Kim Ramko, Principal, Southeast Health and Life Sciences Industry Leader at EY

It’s July 3rd 2017. Kim Ramko’s travel schedule has been pretty hectic recently, even by her standards. She’s been spending a lot of time in places like Singapore, Shanghai, and Dubai, and today she’s in Europe. Her nine-year-old daughter is back home in Nashville, Tennessee, as is her mother, who’s seriously ill. The guy she’s been dating is in Switzerland, where he lives. Her phone rings. She answers it. Her house has burned down.

It says something about Ramko that, in the barrelling whirlwind of the story that is her career so far, this is the first time she really appears to draw breath. It’s taken this much.

Ramko has come a long way: Her first stop after university was Kimberly-Clark—a consumer products company—where she put her degree in computer information systems to use as a programmer and analyst: “I am an IT geek,” she reveals, “and proudly so.”

It was while she was working at Kimberly-Clark that Ramko had her first experience of working alongside consultants, and the style of working appealed to her: “I really enjoyed working with them and the approach resonated with me—I liked to work with the business side and I talked a lot!” Not long after, Ramko moved into a systems analyst role, travelling frequently and conducting training for business users on finance systems, working alongside EY. Changes in her personal life meant a transfer back to her hometown of Nashville, which led to her eventually taking an entry-level consulting position with KPMG. Once again she was focused on systems work, only now she was applying it to the insurance sector. She quickly moved from financial insurance into health insurance, before then moving into pharmaceuticals.

To say things went well is probably a bit of an understatement. Aged just 30, Ramko was made partner. Nobody had ever made partner that young at KPMG. Ramko puts the achievement down to the entrepreneurial environment at the firm, and to how much she liked the solutions-based nature of her role: “To me, that’s the most fun: seeing something that you’ve been a part of turn into reality, and seeing clients and people be successful with that.” It’s a theme that runs through Ramko’s career, but there’s another theme that’s been even more consistent:

“I’ve always been a travelling consultant. I guess that’s the one consistency. It’s just a matter of which company I’ve been working for.”

The next company Ramko worked for after KPMG was Unisys: “They were building up a consulting practice, and they were looking for Big Five—at the time—partners that could help them start businesses. They hired me to start their CRM life sciences practice.”

When you really listen to people and help them and adjust things around them for their environment, then you get tons more for the team’s benefit.

Being at the helm of an entirely new practice, in an entirely new arm of a firm, didn’t faze Ramko. Instead, she rolled up her sleeves and got stuck in, learning plenty from day one: “It was obviously a very technology-oriented company, and the practice I started grew into a business intelligence practice.” It was there that Ramko picked up solution patents and supported engineers, and where she even became the business architect behind various solutions, resulting in a stint in Australia where she trained the sales and marketing team.

After five years, Ramko decided to move on to CSC, running its global life sciences practice. The move gave her the chance to learn more about M&A. In fact, within her first week on the job she got involved in the targeting process that resulted in the acquisition of a mid-sized health and life sciences consulting firm—a US$500m deal.

It was to be one of many acquisitions in which Ramko was involved, leading to her being given responsibility for the integration of acquired businesses from the perspective of both people and products. “I really got to learn about running a true product business,” recalls Ramko. She also started to spend quite a lot more time in Europe and Asia. Despite being quite happy in this role, it wasn’t long before opportunity came knocking once again, this time in the form of a role as Life Sciences Leader for the Americas at EY.

Ramko’s achievements have been remarkable. From a collection of projects totalling US$45m she created a US$175m advisory practice. Then she took on a global life sciences role, and grew that area to US$375m, an achievement she describes as being on a par with being made a partner at 30: “I can remember being in this big meeting with our global life sciences advisory team and going through the results. There were 45 people in the room, mostly partners, that had taken time out of their schedules to come to a meeting to go through our accomplishments as a team over three years, and everybody stood up and gave each other a standing ovation.”

