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Voice of Experience: Ilona Steffen, Global Head of Marketing and Insights, PwC

Ilona Steffen Cope“Throughout my career I would consciously observe the style of other women as a model and notice how they set up their lives.

They all worked differently, and I realized there were a variety of options for having success in both the workplace and family life, from having nannies to a husband who stayed home to stepping out for a period,” says PwC’s Ilona Steffen.

As for style, she noticed some were very warm and tuned-in, with high emotional intelligence, while others exhibited more “male” traits in their style. “The No. 1 most important aspect for me was to find my own style by watching others. I saw some whom I knew would never be me, and others that exhibited a style I was more comfortable with, and that gave me role models and context which allowed me to see myself down the road,” she says. She recommends that women notice the various role models all around, and seek them out to have conversations and be highly aware of what might work for you.

A Career Planned with Balance in Mind

Steffen is what she calls “unusually planful,” and it shows in the great care she took to look ahead at her career aspirations. She thought early on about the professional implications of being a woman and how many years of experience she needed under her belt to be prepared to have a child. That’s why she chose an accelerated course of work that offered a great deal of work experience in her early 20s.

“It’s smart for mothers to have those conversations early with daughters to help them see how many years they’ll want to be working before they feel comfortable taking a break, as it is different for different careers,” she advises.

Steffen started in banking in Germany and then attended business school in New York which broadened her horizons and introduced her to consulting, which appeared to be a career where you could advance quickly. Her bosses would ask why she was in a hurry, but her life plan dictated that she reach a senior point before she had children to make it easier to achieve the flexibility she needed.

She found consulting to be fast-paced with its non-stop travel, but it was a good fit because it allowed her to grow at an incredible speed; then when she and her husband decided to start a family, she knew it was time to find something that would allow her to be at home more, to be the type of parent she wanted to be.

Her role at PwC has been ideal because it allows her to apply what she had learned in her client-facing career to internal strategy, combined with flexibility. Currently, she is leading the Markets & Insights (M&I) team which is part of a new global marketing organization at PwC. Despite it being a highly demanding role, some of it she can do remotely which helps create a bit of balance for family time.

As part of her M&I role, created last summer she was tasked with building a global thought leadership capability for PwC, a charge that has allowed her to build a new team, hiring 12 people in the last four months. “Our firm wants to be sought after in the areas where we excel, which means elevating how we write, what we write and how we position ourselves through content and ideas, to build the business around ideas,” she says.

Building this leading-edge content has exposed her to the interesting perspective of how
people consume information and how PwC can add value as they experiment with new formats and delivery mechanisms to meet audience demands, such as higher expectations for business content and a shorter attention span.

“Some people want visuals; others stories; so we are constantly thinking through how content is evolving and getting the right piece to the right person in the right way to have the impact we want,” she explains. That of course means they have to produce a prolific number of content assets around one topic, committing to an area over a sustained period of time to offer a variety of channels and formats.

Her first piece of thought leadership was developed 15 years ago and now she is responsible for a large team and transforming what thought leadership looks like at PwC, while still in an environment where having a career and being a good parent is possible.

Paving the Way for Others

“Everyone needs to find a purpose in what they do, and mine is to replicate my experience for others. Over the years I have had dozens of accomplished women who were in the same spot and needed an option that would allow them to balance,” she says. “I have made that my personal purpose — to help others find that opportunity.”

Steffen leads a diverse team, with a high proportion of career-oriented, successful women who are also moms. They don’t want to slow down, but need different parameters, where they can hold a smart job and continue to learn and grow while being the parent they want to be.

She said at the time her path was unusual, but she made it clear it was non-negotiable and then worked extra hard to prove she could be just as good or better when working from home and accomplishing as much or more than others. While her bosses initially saw it as a temporary solution, she was proud she had the courage to do it and now is glad she has the chance to motivate others to do the same — to be clear on what you need, but also work extra hard to prove to others that it can be done.

She finds that while travel and face-to-face meetings can be harder for parents, technology is improving to eventually bridge the gap, and the speed in which it is advancing gives her hope that these opportunities will continue to grow.

With both she and her husband as working parents to two children, ages 11 and 13, Steffen notes you have to be smart about how you set up your private life and hobbies. “I shifted them to activities the family can do together, such as breeding cats and bunnies, to make sure that the hours we spend together meet my personal self-fulfillment and happiness, but also allow us to do things together as a family.”