Regina Mayor, Global Sector Head, Energy and Natural Resources, KPMG

As KPMG’s Global Sector Head and the US National Sector Leader of Energy and Natural Resources, Regina Mayor’s original goal in life may strike some as somewhat surprising: “What I had originally wanted to do was to be an actress. I wanted to perform on Broadway.” While she didn’t quite stick to that plan, she may have hit closer to the mark than the casual observer would assume. As she tells it, “Consulting still allows me to perform because now I’m on stage a lot, I do a lot of public speaking, and I’ve recently been interviewed quite a bit on television, so I feel like I’ve come full circle!”

Looking for a middle ground between her passion for performing and a more stable career, Mayor studied communications at Cornell University on an Army scholarship, and it was here that her interest in government work was first sparked. As Mayor explains, these were the first steps on a career that wasn’t about planning so much as following her interests and taking opportunities as they arose, all without knowing where the path would ultimately lead. “I would characterise it as being in the right place at the right time and making incremental decisions that ultimately add up to a whole that is an overall successful career, and which makes me happy and pays the bills and allows me to be influential and be with my family.

I realised when my children were very young that they were going to come first, and everything else would have to come second, and that’s how I structured my career going forward

After graduating from Harvard University with a master’s degree in public policy in 1991, Mayor initially wanted to enter the civil service, but decided on a stint in the private sector to help pay off her student loans. As it turned out, this wasn’t the brief detour she expected. It was, instead, how she ended up finding her life’s work. “I started working as a consultant with Price Waterhouse. I was a government consultant, so my first clients were the IRS, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and I fell in love with consulting; the challenge of taking a problem and trying to figure out how to fix it. It had a lot to do with people, organisation, process flows, technology, and quickly I became very passionate about consulting.”

In 1993 she moved to Houston and began working at Ernst & Young as an energy consultant. One assignment found her working in a refinery for several years. During this time, she became fascinated by the energy sector, and has now amassed 25 years of experience in the field. The most rewarding aspect, she says, is the opportunity to continually find new ways of applying her skills and experience to solve clients’ biggest challenges. “For me, it’s about bringing different parts of myself to each of those interactions and finding ways to connect authentically with each of those people.”

You definitely see instances of women being labelled as aggressive when a man doing the exact same thing would be called decisive.

Of course, there’s more to life than work, but for a high-flier like Mayor, it’s not always easy to give family the attention it deserves. For Mayor, unapologetic prioritisation has empowered her to be the person she wants to be, both at home and in her career. “I realised when my children were very young that they were going to come first, and everything else would have to come second, and that’s how I structured my career going forward.”

Asked how she balances her demanding work commitments with life as a mother of two, she replies “We all suffer mom guilt,” but her dedication to putting her children first has made saying “no” to meetings and business trips a lot easier. Finding the strength to say “no” has allowed her to have more meaningful involvement in her children’s lives—she recounts, for example, a fun afternoon spent serving lunch to the teachers at her daughter’s middle school and serving as room mom in her son’s class. And it’s taught her that it’s okay to set her own priorities. Mayor hopes that her continued success will reassure working mothers that, as long as they perform, strategically saying “no” shouldn’t damage their career. Rather it should be recognised as a powerful tool for enabling the “ruthless prioritisation of what’s important”.

 Mayor also credits her colleagues, and their mutual dedication to creating a supportive environment, for making sure that everyone is able to tend to the things that matter most, both at home and at work. At times when it has all seemed like too much, the close professional relationships Mayor has so enjoyed developing have helped to see her through. She describes how, during one particularly trying period, her colleagues were there for her when she needed them most: “I realised that I could do this, and frankly the family that I had at work was going to help me make it through. I was fortunate to have that at Capgemini, and I’ve found the same thing at KPMG. That’s the magic of the kind of work that we do and how we rally together.”

Despite mastering the art of the well-placed “no,” Mayor still finds plenty to say “yes” to, and that results in a life that is a constant balancing act and multi-tasking challenge. Even as we interview her by telephone, she is doing two things at once, warning “You can probably hear me packing for my weekend trip.” She admits to keeping a relentless schedule that leaves her exhausted by the end of most days, but she’s quick to note that it’s enormously rewarding to know she’s making the best use of her time with her children and at work. One gets the definite impression that she wouldn’t have it any other way.

Unfortunately, trying to strike the right work-life balance isn’t the only challenge facing working women. Among the most frustrating, Mayor tells us, is when people make assumptions about who she is, what she wants, and what she will be willing or unwilling to do based on the fact of her being a woman. She shares a story from her early days as Global Sector Head at KPMG: “One of the things I had to overcome was a perception that I was going to be very US-centric—or even Houston-centric—and wouldn’t be willing to travel and do some of the other things the job requires. There was this idea that, ‘Oh she won’t want to travel, she won’t be willing to go to the Far East and leave her kids… .’” She also finds that asserting yourself can be perceived very differently for women: “I do believe women face a barrier in terms of being thought of as bossy just for doing the things that need to be done. You definitely see instances of women being labelled as aggressive when a man doing the exact same thing would be called decisive.”

While gendered obstacles should not exist, Mayor is a big fan of taking the lessons learned from staring down and defeating those obstacles and translating them into ever-greater success. She firmly believes that identifying the positives that emerge from the negatives is key, and it’s a philosophy that she has applied in her own life with aplomb. “I take the challenges I’ve had in my personal life, and I ask, ‘what’s the positive outcome?’ The fact that I’m super-close with my kids, that I learned the lesson early on about prioritising them and putting them first, the way this is helping me to live my life so that I’ll have no regrets when I go to my grave—which hopefully is decades from now. All of these are positives that came out of things that were very difficult at the time.”

Challenging times in her working life have also yielded valuable lessons: “I left my home in Hawaii to go to New York at a very young age—what did it teach me? How to be incredibly resilient and adaptive to lots and lots of different cultures. I was in the military, I jumped out of airplanes, I drove tanks. I am not a physically dominating person. I got hurt, I hated it, there are so many things I hated about it. What did I learn? That I’m stronger than I think I am, and perhaps how to leverage other people to get things done.”

At the close of our time together, we asked Mayor for some advice for women who are just starting out in their careers. Initially, she demurs with a laugh, telling us, “I don’t have any good platitudes yet.” Still, like the true professional she is, she delivers the goods all the same. First, she tells us, “If you just bring your most competent and your most confident self to every situation, every single day, you will be successful.” After that, she adds: “You must always be true to yourself—really understand what’s important to you and run your whole life according to those values.” And finally, she stresses that even as you’re trying to live up to those important dictates, you must always show yourself kindness: “Don’t beat yourself up.” From a woman who has made a fantastically successful career and life by leaning into unexpected twists and turns, it rings as particularly solid advice.