Ramko’s success is certainly of her own making, but she also admits to being very fortunate to have had several mentors throughout her career. “They helped me get up to speed on the business aspects, and supported me whenever I was stepping into roles.” As well as female partners from KPMG’s life sciences practice, Ramko picks out the then female CIO of Kimberly-Clark (also an ex-consultant) who, despite her crazy worklife schedule, would always take the time to check in with Ramko and say hi. “At the time, as a junior analyst, you don’t realise what a big deal that is,” she says.

The fact that many people simply took the time to help Ramko is something she says she’ll never forget: “For some reason it was the women that seemed to really go the extra mile and take the time. I think that had a big impact.” But there were men too: Ramko recounts an impressive list of male clients who had a huge influence on her career, including the CIO of American General, and the Senior VP of Marketing and the CEO of Solvay Pharmaceuticals. “It was a two-way street; I would bring things to them and they would also bring things to me.” Ramko believes that the eclectic blend of professional mentors she has had, especially over the course of her early career, has been instrumental in making her who she is today: “I think it takes a village, so to speak, of people to help bring you along during those early days and that has been reinforced during my time with EY and some of the mentorship I’ve had here.”

Mentorship clearly paid dividends: Ramko was eventually handed responsibility in the Southeast region for tax and assurance services within life sciences and healthcare, alongside her responsibility for advisory. It ramped what was already a busy life up another level.

And then the phone rang.

You sense, in speaking to Ramko, that she was already questioning whether she could keep up with the demands being placed on her, but receiving the news that her house had burned down suddenly catapulted those thoughts to the front of her mind. Her first response was predictably assertive: “I was like, oh God, okay, I can handle this.” But by the following week when her daughter went into hospital to have her tonsils removed, Ramko realised something needed to be done: “I thought, actually, this is crazy.”

The result was that Ramko asked for more support at work, and she got it. From there things improved and she was eventually able to get enough energy back to seek out her next big project: “Timing is everything,” she says. “You know they say one window closes and another one opens, and that’s the way things seem to have progressed.”

It sometimes takes seeing the edge of the cliff to re-evaluate one’s choices in life, and that’s certainly what seemed to happen to Ramko in this moment: “When you’re out of balance, you need to think about your priorities.” Just as she did for herself, she advises others facing similar crossroads in their careers to “try to set yourself up where you’re doing something you’re really passionate about, but while also taking care of family”. Now, we’re pleased to say, Ramko is happily married (to the partner who was based in Switzerland) and is also able to spend more time with Katy, her daughter, in preparation for her teenage years. Even when it’s not possible to be physically present, Ramko increasingly makes use of FaceTime to check in and go over homework. “Things like that really make a difference,” she says.

Ramko is also keen to see more balance in the male-female dynamic in the workplace. Recognising that women still struggle to get their voice heard in meetings, she cautions them against trying to act like men in an attempt to overcome this: “I tried that, and it just didn’t work for me. What I came around to is, look, either these guys are going to listen or they’re not. It’s their choice and I’m not going to be able to change them, and I don’t want to change me. Why should I have to change, when I’m not the one that’s truly got the issue?”

Of course that’s easier said than done. To help resist the pressure to conform to someone else’s standards, Ramko encourages everyone to find what she calls true sponsors: “not just mentors, the sponsors that you can trust and rely on”. The absence of any safe sounding boards around you can, Ramko feels, really hold you back. Worrying something may backfire on you, for example, may mean you don’t move at all: “It’s when you’re missing that true sponsorship, that’s when you question yourself more.” In consulting especially, Ramko believes that the value of sponsorship lies in the fact that it offers “guidance and emotional support as much as anything”.

Listening to employees to identify their passions, and helping them to pursue those passions, is a key part of Ramko’s own leadership philosophy: “I have found over the years that when you really listen to people and help them and adjust things around them for their environment, then you get tons more for the team’s benefit.” It’s also vital, she says, to do work you enjoy: “I think as long as you’re open to change, you also really need to take stock of what is it that you enjoy doing. Because if you’re passionate about what you’re doing you’re always going to do well.”

To me, that’s the most fun: seeing something that you’ve been a part of turn into reality, and seeing clients and people be successful with that.