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Lessons of experience: Susan Acker-Walsh

Susan Acker-Walsh - UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School

Susan Acker-Walsh (EMBA ’97)

Susan Acker-Walsh’s (MBA ’97) career has spanned from education to executive leadership and entrepreneurship. The founder of Acker-Walsh Leadership Consulting LLC shared insights and lessons learned with students at UNC Kenan-Flagler’s 2016 MBA Leadership Day.

Embrace change.
With an entrepreneurial spirit ingrained in my early drive to succeed, I idolized the stable careers of my grandfathers, who had both grown with the same companies for decades. But this professional fantasy wasn’t my reality.

Instead, it became very clear that nurturing my career during its early stages would involve instability and complexity. The companies I worked with as a young professional were being bought and sold, and my educational aspirations were unexpectedly evolving. Change was the constant, and I had to get comfortable with it.

Make opportunities count.
When an opportunity arises, understand that you can’t be sure that you’ll ever get it again. Embedding a strong work ethic into your early career allows you to take advantage of hidden opportunities, ultimately producing invaluable life experience.

After giving up a fully paid scholarship to graduate school, my opportunities came from the knowledge I gained through years of on-the-job experience. I was learning and beginning to live my own truth on a journey to self-discovery.

When I was a student in the Executive MBA program, my career was all about change. I changed jobs twice before finishing the program. On top of that, I was developing my company and it was growing rapidly. In a three-month period, we raised $20 million for our venture-backed business.

Be present in your life.
The greatest struggles in my life evolved from an absence in my personal life. While the first 10 years of my career were about professional advancement, the next 10-15 years were about introspection.

It’s important to live your life with intention and have integrity as a leader. And most importantly, have a whole life. For me, this meant making a name for myself and my career by going beyond expectations of hard work.

What will truly distinguish you is an ability to be authentic and have integrity and to stand in the hard times instead of walking away. Give yourself permission to make mistakes and move forward. Once you’re true to yourself, you can lead effectively.

Above all, consider the journey you wish to take to become a successful leader. I’ve learned that what matters most is being proud of the person you are and knowing you’ve made an impact in a way that you value.

The journey of a leader is one of introspection and transformation. Make it count.