Lloyd Howell Jr. stopped by the University of Pennsylvania campus to participate in the Wharton Leadership Lecture series.

Career Insight: CFO Lloyd Howell Jr. on Being Prepared for Anything

Lloyd Howell Jr., chief financial officer and treasurer of Booz Allen Hamilton, a global consulting firm, recently stopped by the 8th floor of Huntsman Hall at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia for a Wharton/McNulty Leadership Lecture with Maryellen Reilly, deputy vice dean of Wharton’s MBA (Master of Business Administration) program. Howell, who first joined Booz Allen in 1988, studied electrical engineering at Penn and went on to get his MBA at Harvard Business School. During his conversation with Reilly, Howell stressed the importance of having career contingency plans. This is how he laid it out.

“There are ingredients that will contribute to setting you up for the likelihood of a successful career, but there is no formula, nor is it linear, nor does it happen the way you are thinking about now. There are going to be some bumps along the way. I always considered Penn the best pre-professional institution in the world because everyone shows up and says, ‘I want to be this, this and this by this age, and I’ll do these things in the world.’ That’s great in terms of having objectives. But the manner in which you get there is anything but clear and certain.

What I would offer is that you have the foundation and you kind of know where you want to go, but you have to be open and flexible to changes that will come along, whether it’s a life event or the initial employer goes under. You need to have a Plan A, a Plan B and possibly a Plan C. When you have options of how to get to your destination, more times than not it works out. It’s all about contingency planning. It’s not abandoning the dream or the vision, but it’s acknowledging that life isn’t black and white and certainly some things can come along.

Have fun with it. I had a classmate at Harvard Business School who was essentially family [Ralph Clark, now CEO of Shotspotter]. We would stay up at night and role play: Hey, I’ve got this interview with Goldman Sachs. What if they ask you this? What if a big Merger & Acquisition comes along? Do you raise your hand or not raise your hand? What if you have triplets? What would you do? We would throw everything in the mix, and the value was that we would start thinking about how to navigate waters.

Fairly early in my professional career after grad school, these things that you never think are going to impact you started to happen. One was the economy. One scenario we had thrown out was what if we hit a recession and layoffs start to hit this robust environment? What would you do? My buddy said, ‘I’m from Oakland and I’ve always wanted to go back to California. I would look for employment opportunities in Cali.’ I said I didn’t really know. I started to think about what options I would consider if the recession came to pass. And then it did come to pass. I saw for the first time people who were completely unprepared for that to happen. They had been “A” players. They had gone to Yale and Harvard Business School and had been the top of their class. They had even worked at a bank and were analysts. Recession hit and they were let go. It was great that I had had these conversations with my friends because I had already put contingency plans into motion. I had built bridges. I had met with an executive recruiter. I looked around and realized I was at risk because of the circumstances going on. Things came to pass quicker than we anticipated.”

Conversation Starters

What is contingency planning and why is it important for your career?

Do you have career goals? Lloyd Howell's advice would suggest that you think about the path you want to take and the steps you need to get there. Will that vision change? Yes, but it's never too early to start the working document. create this now and discuss with a partner.

Lloyd Howell's role playing with his business school buddy Ralph Clark proved very useful. Grab a partner or a classmate and role play your future. What scenarios, including life events and potential work events, might derail your plans? How will you "navigate the waters?"

9 thoughts on “Career Insight: CFO Lloyd Howell Jr. on Being Prepared for Anything

  1. I am currently a junior attending school in Taiwan. Honestly, I am nervous about the fact that I am soon attending college and getting a job after college . As life goes on, I know there will only be more and more decisions to make every day. There was a period of time when I was frustrated with the uncertainty of life; however, a friend of mine enlightened me by asking what I am afraid of. The question makes so much sense. If I have been cautious and being ready in life, there is no need to be anxious. I realized life may seem unpredictable, but if I am well-prepared, it should not frighten me. It is acceptable to dream for the perfect situation as long as I am prepared to face the worst scenario.

    1. Thank you for your wonderful comment, Josephine.

      As Lloyd Howell Jr. once said, “There are ingredients that will contribute to setting you up for the likelihood of a successful career, but there is no formula, nor is it linear, nor does it happen the way you are thinking about now”. I believe that this line sums up life—teaching us to understand we cannot always be in control of every situation. In the same way that many people are often unprepared for their futures, humanity is also struggling to fight climate change. Humans have gotten so used to their current lives that they’ve become unable to see or prepare for the consequences of their actions. I believe they are not ready to take on what is to come in the future.

