After 38 years at the Big Four firm Deloitte, with the last seven of them as chairman of the board, Sharon Allen is retiring from her post in May 2011.

In her role as chairman of an organization with nearly $11 billion in annual revenues, Allen leads the efforts of the board to provide oversight and guidance to the management of Deloitte and its subsidiaries. She is a member of the global board of directors at Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, where she is the U.S. representative on the global governance committee and chairs the global risk committee.

Aside from being a speaker on governance, diversity, ethics and workplace issues, Allen also serves on the board of Catalyst Inc., the national board of the YMCA and the Women’s Leadership Board at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

Accounting Today caught up with Allen to discuss her tenure and learn her thoughts on women in the accounting profession today.

What prompted your retirement?
I’ve had the pleasure of spending my entire career at Deloitte, having started 38 years ago in Boise, Idaho. It’s been a very long and great opportunity to spend my whole career with this organization. I always say to people, “Obviously I haven’t been doing the same thing for those 38 years, or I’m sure I wouldn’t be in the same organization, but I’ve been able to change how I’m contributing and that it made it a great place to be for so long.” I’ll be completing the end of the second term as chairman. It’s a good time to leave when you’re on a high. I feel very confident in future leadership and the direction of our organization, and I think it’s just absolutely the right time to turn the reins over to others and proudly watch them continue to lead the firm in a good direction.

Are you going to have a party?

I’m going to have a big party. Yes.

What are your plans?

First of all I plan to spend a lot more time with my husband, family and friends, but of course there will probably be a limit on how much togetherness he can stand. I do plan to stay involved in the business community, hopefully as a member of a couple of corporate boards, and I will also continue to be involved in the not-for-profit community, which I have done for most of my career. I have already committed to becoming the chairman of the board of the national YMCA board, which is an organization I’ve been involved with for over 25 years. I’m sure I will find ways to keep productively busy.

Over the course of your career, what is an accomplishment you are most proud of?

I am proud of many firsts that are in front of the titles I have carried. I was fortunate to be the first woman to become an office managing partner, the first woman to become a regional managing partner, the first woman to be elected to the board at Deloitte, and that’s been some years ago now. But I have to say my proudest accomplishment, I believe, was to have been elected as the first independent chairman of Deloitte’s board of directors. We separated our chairman and CEO role and created a full-time independent executive chairman of the board. It is an elected position by our partners, and I was very proud to be elected to that role. I always say, “Oh, by the way, I’m a woman.” It’s a very important distinction for me.

With those firsts, there must have been a lot of challenges. What was a challenge that was meaningful to you in terms of overcoming some obstacles and being able to grow?

Yes, you are right. A 37-plus-year career, there certainly are many obstacles. I joined Deloitte and the profession at a time when there were very few women. Only about 5 percent of women graduated in accounting back when I graduated in 1973 [from the University of Idaho], which is an amazing thing to think about, since today it is over 50 percent. There have been many challenges and opportunities, frankly, that were presented because of my being a woman in a profession that at that time was by far the majority men. But perhaps one of the most important challenges that I had as I was coming up through my career also turned out to be one of my best lessons. That was when I was about four years into the firm and I expected an early promotion to manager, and I was passed over for that promotion. Interestingly, as I walked into my supervisor’s office and clicked off all the reasons why I thought I should have had the promotion and had earned it, he kind of sat back in his chair and looked at me and said, “I didn’t even know you did all those things.” And so it was this both realization and disappointment that he did not recognize what I had been contributing, but at the same time it was a great lesson in my career to acknowledge that you have to watch out for your own career and be sure that individuals know what you are contributing to an organization. A big disappointment turned into a big lesson for me.

How do you let people know what you are contributing?

You can do that by assuring you have conversations with individuals with whom you work in an appropriate way for them to know the recognition of the accomplishments and value that you bring. Those conversations can often allow for better recognition of what you are doing and how much you are contributing. Often individuals just assume people recognize what they are doing and it’s important to not make that assumption but rather find ways to make your contributions clear and do it without being a braggart.

Even though there are more women coming into the profession, how do you think the challenges have changed for today’s young women from when you first started out in your career? Is it getting easier?

