Rising Star: Heather Paquette, Partner, KPMG LLP

heather_-_2007_-_sm11by Pamela Weinsaft (New York City)

There aren’t many professional women who can claim that they decided to pursue a career in accounting while they were inside an Italian mountain.  Yet that’s exactly where Heather Paquette, Partner in the Midwest Information Technology Advisory (ITA) Practice in the Chicago office of KPMG LLP, came to her decision.  “As I was working the night shifts [as a U.S. Air Force computer operator for NATO] when I was stationed in Italy…I started thinking about saving for the future, which made me think accounting was where I wanted to be.” 

Following her time in the Air Force, she earned an accounting degree from Southern Illinois University at Carbandale and joined KPMG’s auditing group.  She was soon called back to her tech roots, transferring into the IT group within a year of joining the firm.   She explained: “At the time there was a big push [in the firm] to see if there were people interested in going to the technology team. It was one of those teams that was very entrepreneurial and, if you were a self-starter, it was where you wanted to be. I ended up transferring onto the technology team because I have a CPA background as well as the tech background, which enables me to look at risks and controls related to the use of IT.”

Paquette, who has been based in Chicago since 1996, was made a partner in 2004.  In addition to delivering services to audit clients, she has recently returned from maternity leave to lead not one, but two, initiatives within the firm’s Midwest practice to organize business in the marketplace within the firm’s Midwest practice:  the Midwest IT effort related to the international financial reporting standards and, in her words, “a team that focuses on how to increase efficiency in business related to that service point, supporting the financial statement audit team.” 

Being busy is part of her plan.  “One of the things that happened [when I went on maternity leave] was that I took my largest client and transitioned somebody else into that role…It was a little bit scary in that [before maternity leave] I had a defined, secure revenue stream and, when I came back off of leave, I suddenly didn’t have that any more.  I had a lot of excess capacity and I had to figure out what to do with that…So I reached out to a lot of different people to get their thoughts on what I should be doing.  The outcome was taking over these two initiatives and leading the team forward.  In the end, I think it was really beneficial that I wasn’t able go back into my secure space and I had to be a little bit innovative.”

Paquette now has three children under four years old.  “I’m good at multitasking,” she laughed.  She continued, “There are certain parameters that I’ve set around my work. One of them is that I try to be home at 6 PM if I’m not traveling. 6:00 PM – 8:30 PM is really my time with my kids.  Also, my limit for being away from them is no more than two nights in one week (as a general rule).  We have a lot of flexibility at KPMG in that we each have autonomy to manage the client demands and our personal obligations.  I really take that to heart.  In order for me to get through everything I need to do so I can be home during the week, I need to spend some additional time reading email on the weekend.  [My husband and I] work together to figure it out.”

“There is not enough time in the day for everything you want to do, but the goal in what you are doing at work or with your family is to be fully engaged while you are there.  To me that means if I have a conference call and I’m on my way home and it doesn’t wrap up by the time I get home, then I sit in the car until it is done, because once I walk in the door, I am “Mom.”  If I only get a couple of hours a day with my kids, I am sitting on the floor playing with them or reading to them, not on my Treo.” 

Paquette sees only one barrier to success for women in consulting:  their mistaken assumption that women they can’t have both work and family.  “We have clients who have high demands but we can manage those demands with communication.  As long as you are comfortable enough and confident enough…we have a very flexible work environment that allows us to meet the client demands…it is not [necessarily] about doing the work from 9-to-5, it is about getting the work done. But there is flexibility in when it is done and how we do it.”   She added, “To the extent I’m leading engagement teams, I make sure I communicate that message.”

Although it was almost 19 years ago, Paquette’s military service still serves to influence her leadership and work styles. “I think the greatest thing that I did take out of the military is that attention to detail.  You learn how to pay attention to the little things that matter.  You don’t know what the greater impact of them will be; you are just paying attention to them.”  She added, “In the military, you switch jobs every two years.  One of the biggest aspects that I think has been valuable for me in my career is the ability to change when needed, the ability to go into something new and not have all the answers but have the patience and confidence that you’ll find out how it is going to go.”

She continued, “What you learn is this approach to deal with something new: ‘OK, here’s something new that I’m challenged with.  How do I deal with that?’  To me, being in the military has allowed me to use the ability to change and take on new roles and responsibilities and not be frightened—well, not for very long—because I know I can figure it out. And I just need to get my arms around what I am trying to learn.”

She recently participated in a leadership program for early career partners offered by KPMG, which helped her understand what steps she needs to take to achieve clarity.   “For me, it is clear in my mind that there are a few things I’m working on professionally but, in order for me to accomplish what I see as my next step, I have to see and define it to other people because they can’t help me if I’m not clear.”   Paquette hopes to continue to expand her leadership roles at the firm in the coming years, looking to take on a broader role, although she is not really sure yet what that will be. “I’m still noodling on what it is I want to be when I grow up,” she joked.  “I’m still kind of working it out but [I do see myself] ultimately in a national leadership role or leading the office as the face of KPMG.”