Sharon Allen began her career in public accounting 30 years ago as an auditor at Deloitte & Touche. She rose through the ranks, serving over the years as a partner, as leader of the firm's Portland, Ore. office, as managing partner of the firm's Pacific Southwest practice, and as a member of the board of directors. In June of 2003, Allen became the first woman elected as chairman of the U.S. board and the highest-ranking woman in the firm's history.

Here, in an e-mail interview with WebCPA editor Melissa Klein Aguilar, Allen discusses what she sees as the greatest challenges facing the profession, her toughest challenge as chairman of the board, and the advice she has for women entering the profession today.

Briefly describe your career in public accounting.

I’m sometimes asked if I ever would have imagined becoming chairman of this firm. The honest answer is, no, I didn’t. I always imagined that I would become a teacher and began college as an education major. Accounting caught my eye, however, and gave me a new direction in life.

I served my clients well, became a partner, and as comfortable as could be in Boise, Idaho.I served a large, prestigious client and acted as the office managing partner. But a friend and mentor said I wasn’t stretching. I needed to contribute more, and I needed to contribute nationally. So I pitched in and soon realized there was much more to be done. I was then elected to the board of directors. The firm had never had a woman board member – not in all of its 100 years. I managed the Portland office, then moved to Los Angeles and took over the Pacific Southwest region, which had more professionals than my hometown had people!

Actually, I was twice elected to our board prior to being voted chairman of our U.S. firm. I also now sit on our global board and its governance committee. While client service always has been and remains to be my passion, I’ve also been keenly interested in governance. I have been a member of large, complex not-for-profit boards and have been an active observer of boards, in the audit committees and the board rooms of both public and privately held companies during my 30-year career with the firm.

I also recently learned that in May I’ll be receiving an honorary doctorate from the University of Idaho. I was born and raised in Idaho, so you can imagine what this acknowledgement means to me. It’s been quite a ride from Kimberly, Idaho to here. During my career these past 30 years, I have learned one important lesson: As difficult as it may be, we’re obliged -- duty-bound, in fact -- to strive to make a difference.

Why did you choose this profession?

Well, it was my college roommate at the University of Idaho who did the trick. She was an accounting major and convinced me to take an accounting class. Not long thereafter, I changed my major. But so did she . . . to education. I just hope my influence on her was as positive as hers was on me.

What do you see as the greatest challenge now facing the accounting profession in general, and your firm in particular?

Restoring the public trust has to be top-of-mind for the profession. And I’m always cognizant of Deloitte’s role in this, as are all of our partners. Our consistent commitment to integrity and quality as a firm has served us and the profession well. It will continue to do so. Our record of achievement as an employer of choice is also distinctive. We can’t take our eye off the commitment to our people. Our ability to serve a broad constituency of clients through our multi-disciplinary practice is unique. We must make this clear to the market.

We must also address the outcomes, intended and otherwise, of Sarbanes-Oxley. Positively, new disclosure requirements in Sarbanes-Oxley will enhance transparency and strengthen systems and controls. On the challenging side, board members have increasing liability for the policies and products of audit committees and management teams. Directors are on the firing line for lawsuits and litigation more than ever. And there is little question of the financial burden the act has created for all companies…especially smaller companies.

What do you see as the toughest challenge in your role as chairman of the board?

I face many of the same issues as the chairman of any other multi-billion-dollar enterprise: Making sure that our governance efforts serve. and earn the trust of, our constituencies. Of course, in our case, the constituency includes my partners -- the owners of our firm -- as well as our employees, our clients and, to a large degree, the capital market system. As a professional services firm, frequently we hear concerns about the business climate, regulatory changes and so forth. I tackle the related issues every day.

Among a number of other firsts, you became the first woman elected as board chair and the highest-ranking woman in Deloitte's history. What obstacles did you face as a woman coming up through the ranks in a profession that has historically been dominated by men?

Things have certainly changed a lot during the course of three decades. It was just 10 years ago that Deloitte launched its Women’s Initiative. We had to. Many talented women were leaving the ranks. The assumption then was that women wanted to stay close to home, and consequently, they weren’t offered some of the plum assignments that required travel. Unfortunately, many women left the firm. For us, it became a competitive necessity to change our thinking and correct our course. We have come a long way since that time, and we are striving to make further improvements. As I mentioned, my biggest challenge has been changing the firm’s thinking to broaden our recognition of top talent.

What advice would you give to a woman entering the public accounting profession today?

I would advise women to recognize their responsibility not only to elevate themselves but to elevate others around them. In doing so, they will elevate their profession. Investors, pensioners and stakeholders are depending on them, their views, their strengths and their independence. Because of what women have already done in the profession, I can’t imagine a better-prepared group than those entering the field today. I would also suggest that they recognize their strengths and endeavor to play to them.

What has helped you the most as you've advanced in your career?

I have the benefit of being with a firm that long ago recognized the value of women in the workforce, the result of which was a significant increase in retention of women and a corresponding increase in women in leadership roles in our firm. I also have been fortunate to have been mentored by a series of top senior leaders. I can’t stress enough the importance of finding and learning from a strong mentor.
I received a letter from a young employee leaving the firm to join a graduate program. She thanked me for being an outstanding role model -- and I didn’t even know her. I was moved by that letter and realized how closely watched we are as executives.

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