Reimagining Leadership Roles: The Power of Cross-Industry Experience – interview with Theresa Rynard

Reimagining Leadership Roles: The Power of Cross-Industry Experience – interview with Theresa Rynard
Categories
Diversity and Inclusion
Female Leaders
Insight
Leadership Skills

In today’s rapidly changing business environment, skills-first recruiting has emerged as a critical approach for organizations looking to stay competitive. This strategy emphasizes hiring based on core competencies and attributes rather than strictly adhering to industry-specific experience. Companies recognize the benefits of cross-industry expertise and the value of leaders who, throughout their careers, have demonstrated a capacity to thrive amid uncertainty. This approach is especially relevant in the world we live in today marked by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity—where adaptability and diverse perspectives are crucial for success.

In this context, Theresa Rynard, a seasoned executive with extensive experience across multiple industries, exemplifies the value of this approach. From her roles in consulting, property, mining, retail, energy, and finance to her leadership positions at American Express, Rio Tinto, and CBRE, Theresa has consistently demonstrated the importance of adaptability and curiosity. Her career transitions have broadened her skill set and provided unique insights that have driven significant organizational growth and transformation.

In this interview with Margaret Jaouadi, Theresa shares her journey, highlighting the strategic advantages of embracing diverse experiences and the critical skills needed to lead effectively in today’s dynamic business landscape.

Special thanks go to Jennifer Congdon, Chief Human Resources Officer at M Financial Group, for introducing Theresa to Margaret.

Margaret Jaouadi
Can you describe your current role and career path, and what motivated your transition to different industries?

Theresa Rynard
Well, I’ve recently moved back to the UK. Right now, aside from refurbishing our house, which feels like a full-time job, I’m doing some consulting, building my network, and looking for my next role. My most recent position was based in the U.S. as Global Chief Operating Officer for CBRE’s GWS Enterprise business. It was a fantastic job. I spent ten great years with CBRE, engaging in a range of interesting roles and projects.

To answer your question about transitioning to different industries, what motivates me is curiosity. I think there are two main factors. One is my internal curiosity—the desire to enter a new industry, discover new ways of doing things, solve new problems, face new challenges, and explore new opportunities. The other factor is the opportunities that arise externally. Sometimes the environment presents an opportunity, and when you look at it, you think, “Well, that would be fun. I haven’t done that before.”

I’ve moved into several different industries throughout my career. When I was consulting, I worked in retail, the energy industry, and the financial sector. I’ve also worked for American Express, the university sector here in the UK, Rio Tinto in mining, and then CBRE in the property industry. Even within CBRE, we had clients from various industries, which required a deep understanding of each. I love that variety.

Margaret Jaouadi
Can you give examples of benefits and unique perspectives have you brought to your roles from your previous industry?

Theresa Rynard
Sure. I think there’s a huge advantage to having a different perspective and being the person in the room who asks, “Why not?” or “Why do we do it that way?” The classic answer is, “Because that’s how we do it,” and I like to challenge that. What if we took two steps to the left instead? Sometimes it amounts to nothing, but sometimes it leads to fantastic solutions.

To give you some examples: when I was at American Express, we were probably the first Western company to do a big offshoring to India. We had 4,000 people in India way back in 2003. When I moved to CBRE and saw their offshore service center, I realized its value proposition was primarily low cost. Drawing from my experience at American Express, I knew it could be more than that—it could be a center of excellence. By consolidating people who serviced clients worldwide and investing in technology, we transformed that center into a global hub of excellence, tripling its size and delivering significant value to our clients.

At CBRE, I also worked extensively on the sales side. Initially, I was in business development, but later as COO and then as APAC CEO and Global COO, I often engaged with clients and participated in pitches. My procurement experience at American Express and Rio Tinto allowed me to understand what clients truly wanted. I remembered what frustrated me as a procurement head and used that insight to make our messaging more targeted and effective. Solving clients’ problems and making them look like heroes ensured long-lasting relationships.

