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Journeyman to the top

Published on Saturday, 11 Oct 2014
Barry Salzberg
Photo: Deloitte

Deloitte global CEO Barry Salzberg has built his career on consistency and preparation rather than ambition, writes John Cremer.

For much of Barry Salzberg’s 38-year career, the prospect of leading a 210,000-strong professional services firm never crossed his mind. Having qualified as an accountant, his main goal early on was simply to make tax partner in the local office and build a respectable client base. But his talents were spotted, one thing led to another and now, as global chief executive of Deloitte, he heads an organisation with a truly worldwide reach. 

“I was not ambitious early in my career,” says New York-based Salzberg who, by necessity, spends much of each year on the road. “I was a journeyman, who loved serving clients and doing tax work, rather than a seeker of leadership roles. But someone in the office, who became my ‘champion’, came to me, said I had the qualities to be a leader, and wanted to give me additional responsibility and experience and to take on a bigger job.” 

As it turned out, that scenario was to happen again and again over the next two decades. Without pushing his own case, Salzberg stood out as someone who could get the best out of other people and had the ability to get things done. 

However, he doesn’t discount the importance of having mentors and supporters who were always ready with advice and offers of assignments providing broader exposure to the work of different parts of the group. One move involved extra P&L responsibility. Another brought more oversight of non-tax work. Some were difficult and unexpected – and not entirely welcome. 

But, essentially, at each successive step, Salzberg proved he was able to deliver. Along the way, he made a point of maintaining clear practices and strong principles in running the business. Today, that consistency still guides everything he does and what he expects of the firm.

“I am a stickler for being prepared and not waiting till the last minute,” he says. “I don’t like surprises and I try to manage myself accordingly.” 

Before Deloitte, Salzberg worked a part-time job in the payroll department of the New York City Board of Education, taken to help his family make ends meet. He also had summer jobs as a travel agent as he studied accounting at Brooklyn College, and then law at Brooklyn Law School, after which he joined Deloitte. A master’s in taxation law from New York University Law School was to follow later. 

“I started as a math major – that was my best subject in high school – and thought I could leverage that to be an actuary, a statistician or a math teacher,” he says. “I really enjoyed the concept of teaching, but my wife and her family suggested I could do ‘better’, so I changed my major to accounting, which at that time was regarded as a very good profession to go into.” 

Content with life in New York, Salzberg didn’t put his hand up for transfers and saw no need to job-hop to other firms. Thoughts of advancement were a distant consideration until he got that fateful tap on the shoulder. 

In many ways, his big break came when Deloitte merged with Touche in 1989. Though a partner for four years at that stage, Salzberg knew positions in the merged firm were up for review. The new leader for the tax function was from Touche and had a process for partner selection which involved a week-long programme of tests, observation and workshops in a very intense setting. 

 “I thought it was not a particularly good idea to pick partners based on a week’s worth of performance after years of good work,” Salzberg says. “The next day, I got an email inviting me to be leader of the committee for partner selection. I didn’t like it, but I did it, because I was committed to the firm and it was a chance to learn.” 

Now, Salzberg oversees practices in everything from tax, audit and advisory to risk, compliance and consulting. The partnership structure and office locations in 150 countries demand expertise in building consensus. Meanwhile, the ever shifting nature of the business requires a deft touch in dealing with clients, regulators and employees – not to mention considerable stamina. 

“I read briefings, make sure I totally understand a situation, and never go into a meeting with clients or colleagues if unprepared; that would be detrimental to my ability to lead,” he says. 

“On the people front, so much depends on how you recruit, develop, motivate and retain. I believe in taking people on a journey and getting them involved in the decisions. It is difficult to do, but if not, you might have no followers, especially when there are multiple points of view on a subject.”

Given a chance to relax, Salzberg is happy to sit by the swimming pool at home, is a keen Sudoku fan and loves playing videos game on the iPad, but he rarely risks switching off the mobile phone, having found that doing so simply builds stress rather than relieving it. 

“I am always on call and, wherever I go, there is a high likelihood that there will be someone who knows me,” he says. “Outside work, though, I am far less disciplined and am not the kind who needs to ‘achieve’ in other areas.” 

On concluding his four-year term next June, he therefore plans a change of pace and direction by taking up a teaching post at New York’s Columbia Business School and, ideally, accepting two directorships with public companies and two with not-for-profit organisations. 

“My first courses will be on trends in consulting, human capital, and managing high-performing teams,” he says. “I did some teaching at night school back in the 1980s for a master’s course on the technical aspects of accounting. But I feel it is now time to ‘pay it forward’ in practical ways and continue my commitment to community service.”

A pinch of Salzberg

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Be self-aware “You are a steward acting for everyone in the organisation. It is not your company to run; it is a partnership.” 

Build consensus “This is far more important for effective leadership than adopting an approach that says ‘I’m the boss and you do what I want.’” 

Respect different cultures “By the very nature of global business, you are part of a multicultural environment and can’t assume that your own culture, or the way Americans do something, is the only way.” 

Distinguish yourself “In a business model like ours, you have a term-specific timeframe to make your mark. The partnership is bigger and more sustainable than just one person. Someone else will take it on after you.”


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