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  • Lessons on Leadership and Mentorship


    By Tom Hanlon

    Byron Spruell cuts an imposing figure on stage. He is tall, and built like, well, you would expect a former Notre Dame football co-captain to be built. He spent his football career blocking for Heisman Trophy winner Tim Brown. He has spent his career at Deloitte in similar fashion, helping others ascend as he himself has ascended – to vice chairman, Central region and Chicago managing principal.

    While speaking to students at a recent lyceum in, appropriately enough, Deloitte Auditorium, he pointed to a picture of him blocking for Brown. “It’s all about helping people to succeed,” he said. “And that’s what I try to do today. I want to help my team members and create paths of success for them. I’ve given advice and mentorship to almost hundreds of mentees and protégés. It’s a big part of my career.”

    Spruell may cut an imposing figure, but he was far from imposing in his presentation. He engaged students in extended conversations, sometimes to show how easy networking could be, and he used humor and anecdotes as he outlined how leadership and mentorship are the cornerstones of a professional services career.

    For example, he spoke of being mentored by Barry Salzberg, current global CEO of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu. “Now Barry on a good day is at best five-foot-ten,” said Spruell, who is closer to six-ten than five-ten. “If you put us together, you wouldn’t think we had a whole lot in common. Barry grew up in Brooklyn. I grew up in Cleveland. He’s of Jewish descent. I’m clearly not of Jewish descent.” (Spruell is African-American.) “But we connected, and the things he learned along his journey have helped me in my career. He cares about people. He cares about the organization.”

    Trademarks of Leadership

    That, Spruell said, is one trademark of a good leader. Recalling his days at Notre Dame under famed coach Lou Holtz, he said, “Coach Holtz genuinely cared for his players both on and off the field. He was in it for the long term, not just for the few years you were on the field. As he said, your four years in college are an investment in the next forty years of your life.”

    Holtz, Spruell went on, “called on everyone to be a leader. Every player, every position. He developed us as athletes, as students, and as individuals. And that’s what I want you to take away. You don’t need a fancy title to be a leader. Leadership is about taking a genuine interest in people, and helping to pave their way to success.”

    Another important aspect of leadership is the ability to network. Spruell spent several minutes demonstrating networking with students in the audience, and then said, “Networking is nothing more than talking, communicating, and sharing your stories. Do not hesitate to do that from this day forward. You never know where those conversations will go, you never know where those relationships will go, and frankly, it can be extremely helpful in finding a job,” which clearly seemed to be important to the group.

    Leaders, Spruell said, are measured by the influence they have on people and the impact they have on their organization. “At the end of the day, it’s about our clients and our people,” he said.

    Leaders also help you identify and face challenges. “Coach Holtz told us we need to be sure we are prepared for what we will face on the football field and in life. He never sugarcoated our challenges that we would face. He never hid the facts from us. In business we all have to play a role in inviting our colleagues and ourselves to take a reality check. It’s important to be ready to face what life has for you.”

    A mentor can help you face those challenges. “A mentor is in many ways a career coach, someone who is there to guide you, help you with career decisions, listen to you as you run through your opportunities and challenges,” Spruell said. “Sometimes a mentor will also be an advocate for you, a sponsor.”

    Career Opportunities

    Illinois students are in a great position as they begin their careers, Spruell noted. “You’re one of the top schools, if not the top school, for a pipeline of talent,” he said. And, according to US News & World Report, accounting is among the best jobs in the business. “Forty thousand new accountants were hired just last year,” Spruell said. “Companies are faced with more regulatory issues, and need more accountants to match up with those demands. And companies are looking for more than just technical skills; they are looking for soft skills, too. That’s why the ability to communicate, the ability to really care about people, is so important.”

    Advice for Students

    True to his mentoring nature, Spruell had plenty of advice to offer on a variety of topics:

    Set meaningful goals

    “Each of us needs to be realistic about setting meaningful goals for our careers. I’m not saying don’t dream big.  I am saying establish attainable, short-term goals, pursue realistic opportunities, and build steadily on those concrete successes to reach those longer-term objectives and dreams.”

    Build your career

    “First, don’t hesitate or be limited by preconceptions. Really go where the opportunities lie. Be flexible. Don’t be tied to a particular industry right now. You want to grow and develop and see a lot of new things.”

    “Second, be ready, be eager to go beyond your comfort zone.”

    “Third, find a mentor or mentors that you can go to for great, substantive, salient advice. And they can also be an advocate or sponsor for you along the way.”

    “And fourth, network, network, network!”

    Find a mentor

    “We all need those kinds of friendships, coaching relationships, people who truly care about us and are willing to give us solid, significant advice. And it's not always the advice that we want to hear, but it’s the advice we need to hear.”

    Face adversity

    “You will face adversity. There will always be challenges that you have to work through and overcome. There are times you have to get out of your comfort zone and ask those tough questions, particularly if it can have an impact on your performance. So I encourage you to put those issues on the table. Better than to let it slide.”

    Go where you can grow

    “Go to the company that’s not just a good fit, but that is really tied into excellence. You can tell the companies that are tied into excellence. This is a place where you not only fit, but can really grow and develop as a professional and as a person.”

    Do some soul searching – and some validating

    “You have to do some soul-searching. What are those aspirations, what are those passions, what are those things that I really want to get out of my career opportunity? So when you know those answers, you try to be diligent about it, try to match it up with those organizations out there that offer the right opportunities. In today’s environment, you can do a lot of research [into this], and then you can just validate it with some conversations. And it’s helpful not just to have those conversations with people [in the companies], but to ask faculty about their experiences with the companies. So test it with people outside that organization.”

    Handle mistakes appropriately

    “If you’ve made a mistake and you recognize it, you want to make sure you report it in the right and appropriate venue. Small or large, if you identify it, report it. Don’t sit on it. Do the right thing.”

    “If you are observing someone who is making a mistake or has an ethical issue, it’s tough, particularly when it’s a subordinate observing the actions of a supervisor. But whenever you see unethical behavior, go through the appropriate channels to report it. That’s better for you, better for that individual, and certainly better for the organization. You know the right thing to do, and do it, but report it in the appropriate fashion. Most companies will have an avenue or channel or some outlet to make that happen.”


    “Think about it from the standpoint of what you’re going to gain from it, but more importantly, what you can provide for that person. If you come into it from that aspect, that you care about that person and want to network and find ways you have some connections and commonalities, that’s doing it really well. In other words, it’s not just about what they can do for you. It’s about what you can do for them.”

    UIUC College of Business Department of Accountancy