Tiffany Willis saw the writing on the wall. She had plenty of corporate experience in accounting, auditing, and consulting but knew she would need more if she hoped to lead a team. Job listings for positions she wanted said “MBA preferred.” And she admired how colleagues who had the degree approached problems.
“I was missing out,” she says. So she enrolled in Goizueta Business School's Weekend EMBA program. When Willis graduated in 2015, she had multiple job offers and landed at financial services technology company Fiserv as head of operational audit and advisory services.
Now, Willis is one of the highest-ranking African-Americans at Fiserv. She spoke with EmoryBusiness.com about the twist and turns that influenced her career trajectory.
EB: You’ve always had an affinity for numbers; when did it begin?
Willis: When I was little, I would count everything. For example, most people would see a white tile floor, but I’d actually count how many squares there were. Or take colors, instead of saying yellow, I would say 6; instead of saying blue, I would say 4. Numbers were always something fun as opposed to something intimidating.
EB: How did your parents influence your career?
Willis: My father was an engineer with a military background, so I get my analytical side from him. My mother was involved in politics and community service, and she taught me to help those around me. She worked with abused and neglected children, and even founded and solicited funding for a youth neighborhood park.
Without knowing a job title, I just knew I wanted to be in charge of a company’s money and to determine what organizations could benefit from that company’s discretionary income, be it helping at-risk youth or perhaps funding an organization committed to financial literacy. I assumed that would involve numbers, so I majored in accounting.
EB: The accounting track led you down a different path. How did you end up at a top-4 accounting firm?
Willis: When you major in accounting, the counselors and faculty are going to push you to the Big 6, now the Big 4. At my private, Catholic university in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, I was one of two minorities in my class. Firms were eager to recruit me, and it almost was a de facto decision to go into the Big 4 and not even pursue a nonprofit or a regular public company.
EB: As a senior associate for PwC, you weren’t making spending decisions, right?
Willis: No, not at all. You’re really getting a report and verifying the calculations are correct. It was a very huge disconnect from what I thought I would do one day. But through those entry-level roles at PwC and later EY, I began to identify the names of the position I wanted one day, such as “VP of Corporate Responsibility” or “Director of Community Affairs.”
EB: Was seeking one of these positions your impetus for getting an MBA?
Willis: Actually, I always wanted to go back to school, but life kind of took over. I got married and had children—two sons and a princess—and there’s so much going on that you think you really don’t have time to get an MBA. But my turning point came when I moved my career from pure accounting to internal audit roles and then eventually into a consulting group. Once in the consulting group, I looked around and not only was I one of few women, but I was the only racial minority. And the thing that differentiated the rest of the group from me was their MBAs. So I realized that what got me into that role would likely not keep me there nor prepare me to excel in that role. I couldn’t change my gender, I couldn’t change my race, but I could change my level of education.
EB: What was it about Emory and Goizueta that stood out to you?
Willis: I always wanted to be with the best. When I chose my Big 4 firm, I looked at the highest rank. In the accounting firms I always wanted the big clients: The SunTrust Banks, The Coca-Colas. I never really worked on small clients, only big, Fortune 100 clients. The same was true for my education. I came from Pennsylvania to Georgia because I wanted the best of the best. And here in Georgia, we’re kind of the Harvard of the South. My colleagues had MBAs from Northwestern, Duke, and places like that, and to be on equal footing, I had to have an MBA from an equal-caliber school.
In addition, my close friend Askari Foy 12WEMBA, who I met in public accounting, went through the program and gave me the “real backstory” to the school. My interview with Emory sealed the deal. I interviewed with several others, but with Goizueta I got a sense of “You’re going to learn from the best, and you’re going to be pushed out of your comfort zone.” I was looking for that rigor.
EB: When you came to Atlanta you worked at EY and then Time Warner/Turner. How did you leverage the program to obtain your role at Fiserv?
Willis: I spent about 10 years at Turner, the first half in internal audit and the second half on the consulting side. From the very beginning of the MBA program, I knew I wanted to take a huge leap, so I leveraged the personnel and resources in the MBA Career Management Center. They helped me with everything, from resume review to discussions with Joan Coonrod and Robert Knight on the types of roles I would like, all the way to phone interview prep. At one point I had multiple offers and was tempted to accept the first one. Bob would say, “No, that’s not right for you.” His confidence boosted my confidence so that when I did say yes to Fiserv, I knew my skills would match up to this level of job.
EB: Talk more about your role at Fiserv and how accounting and consulting are like a marriage.
Willis: Here’s how I see these two disciplines: With accounting/auditing you’re looking at internal processes, whether it’s payroll or revenue, you’re basically looking for the gaps, plus the proof, documentation, and anything that might raise a red flag; then you are resolving the issues. Consulting roles present problems that you need to analyze or find resolutions for. For example, someone might say, “You know what Tiffany, we’ve had some duplicate payments go out, and we’re not sure why. Can you look at the process?’ Or “Tiffany, we’re considering an acquisition, and we’re not sure how we’re going to integrate. Can you come in and look at how people, processes, and technology should be considered?”
My responsibility is not to go to my clients like the IRS, it’s to go in and ask “Where are your concerns? Where are there hiccups?” Then my team and I will go in with fresh eyes and provide recommendations.
EB: Now that you are in a leadership role, what’s one way you conduct yourself?
Willis: When I’m in a room with a lot of people that don’t look like me, I now have to be comfortable with inserting my point of view. There is no raising hands or someone calling on you. You have to be comfortable saying “You know what? I heard your point, but I think there’s one piece that you’re missing in this segment over here.” And you have to be confident. You have to have enough knowledge that you can not only state your point of view but anticipate the questions and your answers so that you can then react and engage in conversations. This is one of the intangible skills I learned in a high-caliber program.
EB: With a family and a high profile role, how do you make time to serve the community?
Willis: I’m my mother’s daughter and a former beauty queen, so I still mentor and am involved in community service, though not to the degree I would like. When I talk to youth and young girls, I always try to share the importance of never taking the easy way out of a situation. I tell them, “Many people take that route, and you have to distinguish yourself, so put in the extra thought, put in the extra time, and it pays off in the end.”