Barry Salzberg – “Contents Under Pressure”

Barry Salzberg, CEO, Deloitte LLP

Speech at Kenan-Flagler Business School, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, October 2007—“Contents Under Pressure: Managing talent in a high-performance culture”

My Role:
I forged a theme that allowed Mr. Salzberg to pose a challenging, and not often asked, question: Is it possible to sustain a high-performance culture without a traditional high-pressure work environment? This excerpt comes from the opening of the speech.

It’s so lovely and peaceful here that I almost feel guilty about introducing my topic for today, which is “Pressure.” Specifically some of the pressures I deal with as the leader of an organization that employs 40,000 people in this country and India. And the pressures I think everyone in business faces – the same pressures that those of you who are students will no doubt encounter when you leave the hallowed halls of academia and embark on your careers.

I’m going to speak today about my experiences with my organization, Deloitte & Touche USA, and our work with clients in the Auditing, Tax, Financial Advisory and Consulting arenas. But the pressures I’m addressing can be found throughout the business world, in every industry and profession.

In that way, businesses have a lot in common with aerosol spray cans. Look at any aerosol can—whether it’s air freshener, cooking oil spray, or that canned air you use to blow cat fur out of your computer keyboard—and you’ll see three words in very large type: CONTENTS UNDER PRESSURE.

Now, pressure itself is not necessarily a bad thing. In these aerosol cans—if the cans are properly used and stored—pressure allows the contents to do the job they were designed to do. But if the can is abused or mistreated, or too much pressure is applied, then bad things could happen, like explosions or fires.

I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know when I say that working in professional services is a high-pressure environment. I’d venture to say it has been “high pressure” ever since 1849, when William Welch Deloitte audited one of the first public companies. Generations of young people have walked through our doors knowing that the path to partnership meant hard work—and lots of it.

That was the expectation when I joined Deloitte 30 years ago, and it was the environment in which I and I dare say just about all of the organization’s current leaders grew up. But the next generation of leaders rising up in our organization is teaching us a thing or two about priorities. Because many people in Generation Y—those of you born after 1980—have different priorities, different expectations than we in the Baby Boom generation did.

Our new colleagues from Gen Y are flat out refusing to buy into the assumptions that many of us Baby Boomers made about how, when and why work had to be done. Especially with the enormous flexibility that technology has given us to work whenever and wherever we like, your generation reminds us that work doesn’t have to mean being tied to specific hours at specific desks.

Gen Y is forcing business to change—and overall, I have to say that’s probably a good thing. But the one thing that can never change is our commitment to provide high-quality work for our clients.

So the big question for me—and for leaders of many other organizations across the country—is: How can we balance the needs and priorities of a new generation of workers and still produce the quality and quantity of work that our clients expect and deserve? In other words, is it possible to sustain a high-performance culture without a traditional high-pressure environment?