Moving from American Express to Rio Tinto was a fascinating shift, especially during the mining boom. I learned a lot about health and safety, which I later applied in my role at CBRE. At Rio Tinto, I noticed they were spending a lot due to rapid growth, often paying more than necessary. My background at American Express, where cost and value were scrutinized closely, helped me identify and address these inefficiencies. By benchmarking costs and holding suppliers more accountable, I was able to secure more value for Rio Tinto.

Margaret Jaouadi
The benefits that transitioning between industries and roles can bring to a business and the significant value these transitions add is often difficult to present in a resume.

Theresa Rynard
It really can be. American Express was an amazing company for leadership and people development. I was able to bring some of those skills to my later teams, helping them gel together and build their skills. We focused on creating psychological safety, being rigorous while fostering a sense of belonging, and developing systems to engage people, drive more value, reward appropriately, and encourage discretionary effort.

Every company excels in some aspect of people leadership and development. Today, with the war on talent and the challenges of attracting and retaining people, the more experience your leadership has with effective techniques, skills, and processes for better people development and engagement, the more successful you’re going to be.

Margaret Jaouadi
What challenges did you face during your transition, and how did you overcome them?

Theresa Rynard
The challenges start right from the interview process through to when you get hired and meet your key stakeholders and team. When I was at AMEX, I went from being head of procurement for Asia Pacific to head of procurement and real estate for everything outside the US. I remember during my interview, I pitched my transferable skills because the obvious question was, “You’ve never run real estate before. How can you do this job?”

When I got the job and sat in front of my leadership team, I was very open on day one. I said, “I am not an expert in real estate, you guys are. However, I am an expert at running global virtual teams, understanding business needs, and translating them into problem-solving strategies using our resources. I know how to grow a business in a way that benefits the company, the client, and the team. Those are my skills. You have real estate expertise; I need your help, and I will help you too. Together, we can be greater than the sum of our parts.”

Talking in that way, without pretending, was crucial. I’d advise always being clear about your transferable skills and unique selling points. Don’t pretend to be an expert in areas where you’re not. People appreciate honesty. They like to help, but nobody likes someone who pretends to know everything when it’s clear they don’t. So, the biggest challenge is overcoming skepticism by listening, learning, not pretending, and adding big value.

I have an approach I always use: I walk the process. When I entered mining for the first time, I got a pair of boots and visited both an open-pit mine and a deep mine. I wanted to understand the entire process, how people felt about it, where we created and destroyed value, and where the risks were. Senior leaders, whether in the C-Suite or on the board, need to understand the risks and opportunities in the business.

Whenever I enter a new business, I ask detailed questions from the time a potential client has a need, understanding every step and who is involved. When I joined CBRE, I spent half a day with an engineer, learning about all the details. Although I couldn’t do the technical work, I learned which red lights should or shouldn’t be on and the critical difference between what issues needed immediate vs. planned attention.

My process involves asking questions, walking the process, and talking to business leaders about their current plans. Understanding where they want to be in three years helps me aim at the right targets. I also talk to clients because many people make assumptions about client needs without directly asking them. By doing these things, I develop a comprehensive picture of what needs to be done and continuously communicate my findings to the team. This approach builds respect and avoids the perception of being someone who thinks they know everything without understanding.

Margaret Jaouadi
How did you develop this approach?

Theresa Rynard
I think it’s just my natural style. Maybe it comes from moving around a lot as a kid, always figuring out new schools, new routes to the shops, and how to make new friends. My natural style is to dig in and learn. I think that’s key for a great leader. You need to know how to operate at 60,000 feet but also be able to pull down and understand the details enough to make informed decisions. You don’t want to stay bogged down in the details, but you need to grasp enough to understand the risks and opportunities and how to motivate your people.

Margaret Jaouadi
This approach not only builds respect but also creates allies. The person who comes in and wants to sweep the table clean and start from scratch often misses out. Instead, building on the good things that are already there and looking to improve them is more effective. First, you need to learn what exists and then figure out how you can add value.

Theresa Rynard
And even if you do decide that something needs to be wiped off the table, at least you’ve done it with some understanding.

Margaret Jaouadi
Which skills and attributes do you believe are most critical and transferable across industries for senior roles?

