Maria Pinelli always waits until the spring to make big decisions. And it’s a good thing, because she may not be where she is today—leading Ernst & Young’s Americas Strategic Growth Markets—had she made hasty choices early in her career.
Pinelli began her first job very tentatively. The native Canadian earned a Bachelor of Commerce degree at McMaster University and had received an offer from Ernst & Young (E&Y). She became a Chartered Accountant at E&Y, but she told the firm not to staff her on any large assignments. She had one foot out the door before she even started. “I was looking for a profession that gave me a holistic view of business, and at first, it didn’t appear to me that accounting would offer that,” she admits.
But she found that an incredible career had an off-putting way of introducing itself. As she expected, her first assignments were on the audit side, and the work seemed tedious and unrewarding. “When you’re doing that kind of work early in your career, you’re learning the most critical skills you’ll ever need, but you don’t realize it,” she says. “Audits are experiences in and of themselves; they help you understand how a business really works.”
Heeding her mother’s advice, “Don’t sell the farm in the winter,” she stuck out those first few assignments. “It’s tough to stay the course when it doesn’t feel like it’s going well,” Pinelli elaborates. “But you always approach an issue with a better perspective once you’re through the worst of it. You can assess much better whether something is a deal breaker after it’s behind you.”
The turning point came for Pinelli when she received an assignment with a foreign company that was looking to acquire an American company. Involved in analyzing the rewards and risks of the proposal, she was fascinated by the work. “I stayed for that project, and that was over 20 years ago,” she says incredulously.
In an era of job mobility where career switching is more common than not, Pinelli seems to have taken a more traditional, linear path within a single company. She credits the vast opportunities available within E&Y, and says she never thought of it as a straight shot. “I’ve been in four different locations in Canada and two in the United States, and each time I’ve been outside my comfort zone and it’s been like starting over again,” she says. “The assignments and opportunities I’ve had have been a privilege.”
In her current role, Pinelli is responsible for services and practice in high-growth markets throughout the Americas. Traveling extensively, she advises clients on advancing their growth strategies, takes companies through the IPO process, and plays a key role on the teams that ensure integrity in corporate financial reporting. With broad knowledge of growth markets around the world, she also spends time in Washington educating lawmakers about where the United States sits globally: she’s testified before Congress on the global IPO market and the competitive position of the United States, and she’s briefed members of the House Financial Services Committee, the Senate Banking Committee, the U.S. Treasury, the SEC, and the PCAOB.
Her experiences at E&Y have definitely enabled her to gain the holistic view of business that she had hoped for as a new graduate. “As my career started, I realized that E&Y’s role in businesses is much more than accounting. It’s offering business advice, working with clients to advance their goals, helping them grow, developing partnerships. I quickly saw that there is a link between accounting services and helping companies grow and succeed, and that was and continues to be very important to me.” What’s more, Pinelli says that even more than heavy analytical skills, her job requires business acumen and interpersonal skills—personal assets she’s enjoyed building over the years.
Pinelli believes that E&Y’s very strong “people culture” has played a large role in her career advancement. It fit in perfectly with her own values. “Family was always very important,” she says “We were and are close, and we respect each other. My upbringing was all about what you could do, not what you couldn’t do.” Her parents, immigrants from Italy, were true entrepreneurs, arriving in North America with very little. Her father founded a cheese factory and her mother bought and sold real estate. “My mother was a risk-taker and she always saw failure as an opportunity to learn; she had a very positive attitude.”
And she had an expectation that her children put their best foot forward at all times. To this day, when Pinelli visits her mother in Toronto, she says she stops at the beauty parlor on the way home to freshen up. “If I walk in the house looking ragged from traveling, she says, ‘What, you couldn’t put on a little make-up?’”
“With young women, there’s this whole issue of self-esteem, and anything you can do to give them more of it is important,” says Pinelli, who has a supportive husband, a daughter in college, and a younger son at home. “I think my mother’s on to something because she just never let us dwell on negative things. She’d say, ‘Chin up! Go get your hair done!’ She always encouraged us and supported us.”
Consequently, Pinelli’s biggest piece of advice for women just beginning their careers is to surround themselves with supportive people “Who can’t say that they owe their career to someone who took a chance on them?” Pinelli asks.