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Samantha Keen: 'Don’t be afraid to take risks!'

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Samantha Keen, Partner, EY UKI Strategy and Transactions.

The true mark of leadership is an ability to make well-informed, sometimes difficult choices. By that measure, our guest on this episode of Leaders With Ambition has undeniably demonstrated strength again and again throughout her career.

Samantha Keen couldn’t have made Partner at a Big Four accounting firm (while also raising two children) without very intentionally cultivating clarity, both professional and personal. She shares with host Nicky Acuna Ocana her journey to leading EY-Parthenon’s UKI Strategy and Transactions team, including bumps and revelations along the way.

You’ll learn about how it feels to be among the only women in a boardroom as well as why the areas of corporate insolvency and restructuring have made such a great fit for Samantha, her skill set and personality.

She also touts the importance of networking (early and often!) as well as staying authentic (to yourself and others) throughout the whole career trajectory. Find out about some of the big challenges impacting global corporate transactions and which have been some of Samantha’s most treasured career highlights, along with words of wisdom you won’t want to miss.

“It’s a question of understanding what you want and then articulating it – because nobody’s going to articulate it for you!”, says our guest, a long-time champion of women and inclusive workplaces. Wise words indeed from Samantha!

If you enjoyed this discussion, please click here to find previous episodes of Leaders with Ambition.

Key Takeaways

Starting out

Samantha determined very early on – and fortuitously – that auditing was not going to be her passion, which she instead quickly (again, fortuitously) found instead in corporate recovery and insolvency. Her early (and empowering) introduction was helping clients in distress and turning businesses around, saving jobs and enabling debt repayment.

Valued partnerships

What it means to build and fortify solid, trust-based relationships over time – especially when the going gets rough!

End of ambition?

Samantha’s experience as a woman at risk of “mummy tracking” and how a well-timed sabbatical from PWC afforded Samantha the opportunity to get clear about two career goals: Becoming an insolvency practitioner and making Partner.

Up to the challenge

What it looked like to prepare for, take and prevail over the notoriously challenging Joint Insolvency Examination Board.

Work-life balance

Moving to Grant Thornton made an organic next step – one that aligned both with Samantha’s ambition and starting a family (while also making Partner!).

Pivotal pivot

Samantha’s decision to spearhead a new national team at Grant Thornton focused on solvent liquidations and group reorganisations (known as the Corporate Simplification Group), cultivating new and valuable skill sets along the way.

Leaning into leadership

Samantha’s CV perfectly positioned her to become EY-Parthenon’s COO for UKI Strategy and Transactions and ultimately a Turnaround and Restructuring Partner.

Confronting pandemic

The unique and unexpected challenges Covid presented Samantha, who juggled stressful roles managing both client and employee well-being.

Smart strategy

Why going early to events opens up easier communication and connection if you’re among the only women in the room. Take the opportunity to build self-confidence and embrace being memorable!

Overcoming self-doubt

How Samantha combats Impostor Syndrome by being diligent and regarding herself as others do – as a leader up to the task!

Giving back

Why Samantha felt it was important to dedicate time and promote inclusion through a series of board leadership roles at the Insolvency Practitioners Association.

Challenges facing firms

  • Economic and geopolitical fallout impacting transactions.

  • The public collapse of EY’s Everest Project.

  • Uncertainty associated with international electoral politics.

Career highlights

  • Making Partner at a Big Four firm – both salaried, then equity.

  • Taking on and managing the complex, constantly evolving role of COO.

Career challenges

  • A destabilising early divorce (that ultimately invited important self-knowledge).

  • Taking hard decisions that impact people personally.

  • Navigating through fluctuations and unknowns (which can also be opportunities).

Words of wisdom

  • 'Keep your eyes – and mind – open!'

  • 'Don’t be afraid to take the occasional risk.'

  • 'Seek the counsel of trusted friends and mentors.'

  • 'Make active choices that don’t compromise your aspirations and priorities.'

Key Quotes

  • “(If) you start to build your network – particularly if you start to engage with individuals of your level … you will grow through your career at the same rate, hopefully as they are growing through their careers.”

  • “When you’re working together and you’re in the trenches and not everything goes right all the time … (it’s important to have) relationships that you can fall back on and that you’ve built over time. That trust will help carry you through.”

  • “Even though I’ve been ambitious and I’ve always wanted to be the best… I have also always had an eye to what else I want outside of my business life. Having a good home relationship, having a family.”

  • “If you are the only (woman) at an event …lean into it and use it because you will be remembered and that will benefit you and help build your network as well.”

  • “It’s always been my passion to optimise or maximise potential in people … (and) it’s well known that women tend not to push themselves forward for promotion.”

  • “It’s a question of understanding what you want and then articulating it because nobody’s going to articulate it for you!”

  • “I’ve always learned through consultation, talking about what’s going on with the relevant people.”

  • “Don’t be afraid. Definitely take opportunities and choices. And I think what you’ve done incredibly well is remain your authentic self throughout your entire career!” (Nicky)

About Samantha Keen

Samantha leads EY Global Legal Entity Rationalization and is the EY UK&I Strategy and Transactions COO. She has worked in the restructuring arena for more than 25 years. Over the past 10 years, she has focused solely on providing solvent restructuring approaches to meet clients’ needs.

She has led the project management and assisted in the implementation of legal entity rationalization schemes for numerous quoted and private entities located in both the UK and overseas and has particular experience with Japanese, European and US controlled groups. In providing complex and flexible approaches, Samantha helps clients release value through streamlining corporate structures and eliminating non-core or underperforming businesses.

About Nicky Acuna Ocana

Nicky has led high performing recruitment teams for over 22 years. As the Regional Managing Director of Ambition UK, Europe & US, she leads a team of highly-skilled recruitment consultants who are experts in their niche specialist areas. 

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