Voice of Experience: Sue Rissbrook, UK Partner, PwC

By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

Sue Rissbrook, UK Partner at PwC, says her advice to professional women is “being true to yourself, being who you feel you truly are, and supporting others.”

She recently moved to PwC’s London office after working in the smaller Birmingham office mainly partnered by men, and was pleasantly surprised by what she found. “I’ve now walked into a diverse set of partners. I see far more of my peers are female and I see them being very supportive of one another, which impacts positively on all partners and the team.”

“We’re supportive, creative, and entrepreneurial, and I think that’s fantastic for people to see,” she added.

Career Path in Professional Services

Rissbrook began her career in audit at a smaller firm, moved to another Big Four firm before being recruited into tax at PwC. “At the time, I was working three days a week and had a young family,” she recalled. “It’s unusual to be part time in a professional services firm, but PwC had spotted my skills and wanted me on board.”

“To me, having a family, being there for them and nurturing them was very important – anything for me, from a career perspective, was a bonus,” she explained. She continued to work part time, and came through to partnership at the firm.

Rissbrook helped grow and then led the transfer pricing specialist team in Birmingham – the largest specialist team in Europe outside London. “We were obviously doing something right and I’m very proud to have been part of it.”

“Then I was asked to come to London, to join the London Region tax team.”

Rissbrook says one of her proudest achievements to date has been growing and leading the team in the Midlands, and then being recognized as a leader and continuing on to her next step. “My goal in London is to do the same, and build a similarly successful team.” Sue has also just been appointed to the UK firm’s Supervisory Board by her fellow partners. “I am absolutely thrilled and delighted to be given the honor of representing my fellow partners in overseeing the workings of the main executing board of the firm. The experiences and skills I have gained throughout my career will be hugely valuable in performing this role.”

Sue is also excited about her work developing business internationally. “Within our transfer pricing global practice, I lead the retail and consumer industry specialism. That includes building best practices and helping clients with sector specific issues. In addition to that, two years ago, I started running a global annual masterclass event for our clients, who specialize in the retail and consumer space. It’s unique and it’s very exciting to be leading that.”

Rissbrook believes that transfer pricing is moving up the agenda for boards around the world. “Businesses worry about paying the right tax in each location they operate in. Taxes can be costly to a business, and tax authorities are more challenging than ever. At PwC we help companies comply with the regulations and meet the arms length standard. Our work is meant to mirror business substance and if the tax model appropriately reflects the business operations, this will help you get to an appropriate taxpaying position across a Group”

Finding Your Own Balance

Sometimes women can be held back from success by their own perceptions, Rissbrook says. “We perceive that we have to behave in a certain way, or we hang back and feel like we have to wait to be spotted. I feel that, actually, the more that women understand what the environment looks like and that they can actually be themselves, they will succeed.”

“We don’t need to be someone else and we can be as we want to be. We can step forward and we don’t have to step back. In a male environment, sometimes that comes more intuitively,” she continued. “And quite controversially, sometimes I think that women don’t help each other. Women don’t always help women coming behind them which I feel quite ashamed about. In my career, I didn’t necessary have a female role model to look up to – all of my key mentors were men.”

“I try to ensure I do help others. I’m very happy if people are looking to me to be a role model, to talk their experiences through or talk about how they see things. Each view is different and extremely valuable.”

Rissbrook, who still works part time as a partner, believes that women should find a way to make their career work for them. “I don’t believe there is a right way of doing things – each individual is faced with difficult things to juggle, and each person has to work out their own balance and what works best for them. I still work part time – I have a 70 percent partner share, which is unusual in professional services.”

“I don’t believe in feeling you need to compromise – my view is that if you’re good, you will succeed. If you want to have a family or other things that take you out of work, you can find a way to do it,” she continued. “You have to recognize there’s a timing aspect to this, but when you’re young you should do what feels right at the time. I don’t think you should wait to get to a certain point in your career to decide when to get married or have children.”

Rissbrook says one of the important lessons she’s learned through her career is how important it is to build deep relationships. “I’m a very social, friendly sort of person. I’ve found it easy to generate relationships and make friends. Building close relationships and having networks really does help ease the work and is more fun.”

She explained, “When things get challenging or tough, the strength of those relationships really does support those periods and help you get onto the next exciting part.”

Diversity at PwC

PwC has many programs devoted to the advancement and retention of women, but one in particular has stood out to Rissbrook: the Open Mind program. “It was online and it’s all about thinking differently and not thinking as you’ve always thought,” she explained.

“It’s about getting people to challenge themselves. We’re all human and people have a natural inclination to warm toward someone like themselves. The Open Mind program was about challenging that and seeing the benefits of diversity. It’s been very powerful for people across the whole business.”

The program involved short webcasts and emails encouraging participants to do something different that day, or to talk to someone they hadn’t talked to before. It encourages leaders to reach out to someone for a project that they hadn’t thought of in the past.

The other program Rissbrook mentioned is the firm’s Women’s Leadership Program. “I’ve helped out at that program ever since its inception. The goal is to help high performing female directors on their journey to partnership and help them think about themselves as a leader and how their leadership styles may be different than men. The concern was not enough female directors are coming into the partnership, but this program is making a difference.”

In Her Personal Time

“My life outside work is very important to me,” she said. “There is a lot of time spent with family and friends.”

She continued, “I also think it’s important for us to look after ourselves – with diet, exercise, and having fun. As a female, as mother and wife, we’re juggling so many things at one time. If your self is strong, well, and full of energy, everything else tends to be strong as well.”