Managing Director builds flexibility into her career path: “You own your life”

October 2018

Despite finding success quickly, Pilar Tarry’s career progression was not completely linear -- by design. Read her story.

Pilar Tarry grew up surrounded by books, thinking she’d make a career in academia. But this December, she will complete 19 years at AlixPartners, the latest one as a managing director in the firm’s turnaround and restructuring community.

This successful run as a highly specialized business consultant is not one that Pilar saw for herself growing up in rural Michigan, and it’s not one she takes for granted.

“It was always understood that we’d go to college and move out of the small town we were raised in,” Pilar said of herself and her three younger sisters, who were brought up by their librarian mother. “I had a relatively simple upbringing, and because of that I think I don’t feel entitled to things that I have achieved; I just feel grateful for them.”

Pilar briefly worked in investment banking after completing an MBA in Finance from Michigan State University. She then “fell into” consulting when she joined AlixPartners in late 1999, traveling all week and working with clients everywhere from San Francisco, California, to Taipei, Taiwan. “Once I found restructuring, a light went on,” Pilar said. “Maybe early on I thought I’d want a more ‘normal’ life eventually, but it’s been almost 20 years and I’m still committed to it and I still love it as much.”

Early in her career, Pilar developed a system to deal with the intense travel schedule. She’d look at every business trip as an opportunity to pretend that she lived in a new town – without actually having to move – and often spend weekends there instead of traveling back home. “I am a big believer in exploring where you are,” she said. “I’ll try to create something that’s more than just a transient life in the places where we are. For instance, I like to research hole-in-the wall places to eat, and I’ll usually have an exhaustive list of restaurants to try.”

Pilar says she found the right mentors quickly after she started, taking on projects where she was able to see the business cycle from start to finish, which facilitated learning and growth. However, despite making her mark quickly, her career path at the firm was not completely linear.

When discussions first started around her potential for advancement to managing director, Pilar was uncertain for a long time. She had been giving a lot of her time and expertise to her passion project – a role on the founding board of a charter school organization in New Orleans that was turning around two distressed schools. Additionally, there were family commitments that she needed to devote time and emotional energy to. So, she made the call to not pursue the managing director promotion, and it ended up being years before she finally felt ready to take the big plunge. 

“I essentially thought for a very long time that I never was going to want to be a managing director,” Pilar said, even though it was the career progression people expected her to make. “I strongly feel that it’s not the same path for everybody, and you don’t have to make decisions before you’re ready for them. You own your life, and if you want a little more flexibility for a few years, you’ve just made a different decision for your whole person temporarily. It does not have to mean that you’ve given up the chance forever to continue to progress.”

At the time, Pilar was certain that pursuing the next steps in the promotion process was not for her, even though her mentors at the firm encouraged her to rethink her decision. The fact that she was being asked to re-evaluate felt positive to her, as it meant that mentors still believed in her and would provide the same support irrespective of her choices. In the end, the decision to put her name back in the hat was up to her. “I was grateful to get that opportunity again, and when I did, everyone was right there, championing it all the way,” she said.

Pilar tries to provide a similar support system to the people she guides. “I’m sensitive to making sure that everything I do in my relationships with people and the work I do reflects an openness and inclusiveness that is unquestioned and undisputed,” she said.

When it comes to building inclusive teams, having diverse representation matters most, Pilar said.

“If you have line of sight on people who have come before you and look like you,” she said, “who are not in figurehead positions but real positions of influence because they’ve earned it -- and you can see that they have managed these other elements of their lives as well, this becomes really important.”