      By being prepared to continue his path in life, Howell Jr. was able to push through his obstacles and achieve his goals. However, what happens when someone isn’t able to keep up and do the same? Not everyone is able to become as successful, and subsequently fall when they fail to prepare. The same applies to humanity as a whole. The planet is slowly warming up, and many don’t realize what is going to happen. They think that climate change is such a slow process that it won’t affect them. The current coronavirus pandemic is also a topic of discussion; many claim that the environment has greatly improved since it began and we are on a much safer path. However, the virus can only do so much, and it does not remove our responsibilities, nor the continuously rising global temperatures. It is in this sense that they are not prepared to deal with the suffering, and even deaths, of numerous animals and habitats and their own homes.

      What I also find interesting are that many of the activists working towards the protection of the planet are young people, including the well-known Greta Thunberg. One of the primary reasons why the planet was able to heat up so dramatically was that the majority of people refused to accept the truth. You will see many adults saying this situation is stupid or fake, claiming that it’s a silly story and a waste of time. On the other hand, there are countless teenagers and young adults out there travelling the world and trying to open people’s eyes. I find this ironic, how these supposedly naive and non-understanding young people are the ones trying to help those who call themselves knowledgeable and deserving of respect.

      The people of the world are currently not ready to face climate change and its consequences, and while some are outside working hard in hopes of making changes, they are not enough. Many people do not realize that global problems cannot be resolved when half the team is asleep. CFO Lloyd Howell Jr. was able to prepare for his future, and by doing so, gained a position he once called a dream; he was well-prepared and faced his obstacles appropriately, allowing for his success. Now considering our current position in fighting global warming, we are less prepared than we think. When ”these things that you never think are going to impact you [start] to happen” (Howell Jr.), we cannot give up because that is not how progress is made. Climate change has already progressed further than most realize, and by the time they really try to prepare, it may already be too late.

      I believe that it is extremely important to prepare for the unexpected, as life is anything but black and white. Howell had seen several of his fellow students fail to find jobs because they were completely unprepared, despite being straight-A students graduating from Ivy League universities. I think being prepared is a very simple, yet effective way, of improving our lives. By being prepared, there is so much potential for us to learn and grow, all while staying ready to face any challenges.

  2. Especially in career-oriented paths, it is vital to recognize early on that, oftentimes, you need to anticipate major bumps and roadblocks on the way to your final destination. If handled correctly, this uncertainty and vulnerability can be utilized positively in becoming a more successful person. However, as stated in the article, “It is not abandoning the dream or vision, but it’s acknowledging that life isn’t black and white and certainly some things can come along”. The uncertainty of the road needs to be met with adequate backup plans or else the desired end result falls through.

    When we are faced with uncertainties that are out of control, such as previously highlighted recessions or current pandemics, what will ultimately make or break a person’s career is their preparedness. In his statement, Lloyd Howell Jr. emphasized that the individuals hit hardest by an unexpected recession were the “A players” who “had gone to Yale and Harvard Business School and had been the top of their class”. It proves that, especially in business and economics, having skills to perform is only part of the way to success. The other important factor is the ability to execute plans and preparation. As stated above, there are ingredients but there is not a specific formula nor is it linear. When faced with such a spontaneous bump in the road, one of the most important ingredients is being prepared to flatten this bump and move on with as little damage as possible.

    1. Great reflections, Lisel. This column was published before the pandemic began to escalate. When Lloyd Howell, Jr., came to Wharton to speak, it was barely on the radar — and not even mentioned. It is a testament to how quickly things CAN change and how we can be faced with the unexpected. His advice takes on new meaning and importance in these challenging times.

    2. Lisel, I like your thorough unpacking of Lloyd’s point, but I believe that there is a part of the argument you are missing: the element of risk in contingency planning. Preparedness is a double-edged sword, as it is crucial to success but can limit your thinking. As Lloyd mentions, success is nuanced: “There are ingredients that will contribute to setting you up for the likelihood of a successful career, but there is no formula, nor is it linear, nor does it happen the way you are thinking about now.” Contingency planning doesn’t only entail what you call “being prepared to flatten this bump and move on” but “to be open and flexible to changes that will come along.” Preparedness is not simply to outline the path to success and stick to that path no matter what happens, but instead to “have the foundation and you kind of know where you want to go.”

