Recent MBA alum, Devin Ruthstrom, had the opportunity to attend breakfast with Judge Sven Erik Holmes, the Vice Chair of Legal and Compliance at KPMG, along with other students as a part of a program sponsored by the Center for Professional Responsibility in Business and Society on campus. Devin had such an amazing experience at this breakfast, that he agreed to write a guest blog capturing this event. Read his story below:
As Judge Holmes walked into the board room, I watched him slowly make his way around the room introducing himself and attempting to make the students feel comfortable, even though he himself was the guest. Two of his colleagues, Kurt Gabouer and Robert Litt also did the same, introducing themselves by their first names only, even though they serve as co-partners of KPMG in audit and advisory, respectively.
When the official discussion began, students introduced themselves and mentioned something that they would like to learn from Judge Holmes during the breakfast. Several undergraduate students asked questions regarding Judge Holmes and the ethical dilemmas he has dealt with throughout his career. Holmes began by discussing a major dilemma that occured when he started with the company five years prior. The company was under heavy investigation by federal regulatory bodies as a result of some tax sheltering for clients of KPMG. KPMG's immediate response was an acceptance of responsibility for wrongdoing as an organization along with whatever consequences would be assigned. They then directly reached out to all of their clients to inform them of the problems, and then reached out to KPMG's own people to equip them with the resources they needed to deal with this issue. The clients respected this action, and thus, the firm did not lose a single client.
Holmes fully believes and articulated that, above anything else, to be successful in business the business depends on your people—from recruiting, to selection, to training to retention initiatives, HR has a strong influence in driving the business forward. Building on those people, Holmes noted, was the mission, mutual respect, and values that constituted the organizational culture. Holmes advised all students in the room that the number one decision making criteria for joining an organization should be the question, "Are my values completely aligned with the organization and its people?"
I found the opportunity to ask the following question to Judge Holmes: "You know, there are several individuals that you went to undergrad and law school with, and not all of those people are where you are today, even as Harvard graduates. What are some of the key driving success factors that got you to where you are today?" Holmes responded that beyond personal drive and focus, there was one key element to his success: respect. To him, respect meant mutual respect for every colleague he works with regardless of their status—everyone's ideas have value. Having listened to hundreds of juries after court decisions had been made, he was always amazed by the amount of commitment and respect these groups had for each other, resulting in far more collective intelligence beyond that of a single person.
Holmes concluded the morning's breakfast by discussing ways in which an organization can create a culture of professional responsibility and ethics, and how that culture can be communicated in a meaningful and relevant way to the organization's people. Ultimately, Holmes noted, "People must feel like they can safely raise their hands to any leader in the company, and report to people that they know."
We are so fortunate to be able to interact with such prominent figures in business while at the University of Illinois—I deeply appreciate Devin being able to share this experience with me and the rest of the MBA program.