Chief Officer Award Finalist Sean Morris: ‘Listen, Learn, Debate, Act’

Sean Morris, Deloitte

The finalists for WashingtonExec’s Chief Officer Awards were announced April 15, and we’ll be highlighting some of them until the event takes place virtually May 27.

Next is Chief Operating Officer Award finalist Sean Morris, who’s COO of government and public services at Deloitte. Here, he talks key professional achievements, overcoming career struggles, career advice and more.

What key achievements did you have in 2019/2020?

At our firm, we have been highly focused on not just keeping the lights on during the pandemic but making them brighter. We transitioned to a fully virtual environment essentially overnight. This meant my operations teams needed to be on call 24/7 to work out technology kinks, policy changes, health and well-being challenges and much, much more in order to keep our client-facing teams going.

Most importantly, because of the efficiency and effectiveness behind the scenes, our broader Deloitte teams have been able to meet and exceed our clients’ needs. We have been uber focused on the critical missions we serve like the protection of our nation, health of our citizens, financial assistance programs for our citizens and many more. We are proud that when our country needed so many things, we were able to play our part.

What are your primary focus areas going forward, and why are those so important to the future of the nation?

My primary focus going forward is to position Deloitte and my government clients to take full advantage of the unique opportunities posed by the future of work. COVID-19 has substantially bent the change curve around how we work, where we work and what we work on. We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to place informed bets which will change things like how work gets done, how constituents are served, how health services are delivered and how the talent experience is improved.

I’ve been incredibly lucky to be able to shape this COO role so that I can lead change for Deloitte, and at the same time share our lessons and findings with our government clients. This has made the role rewarding and I believe impactful to Deloitte and to the critical missions of our government.

What’s one key thing you learned from a failure you had?

I’ve had plenty! I had a mentor tell me early on in my career, “If you do not scrape your knees occasionally, you are not running hard enough.” A couple of key learnings:

  • Ask for help early and often. It’s OK to be vulnerable.
  • Pick yourself up and own your mistake. Learn from it. Share with others and get back on the horse.

Which rules do you think you should break more as an industry leader?

I would not call it breaking rules, but rather challenging orthodoxies. COVID-19 has shown us we can execute our jobs in other spaces and places, interact with our ecosystems differently and reach amazing heights. We did all these things by hyperfocusing on the why and challenging the how, when, and where. As a leader, I help set the tone and one of the key messages I send is to collaboratively challenge orthodoxies.

What’s the biggest professional risk you’ve ever taken?

My biggest, professional risk was taking on my current COO role. This role did not exist previously. I worked with many other Deloitte leaders to socialize the need for the role and architect the position. We chose to execute on the role at a time of a broader leadership team transition.

Taking on this role required a restructuring of the organization and a commitment to substantial transformation of how our operational teams support, collaborate and execute with our client-facing teams.

The biggest risks often have the biggest upside and that has certainly been the case for me in this role. I have greatly enjoyed this challenging role and feel hugely optimistic about the future of our industry and our people.

What was your biggest career struggle and how did you overcome it?

My biggest career struggle was changing my leadership style as I took on bigger roles with larger and more complex teams and programs. Essentially, I had to figure out how to shift from being a leader who could run faster than most and carry everyone on my back to a leader who influences other leaders to work together. We developed a leadership program based on my journey, which is called “Me to we” and we now deliver it to clients.

What’s your best career advice for those who want to follow in your footsteps?

Challenge orthodoxies. Find a reason to collaborate, when others cannot. Listen, learn, debate, act. Stay hyperfocused on the missions of your clients. Be a servant leader. Never forget where you came from. Most importantly, have fun.

Meet the other Chief Officer Awards finalists here.

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