Updated: Wednesday, September 27, 2017, 10:37 AM
Given executives’ temperaments, it’s never a surprise to hear that they competed in sports. But Kathleen O’Reilly, who manages 10,000 employees from New England to West Virginia as senior managing director of Accenture’s Northeast U.S. region, competed on a different front.
“Music was very, very much in my life,” said O’Reilly, who played classical piano in global competitions while in high school at Merion Mercy Academy.
Can you see any connections between your experience in music competitions and what you do now, leading a strategic consulting practice?
“When I went to school, I was used to competing, including against people from other countries. So I enjoyed, at a very early age, getting to know people from different countries. It wasn’t like today, where you’re all connected on the internet. We would sit in the back, and after a while, there’s only so much rehearsing you can do, so you start to get to know the person beside you. They were just really different. To some extent, that guided my love of this expansive global view.
Tell me about music from a competition point of view. It’s not exactly a team sport.
It’s certainly a team effort, when you take the parents and the driving and the teachers and the multiple coaches. An instrument like the piano, you’re not as much part of the orchestra. So it’s an individual instrument. That puts the challenge even more on the ability, your ability. You have to make sure you are fully there. People and judges know if you aren’t fully bringing yourself. And then you have to connect and make it not an individual thing, because music is such a shared experience.
The moment before you start to play, is that the same when you are addressing a large group as an executive? Is there something you do to prepare yourself in both instances?
Silence goes a long way. There’s a moment before anything where you stop rehearsing. You stop checking and practicing, whether it’s music or a speech. To some extent, I think you have to trust all that knowledge and all the studying, and quiet yourself. You put it aside and do whatever calms your mind. For me, that’s sitting in silence. Sometimes, I think, “What is the one thing you want people to leave with, or what is the feeling you want them to have?” vs. the exact notes or words, or whatever.
When do you find this time of quiet?
Usually, I do it beforehand for half an hour, or an hour. If I were to sit down and play, you would see me take a breath. Just breathing is a good thing. Just stop. If I were sitting at a piano, I would usually rest my hands on the keys. The timing’s up to you. Nobody’s going anywhere. They are anticipating, and there is no rush. You have to look at the audience.
When you told me the story about your sister playing, I drew a business lesson from it: how people can play the same music differently, and it is all beautiful.
My mom used to say that even from the kitchen, she could tell which one of us was practicing. Even if we played the same music, we played it very differently. It was very emotional. For me, to take that understanding, that the same thing, even with two sisters who were super-close, can be very different depending on the thought process and the emotions that the person’s feeling. It can be just as wonderful, just as beautiful, and just as competitive.
Do you still play, even for relaxation?
I don’t compete or perform. The thing that’s for me about music is that it is so encompassing. If I really want to play, it’s technical. It’s like being in shape. To some extent, I need to make sure I make time for it.
Is the problem that you aren’t happy unless you are at your peak performance?
Oh, no. I can have fun sitting down at the piano, and one of my children likes to sing, so we can have some fun.
Maybe you should get a piano for your office.
I don’t think we can get any in Accenture. We don’t have pianos in the office.
Title: Senior managing director, U.S. Northeast region, since December.
Home: West Chester.
Family: Married with three sons, ages 2 through 20.
Diplomas: Merion Mercy Academy; Princeton University, public and international affairs.
To relax: Hanging out with the baby. With two older ones, she knows the time flies by.
Binge watch: Homeland.
What: Strategic and technology consulting company working in 40 industries in 120 countries.
Where: Dublin, Ireland.
U.S. Northeast region: 11 states, from New England through West Virginia, including Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware.
Employment: 411,000 worldwide; 50,000 in U.S.; 10,000 in U.S. Northeast including 2,400 in Philadelphia, Berwyn and Wilmington.
Dollars: $3.6 billion in net income on revenues of $36.8 billion in fiscal year ending Aug. 31, 2017.
Read full story: For Philly exec, music was a rehearsal for life