Theresa Rynard
I think team leadership is crucial. No matter what business you’re in, motivating a team and getting them to give you that discretionary effort is key. Strategy is also important—being able to create a strategy and translate it into operational plans. You don’t need to do it alone, but someone has to lead the charge. Creative problem-solving is essential because there will always be problems. Sometimes you know exactly what to do from experience, and other times, like during the pandemic, no one has a roadmap. I remember sitting with my leadership team in Asia, facing an unprecedented challenge, and saying, “I have no idea what the plan is, but we’ve got 12 smart people here, and we’re going to create one.”

Staying calm and taking problems in stride, even urgent or unfamiliar ones, is vital. I get excited by new challenges. Communication is another key area—you can never communicate enough, and it’s important to do so differently and appropriately at various levels of the business. You don’t talk to the engineering team the same way you talk to the board.

Influencing without authority is a skill I value highly. My first significant job was in the university sector here in the UK, where I learned this. In the public sector, you often have to influence people without having direct authority over them. This skill is critical in senior leadership roles, where you work with peers who may be equally strong or stronger in position than you. Getting people to understand the imperative and act because they want to, not because you tell them to, is essential.

So, in summary, team leadership, translating strategy to operations, creative problem-solving, effective communication, and influencing without authority are all critical. You need to take these challenges in stride and even enjoy them. We work long so it’s important to have some fun along the way.

Margaret Jaouadi
How can cross-industry experience make you a better leader?

Theresa Rynard
Rather than give a long answer, I’d sum it up like I did for someone about a board position the other day: it stops groupthink. And that’s crucial if we want to be successful. The days when companies could just keep doing what they do well and remain successful are over. Companies need to pivot constantly, considering disruptors, geopolitical changes, economic climates, and so on.

Having a board or senior leadership team with the same industry experience and skills doesn’t provide the diversity of thought needed; it leads to groupthink. Groupthink is fine if you’re on the right path, but when a disruptor comes along or you stumble, you need diverse perspectives to stay ahead. So, to sum it up: it avoids groupthink.

Margaret Jaouadi
I’ve noticed that many companies are strong supporters of promoting from within. Typically, they only hire externally for specific positions when there’s a skills gap or an urgent need. What are your thoughts on this approach?

Theresa Rynard
I think you need a combination of both. It’s really important to hire from within to show employees there’s career progression and that they’re valued. Companies that always hire senior leaders externally risk losing great people and fostering resentment. Mid-level roles, like Director or Vice President, can be especially challenging for external hires to assimilate into, whereas internal promotions can often get up to speed faster.

But you do need some external hires as fresh perspectives, experiences, and ideas are crucial. No one has all the skills, so whether you hire internally or externally, there will be gaps to support.

Trying to fit a round peg in a square hole just because you have to hire from within won’t help either. A combination of both internal and external hires promotes diversity of thought, which is harder to measure but vital for the success of businesses.

Margaret Jaouadi
How important is it to increase diversity and representation in senior roles, especially in male-dominated industries, and what steps can encourage this?

Theresa Rynard
If your goal is to create true diversity—diversity of gender, age, experience, thinking styles, physical and mental ability—you need to look beyond just industry experience. Take the mining industry, for example: if you only look for people with 20 years of mining experience, you’re mostly going to get men. To foster real diversity, you have to consider skills, experiences, and capabilities rather than just industry knowledge.

Boards have recognized this too. Traditionally, boards were filled by people who knew people, which meant they ended up with a lot of similar profiles. Now, they’re using recruiters to widen the pool. If you ask the ten men on the board for recommendations, they’ll likely suggest other men of similar backgrounds. To increase diversity, you have to be flexible and prioritize a candidate’s ability to listen, learn, and bring all their knowledge to the table over just their industry experience.

For instance, if you’re leading a team of engineers but you’re not an engineer, your job is to motivate them and understand where to step in to challenge and support, not to turn the screwdriver yourself.

Moreover, companies need to improve their induction processes. People switch jobs more frequently than in previous generations, and sometimes companies skimp on robust induction and training. Whether you’re bringing in someone from a different industry, a different company, or even promoting internally from a different department, support is crucial. A strong induction plan and a buddy system where new hires can safely admit what they don’t know are vital for success.

Margaret Jaouadi
What recommendations do you have for hiring leaders to consider cross-industry candidates? And what advice do you have for candidates to consider changing industries to enhance their skills?

