Peggy Smyth didn’t let the 2002 collapse of Arthur Andersen, which cost the then 37-year-old partner her entire net worth, hold her back. After a series of subsequent corporate leadership positions with increasing responsibility and visibility, most notably (and recently) as CFO of National Grid US, Smyth transitioned to advisory and board work. She is currently an advisor at Australia-based Queensland Investment Corporation and sits on the board of four publicly traded companies.
Today, 20 years after essentially starting over, she reflects on how the values she acquired as a pre-teen on her first job have grounded her personally and professionally. Those core values, coupled with her propensity to plan and the power of resiliency, empowered Smyth to succeed as new professional opportunities presented themselves and shaped her post-corporate life.
Purpose and Mission
For Smyth, working for companies that help people – and that she could feel a sense of alignment with – has always been important. And that began with a paper route she started working on at the age of 10 with her older brothers in Queens, New York. The customers were mostly elderly people who lived in walk-up apartment buildings and had limited mobility.
The paper route was, recalls Smyth, as much about being a “courier service” as it was delivering newspapers – buying milk, posting mail. “That taught me at a very young age how important it is to focus on people and work for an organization that has a purpose and a mission,” she says.
That sense of purpose and mission guided Smyth to her first corporate job at 3M. As an accountant, at both Arthur Andersen and Deloitte (where she went post-Arthur Andersen, starting Deloitte’s media, technology, and telecom practice in the Northeast), she thrived on working shoulder to shoulder with clients. But she says the nature of the work changed in the wake of the passage of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.
“When SOX first came out, it changed the relationship between accounting firms and their clients, and instead of being collegial it became more combative,” says Smyth. “That's when I decided this isn't really what I enjoy doing anymore.” Her subsequent corporate jobs became more about strategy and leadership, and as she went to work in the energy sector, she added a focus on sustainability to her repertoire.
Making It Personal
Her board work allows her to feed the sense of mission that she discovered at age 10. For example, Etsy’s focus on empowering women-owned businesses resonates with her. “Some 80% of the sellers on Etsy are women,” she notes. “That’s what made me want to work with them.” Frontier Communications, which emerged from bankruptcy in 2021 with new management and a new board, is looking to bring broadband to rural America. Smyth says she learned from her sister, a teacher, how many people around the country – even in New York City – still rely on dial-up access. This has been a huge hurdle to creating opportunity and made teaching during COVID especially challenging.
As the grandchild of Irish immigrants, fintech company Remitly, aimed at helping immigrants send money back home quickly and inexpensively, struck a chord with her. “I recall my grandparents talking about how they literally sent envelopes of dollar bills back to Ireland to their siblings so they could come here,” she says. “Remitly’s customers are my people.”
In Smyth’s view, a sense of commitment and purpose is just as important in board work as it is in corporate work. For people who might be thinking of a board position and aren’t having any luck with a public company, she points out that there’s plenty of opportunity with private companies, which will likely involve less risk, liability, and usually, time. And for a nonprofit board, Smyth says that passion will also be essential. “I wouldn't say join a volunteer board just to get a board on your resume but do something that you're passionate about. And that passion will show through.”
A New View
That first job, where Smyth took over for her older brothers when they were tied up with sports, also gave Smyth the ability to imagine and plan bigger things for herself than what others saw for her. Growing up in what she describes as modest circumstances, as a female, she was not expected to attend college. Yet she graduated from Fordham and found her way to Arthur Andersen, and then pursued her master’s degree at NYU.
She acknowledges that as much as she is a planner, circumstances showed her she had to learn to keep her mind open. She had several opportunities to leave while at Arthur Andersen, including offers from clients, but didn’t entertain any because she was doing well where she was and enjoyed it.
Her reluctance to leave was ironic, considering she had initially intended to stay for two years while she pursued her master’s. “That taught me to always be open,” she says. “And maybe that's one of the reasons why I've always been focused on relationships, because you go through an experience like that, where you're at the prime of your career, you've worked so hard, you're a partner…everything's going great and then disintegrates through no fault of your own.”
All About Relationships
A deliberate focus on relationships has served Smyth well, starting with her first corporate board appointment. “I was fortunate that I went on my first public company board fairly young, when I was asked to join the Martha Stewart [Living Omnimedia] board in my mid-40s.” Smyth had taken the company public while at Arthur Andersen, and she credits the relationship forged during that experience for her seat on the board. “Everything I have today really came through relationships,” she asserts.
A key aspect of relationship-building is, of course, networking. Many people don't like networking, and Smyth acknowledges that when she was younger, she was a little uncomfortable with the process. For people who have been reluctant to network and now find themselves wanting or needing to as they think about their own next act, Smyth says it is never too late. “Think about who you've worked with where you did a good job, and re-engage with them,” she advises. “And let them know what you're thinking. Are you thinking about retiring in the next six months to a year?” If you’re reaching out to someone who has already retired, ask them about their own process and experience.
She also encourages people to let go of any feeling of awkwardness about not having been in touch with someone for a long time. “They’re busy, too, so they probably haven’t been able to reach out to you either,” she points out.
Leaning into Learning
Openness has also meant seeking out coaching and continuing education. “Some people are afraid to have a coach,” says Smyth. “I always feel like it's going to make me be a better person, a better professional.” She used coaches throughout her career, including in her transition from National Grid.
As Smyth started to think about and plan for post-corporate life, she leaned into educating herself beyond what she had learned through her jobs, especially as she thought about board work. “I had a very good background in ESG, having worked for Con Edison and National Grid for the last 10 years of my career.” Despite those qualifications, she wanted some sort of certification.
She attended an ESG program offered by University of California, Berkeley, School of Law in conjunction with CERES throughout the fall and winter of 2020/2021 and recently completed a class with the NACD [National Association of Corporate Directors] on cybersecurity governance for board directors. “It's important to stay up-to-date with your skills and training, and it makes it easier then to be a good advisor to the companies that you're working with,” she observes.
The Power of Resilience
The ability to adapt successfully to setbacks and adversity has been a constant for Smyth. Starting over after losing everything after Arthur Andersen may be the most striking example of her resilience, but it’s far from the only time she has taken less than ideal circumstances and turned them to her advantage. More than once she made the decision not to take jobs that would have meant relocating (something she ended up doing twelve times in her career). That’s how she ended up at ConEd – and was back in New York – before going on to National Grid.
A transformation transaction by National Grid, which Smyth worked on, meant her job would be phased out in 2021. Smyth says that as a natural planner, she was grateful that working on the transaction gave her a year to figure out next steps. She admits that the pandemic may have played a part in her choice not to seek another financial leadership role, as for most of the year before she left National Grid she was able to work at home and avoid constant travel.
“It was refreshing not to be living in a hotel at least four nights a week for the first time in a long time in my career,” she recalls. “I've done a lot of transitions and you always have to be prepared for what might be coming down the road, because otherwise you're going to end up somewhere and it might not be where you would like.”
No Place Like Home
Smyth did end up where she wanted: back in New York City, which has allowed her to spend more time with her parents, her mother-in-law, and friends. “When you're in troubled times, that’s when you realize that family and friends are what really matter,” notes Smyth, who has reprioritized spending more time with friends. “If I had a work meeting and knew I had to travel for that, I would make that a priority,” she says. “Well, it's the same thing with a friend meeting.”
Having come full circle – back to her hometown, still guided by her values and desire to serve – Smyth encourages others to embrace their own next act. “It’s a very exciting part of your life – so take advantage of it.”
Peggy Smyth shared her story as part of Reimagining Post-Corporate Careers: An Executive Conversation Series hosted by the International Center for Executive Options (ICEO)