Well, it certainly it is different in many ways and yet it is very much the same.  I would say our profession, generally, is a better place for women today certainly than when I started. In some ways, honestly, I credit Deloitte for that, having taken on the initiative for the advancement and retention of women almost 18 years now. We started that initiative [known as WIN], but competitors are fast followers and have also changed the environment for women in their organizations. So while it is still a challenge, at least the major players in the profession have really taken heed to the changes that need to be made in the workplace to make sure women can succeed. I do think that there still is an underrepresentation of women in senior leadership in business generally and certainly in the board room of corporate organizations today. I do believe that organizations need to examine how they are recruiting, how they assure women are proportionally given the best assignments. They have to recognize the need for both role models and mentors. We and other organizations are finding the need to assure that women not only have mentors but they have sponsors, and there is a distinction that is important. We are seeing that more and more. We are also recognizing that at the end of the day there is the need to change the workplace generally to make it more reflective of the needs of today’s workers, for women and men alike. It is very important to establish a culture of flexibility that allows for women to progress along a career path that is tailored to their needs — which we call the career lattice as opposed to the career ladder, where you don’t go straight on one path but you have an alternative model that allows women and men to better fit work into their lives and their lives into their work.

What is the difference between a sponsor and mentor?

A mentor can be someone who tends to be a very good advisor, takes an interest in you, gives you advice, recommendations, you can have a good exchange with — it’s someone you can look to for good counsel. A sponsor might also be your mentor, but a sponsor is someone within an organization who not only gives you advice but is willing to step forward and be your advocate. A sponsor would assure you not only know what you should do, but you are given the opportunity to show what you can do.

How do you think women’s leadership style differs from men? And what are some great characteristics you are seeing from younger women leaders?

I do believe there are differences in styles between men and women, and we have acknowledged that. There is a very big difference between today’s women and women of my era when I started in the profession because, in those days, honestly, you almost had to pretend there were no differences. I came up in the business world of wearing a suit and a little bow tie and trying to dress like the men and, of course, fortunately, men and women both can acknowledge the difference and benefit from that. And we’ve recognized it within our organization, and we’ve developed a course called “Women as Buyers” for men and women to take to better understand how decision-makers make choices and how that differs between men and women. Every individual fortunately has their own strengths, and I do think it’s important to recognize that, and for everyone to leverage their own strengths. I do believe some specific strengths of women today that help them in leadership include their collaboration skills and their ability to lead teams and work in teams. I would say one of my best attributes — and I think it’s more typically found in women, though many men have it as well — is the ability to have emotional intelligence, and understanding the importance of emotional intelligence in managing and leading an organization.

Through your work you do a lot of speaking. What do you see as the top challenge professional women are still facing today in the profession and business?

It’s hard to say there is any one really, but I do believe that it’s important for organizations to assure that they give the appropriate recognition to and opportunities for responsibility to women. Unfortunately I think in businesses today there is still a bit of implicit bias. There tends to be less willingness to look more broadly for identified leaders than there should be. We all have to find ways to cast a broader net to look for leaders and give them opportunities, even though they may not look like every other leader always has in that organization. There just needs to be a very clear focus on assuring that people are given a chance to prove themselves. I can identify a very distinct time in my career that opportunity was provided me, and it was one of those times I had a mentor, but he was also a sponsor who spoke up for me, and made it clear that there was an expectation that I would have a chance to take a leadership role in the firm. At that time I moved to Los Angeles and became the regional managing partner for one of our largest regions and it was because of a sponsor within our organization who stepped forward and had seen my abilities and talent and gave me an opportunity. That doesn’t happen often enough.

One of the topics you often talk about in your presentations to groups is that you can be a successful business person and still be true to yourself. Can you expand upon that?

I learned fairly early in my career, while there are always things you can improve upon, the very best way to succeed is to find those things you are best at. Find the things that are your strengths and then find an organization where you can utilize those strengths that you have a passion about and you will be the most successful. It’s also very, very important to find an organization — and I was fortunate to do that — that will be consistent with your values and things you hold to be the most important to you. Being able to hold true to your own values, still be yourself, focus on your strengths, and succeed within an organization is really a terrific opportunity.

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