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Advice is what we ask for when we already know the answer but wish we didn’t.” — Erica Jong

This goes right back to trusting your instincts. Creating space to clear your mind and listen. Whether you were born with a strong intuition or develop it as you grow a stronger sense of self-confidence, the more that you trust yourself, the easier that hard decisions will unfold.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them

Venus Williams. I had the amazing opportunity to meet and interview her in front of 3,000 EY professionals at our annual tax conference in 2018. How she and her sister Serena carry themselves with such grace, both on and off of the tennis court, is truly inspiring. They combine an entrepreneurial spirit with an unwavering commitment to their craft and families. They are two of the most accomplished women in the history of sports and real role models. I’d love to sit down with both sisters together for an intimate conversation about life.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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