Theresa Rynard
When it comes to hiring leaders, I have a couple of pieces of advice. First, identify the actual skills and attributes needed to be successful in that job. Look for those and robustly question candidates on them. It’s easy to spot if a leader is just following the same path they’ve always taken within their industry or if they can truly flex their transferable skills and get excited about new roles.

For example, if you need someone who excels at problem-solving, especially in crises, present them with a problem specific to your industry that they have no experience with. Don’t ask for the solution since they lack industry knowledge. Instead, ask them how they would approach solving it. What you’re looking for is their thinking process, whether they get flustered, if they genuinely apply their transferable skills, and how they’d utilize the industry experts in the room.

Be clear on the skills you want and rigorously test if the person knows how to transfer their skills. Ask them how they plan to get up to speed. They must understand this process rather than expecting a plan handed to them.

For those looking to improve their skills, the first piece of advice is to understand that new industries can expand your abilities. Realize that you won’t broaden your experience or skill set by doing the same thing repeatedly. Becoming an expert makes you very narrow, though deep. If you want more opportunities and experiences, you must drive that yourself.

A great way to do this is by exploring other industries, geographies, or even different departments within the same company. Reflect on what you’re good at, your transferable skills, where you’ve fallen short, and where you’ve excelled. Identify your superpowers and focus on them. Think about how and where you could apply these skills elsewhere, and pursue those opportunities. This preparation helps you answer those tricky questions from hiring leaders about situations you haven’t faced before.

Margaret Jaouadi
Doesn’t including industry experience in the list of requirements help mitigate risk and ensure that the candidate is a safe bet? Do hiring leaders need to be courageous to consider and propose candidates from outside their industry? What are your thoughts on this?

Theresa Rynard
I believe recruiters need to get back to basics and understand the root cause and the core problem they’re addressing. Are they seeking a leader with civil engineering experience or someone who can build a bridge? Because if it’s about physically constructing a bridge, I want someone with a civil engineering background, lots of experience, and a deep understanding of how weather impacts construction—after all, I don’t want that bridge collapsing when I’m driving across it. The role also matters; whether it’s hiring a business leader, head of sales, or someone to inspire a team of civil engineers, or perhaps to expand the business into new markets, drive exponential growth, simplify operations, and more. It’s crucial to be crystal clear on the actual question at hand. In these situations, I’m not necessarily looking for a civil engineer or someone with specific industry experience; I’m looking for someone who has successfully grown a business exponentially or navigated international expansion with a keen understanding of associated risks and opportunities.

So, clarity on what you’re truly seeking is key—employing that classic consulting approach of asking “why” multiple times until you get to the core issue. Once you’ve pinpointed that, finding the right solution becomes less about bravery and more about aligning the solution with the real problem at hand. When presenting candidates, it starts with framing the actual question and problem we’re addressing: “Here’s the challenge we’re tackling—does this solution resonate with everyone?”

Margaret Jaouadi
Any last remarks?

Theresa Rynard
I would encourage hiring leaders to look across industries, especially now when the ability to pivot quickly is crucial. The days of just doing what you’ve always done are over. This approach not only makes companies stronger but also requires a different way of thinking, as we’ve been discussing. For those who have a thirst for knowledge, a low threshold for boredom, or just curiosity, and who want to dive into some sticky situations and have some fun, it’s essential to seek out areas where you can gain that experience.

Personally, when I’m looking at roles, the question is always what would be exciting, what would be fun, what would be challenging, and where could I work with good people. Focusing on these aspects can lead you to the right opportunities. Hopefully, we’re moving away from the mindset of needing someone with 25 years of experience doing the same thing in the same industry. Sure, they know how to do it, but they often do it their way and can be pretty immovable because they’ve been doing it that way for so long. This approach might solve one problem, but it won’t necessarily make you the greatest company compared to your competitors.

Margaret Jaouadi
Thank you very much, Theresa, for this candid and deeply informative conversation.

For a confidential chat about how Pacific International can assist you with your Talent Acquisitions and Diversity challenges, please contact Manuel Preg or one of our Executive Search Consultants specialising in your sector.