Suzanne Ryan CMA: Seeing Opportunity in Adversity

finance team

Like so many people that lead busy lives I often wonder how it is that I manage to get everything done. Suzanne Ryan is a testament to the idea that where there is a will, there is a way. She candidly admits that getting her designation, while raising two children and working long hours exhausted her, but she stayed focused, positive and never gave up. The master of the “Plan B” approach, Suzanne tells us about how a willingness to change gears and accept whatever challenges came her way, allowed her to become a senior finance executive.

What was your first job in accounting and finance? 
My first job was working for a property management company doing bookkeeping for about a year. The company was located in the east end of Toronto. It was the first time I had really done accounting full-time. It was a learning experience.

It was the first time I had really done accounting full-time. It was a learning experience.

Why did you choose accounting and finance as a career?
I would love to tell you that I had always dreamed of working in finance (laughs), but the reality was that I studied fine arts first and realized that I wouldn’t be able to make a living as an artist. Finance and accounting was actually my “Plan B”. I did some work in the property management field as a bookkeeper, but saw that my opportunity to grow and continue building a career was very limited in this company. I prepared all the reports and files and our auditors would come in to review and sign off and make more money. I recognized that this would be a long term career for me so I chose to get designated to increase my opportunity and earning potential. It was really that simple.

I recognized that this would be a long term career for me so I chose to get designated to increase my opportunity and earning potential.

Did you consider any other careers? 
Honestly, my real plan A was to be an architect, but I hated physics so I knew that wouldn’t work.

What was the toughest moment for you in the first 10 years of your career?
There were a number of challenging moments in the first 10 years of my career. Initially, I worked in small companies and I realized that there weren’t a lot of opportunities for advancement. In fact, once I started doing my accounting designation I realized that I needed to move to a bigger company. About a year into studying I landed a job in treasury accounting at Canada Trust. To this day, I have no idea why they hired me. It was all new and I had never heard of derivatives before. I learned mostly on my own and with some guidance from peers and my new boss. It was a challenge to learn something so totally new, to look after 2 small children, manage a household and complete my designation. When I finally finished and got my designation, I looked back and couldn’t figure out how I had managed all of that without hitting a wall.

…I have no idea why they hired me. It was all new and I had never heard of derivatives before. I learned mostly on my own with some guidance from peers and my new boss.

How did you overcome that challenge?
I was tenacious. I didn’t stop until the work was done. I never gave up and I stayed positive. To me each challenge was an opportunity. That philosophy is one I follow even to this day – in adversity lies opportunity. I feel like I operate best on the edge of chaos, so risky scenarios are good for me. I love to take chaotic situations and coalesce them into something workable. For example, when I first joined Canada Trust it was right after a major merger and the organization was trying to integrate two very different cultures. I found lots of opportunity in that environment.

To me each challenge and setback was an opportunity. That philosophy is one I follow even to this day – in adversity lies opportunity.

Did you plan your career? 
I never made real plans. Within Canada Trust I moved frequently to different and often brand new roles. I had opportunities to take on new roles, develop solutions for unique issues and then move on to something else or just take on something else when I saw a gap. My big character flaw though is that I have a hard time saying “no.” That probably helped me as people kept giving me into more responsibilities and promoting me as I did more and more work. The negative side of this, is that I actually burned out at one point but the burn out resulted in moving from finance to regulatory compliance – a whole new career, a whole new opportunity.

I had opportunities to take on new roles, develop solutions for unique issues and then move on to something else or just take on something else when I saw a gap.

What were some of the important realizations that motivated you in your career? Was there a key opportunity that helped you advance?
There were some key realizations that motivated me in my career, as well as one important opportunity.

a. The realization that I had to make more money to support my family. This motivated me to get my CMA designation.

b. The realization that I wanted to be a senior finance executive. This encouraged me to take on additional challenges that facilitated my career growth.

c. The opportunity that Canada Trust gave me to join a large company. Canada Trust offered a lot of opportunities for advancement.

What challenges have you overcome in your professional career? 
a. Many times the challenge in a career is working with people who you do not naturally gel with. The challenge is getting to the point where you respect each other and work well together.

b. Taking on something that was brand new with no experience like the compliance program at Canada Trust was quite a challenge. Not only was it new but I also had to sell the value of the program to senior executives and get them to agree to support it.

c. Transitioning to unknown industries is also a challenge. I feel that there are certain skills that transition well. For example, being able to think creatively allows you to think outside of the box, to be a creative problem solver which is a skill you can use anywhere. You can take what you have learned and apply it in a unique way. Maybe it’s the artist in me (laughs).

…be a creative problem solver. You can take what you have learned and apply it in a unique way.

How do you measure success for yourself?

I don’t even think about it. I think about finishing and delivering a project. It isn’t the money. It isn’t the glory. It’s the challenge of building something from scratch or rebuilding and seeing it work well in practice.

It isn’t the money. It isn’t the glory.

Have you had any mentors that have helped you along the way?
There was a particular AVP who was instrumental in helping me move through different positions in Canada Trust. As well, the Chief Compliance Officer at TD said something to me that I will never forget. I was in his office and I wanted a certain position. I was talking around the topic and finally he looked directly at me and said, “If you don’t ask for something you aren’t going to get it.” So I blurted out, “Okay, I want that job” and he responded “Ok”.

If you don’t ask for something you aren’t going to get it.

What advice would you offer for someone who wants to change industries?
a) Learn about the industry and the company. Find people that work in that industry or a particular company and ask them everything you can.

b) Develop a skill that is in demand. People are willing to give you a shot if the skill is scarce and you are talented.

c) Keep an open mind and don’t try to superimpose your past experience on that new environment. Not every company works the same way but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

d) Listen and ask questions. Gauge the people you are working with. Chances are they will welcome your questions, or at least be supportive of you asking them. It wastes a lot of time to try and figure things out yourself – shows initiative but no one has time to waste.

Suzanne Ryan’s success is due to a willingness to see opportunity in adversity, and to be flexible enough to shift to a “Plan B” if the need arises. She has a formidable work ethic and a tenacious spirit. She asks for what she wants and does not apologize for doing so. At the same time she has an artistic, creative way of looking at problems, and a willingness to ask questions, even if the answers seem self-evident. All of these qualities have meant that Suzanne has achieved success in her career and I personally can’t wait to see what comes next.