Ascend Asks: Dr. Bruce Choy, Managing Director, PwC Canada and Governor, George Brown College

Ascend Asks: Dr. Bruce Choy, Managing Director, PwC Canada and Governor, George Brown College

Introducing Ascend Asks – our new series featuring a variety of senior leaders on their career journey, industry insights and how they advocate diversity and inclusion every day.

Bruce Choy has worked in most corners of the world – North America, South America, Asia, Europe and Australasia. Now, he calls Canada home. To say that he is a global citizen would be an understatement.

Global mobility like that may seem like a far reality in a COVID-19 world but Bruce’s experience understanding various industries and cultures has helped him adapt and stay resilient in our new world of work.

We decided to pick his brain and asked him to share some of his words of wisdom. Keep reading for more on how Bruce reflects on new career opportunities, deals with change and advocates for inclusion.

When first considering a career, did you see yourself in consulting? Looking back, what advice would you give your younger self beginning his career?

Not in my wildest imagination did I see myself in consulting. I started my career as a classical scholar. After completing my PhD and a stint overseas at a research centre, I returned to Australia as a tenure-track academic and I expected to be a professor for life. I had the ‘left turn’ in my career when my research in mathematics surprisingly translated well into capital markets and derivative pricing. I then discovered my affinity to banking and its broader function in fostering economic development and social mobility.

If I had a message in a bottle to my younger self, it would be to check some of my impostor syndrome tendencies at the door and dive right in. I was hesitant in those early years to take on a PhD student under my wing leading to my, and my PhD supervisor’s, disappointment of not continuing the academic “family tree” – one that can be traced back to mathematicians like Fourier and Lagrange. Unrelated to career, I still have yet to train up a ‘black-belt’ of my own despite being a qualified as a martial arts instructor for the past decade and a half! You could say I’m like a Mr. Miyagi still waiting rather than actively seeking for his Daniel-san.

What are some of the things you look for when moving into a new role or industry? Any advice you would give to those looking to make a switch?

Most of my career moves were unexpected opportunities, often not planned. 

I’ve moved from academia to banking and then banking to consulting. My advice for when switching fields: be prepared to accept a significant step down initially. This gives you time to learn the new field, then use some of your prior skills to help quickly move back up the ladder. For example, as an academic, I had been running teams and large research projects; when I entered the trading floor I was back individually coding and solving math equations. Then my past transferable people and project management experience gave me the leg up for opportunities in my new industry.

As an example of unplanned, my move to Toronto happened after a one-day visit to the city for my interview so I’m definitely not a role model for those who want a measured approach to their careers! 🙂

Surely a lot has changed since you first began working, but is there anything that’s stayed the same in the way we work and progress in our careers? 

It may be cliché but the thing that stays the same is inevitable change. Always learning and critical thinking are the two key attributes to not only survive but thrive in this changing world.

Always learning is that special combination of curiosity to explore and humility to acknowledge you don’t know all the answers. I recall back when I was interviewing for the trading floor, I was asked about a derivative options problem and I had no idea what they were talking about! I was upfront about my lack of knowledge and the hiring managers let me read up on it during the interview. Admitting that I didn’t know actually worked in my favour because they could see how I was able to learn their math in real time.

Critical thinking helps to not take what we learn at face value. For example, we often hear career advice from leaders (such as articles like this!); critically think about just how much of their advice is influenced by survivor bias. Much of the advice we hear just doesn’t pass the critical thinking test or apply to today’s world.

In light of the recent events around racism, what are some of the ways that you stay inclusive and build equity on a day to day basis?  

Human nature and systemic issues will always make the playing field uneven for certain demographics. I view affirmative action not as anti-meritocratic or nepotistic, but simply a means of leveling the big-picture playing field.

For my small part, over the past decade I made the conscious decision only to mentor women or BIPOC.

It’s also about providing stretch opportunities and safe spaces to allow mentees to practice taking risk. This is where not-for-profit organizations are so great: look at how many volunteers in Ascend Canada have had opportunities to try something new, get exposure and build confidence from it.

I have recently taken up an additional role with the Risk Management Association (Toronto), a not-for-profit industry association, with the mandate to modernize it to this post COVID19 era. If there are folks at Ascend Canada who want to put their hand up to try something out – get in touch and let’s see what opportunities I can create for you!

Talk to us a bit about your transition to Canada – what was the biggest culture change for you?

I had been living in the United States for the previous four years before being transferred to Toronto by PwC. So I was already familiar with North American cultural norms. I’m Australian, and compared to the US, Canada felt familiar being a Commonwealth country with similar societal structures and values. As such I was fortunate, I didn’t have a massive culture shock with this last move – however, I’ll admit that snow is still a novelty to me!