      My parents, as first-generation immigrants, recognize the importance of both preparedness and risk. They met as peers in a prestigious college in China studying medicine to become practicing doctors. They fell in love and had a bright future ahead of them with among the most stable careers in China at the time as firm foundations to fall back on. My dad, however, had a dream of going to America and finding success there. If they went to America, the degrees they had worked years to get in China would be nothing short of useless. The medical knowledge and terminology they mastered were all in Chinese, so going to college in America and getting a medical degree there was next to impossible. Despite the enormous risk, they came to the U.S. with the American dream and set up a humble taco store. They would work for seven days a week, over 13 hours each day, for almost 14 years. Even after my birth, my mom came back to the store at ten at night, still working hard. Once they started to have a sizable amount of money, they took that money and my dad invested it in real estate, where his ambition, amiability, and hard working resolve made him the successful man he is today with more freedom and success than he ever could have achieved as a doctor in China. It was only through having big dreams and the willingness to take risks to achieve those dreams that the two were able to reach such heights.

      Their story by no means undermines the importance of preparation that you mention Lisel, as they would not have had the opportunity to even immigrate if they had not built themselves a firm foundation in China. It instead stresses the need to not be afraid of the unexpected, to not be afraid to take the plan C, which might entail potential failure.

    3. Hi Lisel, great comment. I like how you analyzed the relationship between uncertainties and preparedness, especially in your example of how the current pandemic highlights that both the people and the nations were not prepared. However, while being prepared for future uncertainties is beneficial for one’s career, one should also consider to what extent one’s preparedness needs to be. Because “uncertainties” in one’s career are themselves extremely uncertain, preparing for them is an action without a clear goal. This goallessness means that overly focused on preparing for uncertainties could distract one from one’s career goal and cause confusion. For this reason, I think the most valuable element of “being prepared for anything” is to correct one’s weaknesses while one has the ability to do so. These weaknesses could easily cause problems in the future when uncertainties occur. Since it is difficult to predict exactly what uncertainties may occur in the future and eliminating one’s weaknesses would reduce the risk when uncertainties happen, it effectively prepares one for one’s career.

      I think the article and your response are especially important to Zoom’s situation. The current pandemic is definitely a major uncertainty and has caused a profound economic and social impact. While many companies struggled with shut-downs and social distancing, Zoom was encountering an opportunity because of these practices. Since many students and workers need to stay home, Zoom saw the potential to increase their user base drastically. However, Zoom’s security risks greatly damaged its ability to grow as many organizations began to not trust Zoom with confidential information. For instance, the New York City DOE has banned teachers from using Zoom to hold online classes. Similarly, Singapore has banned teachers from using Zoom as well. Google, NASA, the U.S. Senate, and many others have banned the use of Zoom among their members. Zoom’s failure to solve its security problem prior to the pandemic prevented the company from acting effectively on the opportunity that the pandemic created.

      It should be noted that Zoom had seen an increase in the number of users and activities. However, despite these gains, the security issue is preventing it from being even more successful. One aspect of which is the loss of many more potential users mentioned above. Another aspect is how the security issue impacted Zoom’s stock price lately. For instance, on the morning of April 6th, Zoom’s stock price dropped by 14.5%, signifying how Zoom’s security risks hurt its potential for more growth.

      Zoom could have been well prepared for this opportunity. The success of DingTalk, an enterprise communication and collaboration platform developed by Alibaba Group, in China prior to the U.S. outbreak demonstrates the popularity of an online meeting platform during shut-downs. In addition, the various privacy scandals of Facebook shows how an online interaction app could pose security problems. Had Zoom analyzed both cases and corrected its security weakness, the company would have been able to seize the opportunity created by the pandemic to gain tens of millions of users worldwide.

      My analysis of Zoom’s situation is an add-on to your already well-thought comment, Lisel. I believe that much of preparing is about fixing one’s existing problems while one has the resources and abilities. Addressing deficiencies not only prepares oneself but also creates benefit by itself. In the Zoom situation, fixing security issues is important by itself and beneficial for the company, both from a business standpoint and an ethical standpoint. This benefit solves the issue of the goallessness of preparation I mentioned earlier. Overall, I believe that this method of preparation is extremely important for one’s career.

