When Jonathan O’Toole was in school in Limerick, Ireland’s economy was growing so powerfully it was dubbed the Celtic Tiger. A few years later, when he was deciding on his future career, the 2008 Global Financial Crisis (GFC) had ended all that.
“I always wanted to become a solicitor, and I actually did law and accounting in university,” says O’Toole in his warmly Irish accent. “But Ireland was still recovering from the crash. It was a weird time generally, and there weren’t a lot of opportunities in law.”
Luckily, he had a solid plan b. Many of O’Toole’s relatives were accountants who’d always wanted him to join the family accounting tradition, which he finally did. His embrace of numbers over words soon saw him working with the international business services company, Deloitte, in the Dublin office of their corporate finance division.
He enjoyed the work and was there for nearly five years. It cemented his numbers skill set but O’Toole found himself thinking about his future and what he really wanted it to be. He felt that his parents had worked hard so he could have choices in life, and he needed to make something of that.
“I always kind of promised myself that if I could, I'd jump back into study again with maybe a Master of Business Administration (MBA),” he says. “Some of that was about career progression, but it was also a life decision. I wanted it to give me the chance to live in another part of the world.”
Where exactly he didn’t know, so he threw his MBA net wide applying to universities in the US and the UK, as well as the University of Sydney. He had a number of acceptances but chose Sydney.
With all the phone calls I had with the University faculty, they seemed to have a strong duty of care. They gave me really useful insights and perspectives on leveraging an MBA to help you thrive in modern working environments
Then there was what the course itself offered. “I didn't need an MBA with a big financial focus - I had that from my work. But the Sydney course was mostly around leadership, innovation, strategic thinking, critical analysis. It all pushed me towards choosing the University of Sydney.”
The only problem was COVID. With the world in COVID lockdown, O’Toole’s studies began online from Ireland. The time difference meant he couldn’t view some of the lectures live but the remote study brought some benefits.
“The lecturers would keep a bit more of an eye on you, and the group sessions with them would be a bit smaller so you could ask more questions,” O’Toole says, adding that the progress continued when he arrived in Sydney and he was able to meet his cohort, lecturers and mentors in person. He found this improved his networking opportunities and it confirmed that he’d chosen the right MBA to do.
Being exposed to real-world problems and people from different career backgrounds and countries completely changed my problem solving and how I communicate with people. It gave me the ability to ask the right questions.
As it turned out, asking the right questions was at the heart of the next role O’Toole took on as he moved to Sydney and into the field of Transaction Strategy & Execution (TSE) with EY-Parthenon, a global business strategy consultancy that is part of the Ernst & Young group. As a member of the TSE team, O'Toole works extensively on value creation projects that help clients achieve their strategic objectives with a focus on driving growth and optimising operations.
The deep understanding that O’Toole needs for this doesn’t come from company management giving rote answers to standard questions. He needs the insights and honesty that can only happen through a trusting connection. To do this he uses the dynamics of communication that he learned through his MBA.
“Much of my prior work was done from a desk, but now I love the stakeholder engagement side of things,” says O’Toole. “By really talking with people you get to know the business pain points, the big stuff and the small.”
By conducting analysis and research, valuable insights emerge that allow O’ Toole and his team to give organisations what they need for informed decision making to drive meaningful transformation. O'Toole does this as he engages with clients and EY-Parthenon colleagues both domestically and internationally.
“I’ve had people I work with comment on how quickly I build a rapport with clients, which is really good to hear,” says O’Toole. “After a long period focussed mainly on accounting and finance I’ve worked hard to improve my communication and interpersonal skills. It’s made my professional relationships much stronger and more productive.”
O’Toole is grateful that his career shift has gone so well, and he is loving his new life in Australia (“It wasn’t such a brave move though. I already had big support system, including my sister being here”). However, he does have two reservations.
“I really miss my family, of course. But another heartbreaker is missing the rugby at home,” he says. “You just can’t replicate the excitement of my team Munster playing in a European cup game.”
Written by George Dodd.