      1. *Sorry, I forgot to reply to this earlier*

        Hi Neil, I thoroughly enjoyed reading your comment, particularly how you engaged so incisively with the example of Zoom that you had chosen to prove your argument! I like how you recognized that over-preparing for uncertainties could “distract one from one’s career goal.” Nevertheless, while I agree with your point about how it is important for one to think about the extent of preparedness to anticipate any form of uncertainty (not only in terms of career), I believe that one should strive to focus on strengths rather than weaknesses. In fact, many world leaders of today are so successful because they chose to build on their talents and not their hindrances.

        We are always given feedback and told as to how we must work on our areas of improvement. While it is easy to complain and feel disheartened by what we are not good at, I ask you to think about how life would be if we all focused on our positive qualities and the capabilities that we already possess. Remaining optimistic and concentrating on the things that empower us will help us to maintain a strong resolve, even under the most averse of situations.

        Our strengths should be regarded as invaluable gifts that should be employed in all areas of life, but more so during times of distress (like this pandemic, for example). To my mind, focusing on what we are good at, working on improving it, and then excelling at it, enables us to accomplish so much more than spending countless hours trying to correct our weaknesses because I believe that our greatest potential, absolutely necessary for any career, lies amidst our strengths. When we utilize this potential, we will be able to find our greatest source of happiness and fulfillment, vital to remain calm and prepare ourselves for change – something that will confront us numerous times during the course of our lives.

        With this being said, I am not dismissing your argument about acknowledging our “deficiencies” and “weaknesses” as important. Although I stand by my opinion of channeling our inner strengths to success at any career, we must not completely ignore our weaknesses. Every individual must have some knowledge as to what his or her strengths and limitations are. Recognizing which of these weaknesses can turn into strengths, however, is far more essential than trying to fix the areas in which we lack. Nobody is perfect and so not all of us can be good at everything. Identifying which of our areas of improvement can be made better will result in success, not only career-wise, but also in all aspects of life. Over and above, though, I suggest we all spend time building our talents because by amplifying our strengths, we will, in turn, get a greater return on the time and effort that we have invested trying to magnify them. In my opinion, this is the best way to handle the uncertain, the unexpected, and the unknown.

  3. Hi Neil, I thoroughly enjoyed reading your comment, particularly how you engaged so incisively with the example of Zoom that you had chosen to prove your argument! I like how you recognized that over-preparing for uncertainties could “distract one from one’s career goal.” Nevertheless, while I agree with your point about how it is important for one to think about the extent of preparedness to anticipate any form of uncertainty (not only in terms of career), I believe that one should strive to focus on strengths rather than weaknesses. In fact, many world leaders of today are so successful because they chose to build on their talents and not their hindrances.

    We are always given feedback and told as to how we must work on our areas of improvement. While it is easy to complain and feel disheartened by what we are not good at, I ask you to think about how life would be if we all focused on our positive qualities and the capabilities that we already possess. Remaining optimistic and concentrating on the things that empower us will help us to maintain a strong resolve, even under the most averse of situations.

    Our strengths should be regarded as invaluable gifts that should be employed in all areas of life, but more so during times of distress (like this pandemic, for example). To my mind, focusing on what we are good at, working on improving it, and then excelling at it, enables us to accomplish so much more than spending countless hours trying to correct our weaknesses because I believe that our greatest potential, absolutely necessary for any career, lies amidst our strengths. When we utilize this potential, we will be able to find our greatest source of happiness and fulfillment, vital to remain calm and prepare ourselves for change – something that will confront us numerous times during the course of our lives.

    With this being said, I am not dismissing your argument about acknowledging our “deficiencies” and “weaknesses” as important. Although I stand by my opinion of channeling our inner strengths to success at any career, we must not completely ignore our weaknesses. Every individual must have some knowledge as to what his or her strengths and limitations are. Recognizing which of these weaknesses can turn into strengths, however, is far more essential than trying to fix the areas in which we lack. Nobody is perfect and so not all of us can be good at everything. Identifying which of our areas of improvement can be made better will result in success, not only career-wise, but also in all aspects of life. Over and above, though, I suggest we all spend time building our talents because by amplifying our strengths, we will, in turn, get a greater return on the time and effort that we have invested trying to magnify them. In my opinion, this is the best way to handle the uncertain, the unexpected, and the unknown.

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