By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)
Motivated by a “secret love” of being a teacher, Susan Allen, TICE (Technology, Information Communications and Entertainment) Assurance Leader for PwC Canada and Chair of the firm’s Women in Leadership/Retention of Women initiative, has built her career on her leadership capabilities, and is motivated by a passion for encouraging women leaders.
She began her career at the University of Toronto. “I graduated from university with a geography and drama degree, because I wanted to be a teacher,” Allen explained. “I fell into accounting because I took on a job as the University Cashier, and the world of accounting opened up to me as I started taking courses.” Allen joined PricewaterhouseCoopers in 1981, after taking an introductory accounting course, and was offered a position in training as a new manager – which was perfect for her inclination toward teaching. “Funny that I had to get my CA to be a teacher!” she joked.
A 3 year secondment and two children later, Allen was promoted to senior manager. Commending PwC for the company’s flexibility, she said, “I decided that part time was the answer for me.” Working full time January through April, three days per week May through September, and four days per week September through June allowed her to spend more time with her young children – and still make partner in the regular amount of time.
“A few years later, during the tech boom, I was asked to transfer into the TICE industry group,” she said. However, feeling the need to credentialize herself, she volunteered to move her family to Silicon Valley, obtain her CPA designation and embark upon her second secondment in San Jose, California Allen said, “it was my riskiest – yet best decision of my career to date.”
Women in Leadership
Allen works directly with the CEO to improve retention of women and to encourage, develop, and promote more women into leadership positions. A leadership role model herself, Allen has served as the Emerging Companies Practice Leader, Greater Toronto Area TICE Leader, and National AAG TICE Leader.
“I was also elected to the Canadian Partnership Board,” she said, and “last February I was nominated for the Global Board.” As one of only 18 members, and the first woman elected to the position, Allen says, “being elected to the Global Board by fellow partners around the world was a big honor for me, because it’s my peer group. It’s an honor to represent them.”
Allen has a lot of advice for women striving to be leaders. “Let me be sure that I pick the most important thing!” she joked.
“Set a goal for yourself and follow that goal – think in the long term and not just day to day. In the beginning I didn’t think about how to navigate my career in a powerful, intentional way.” She continued, “I think I was lucky, and I wouldn’t leave this to luck. In the year I was getting promoted to partner, I didn’t even have “to become a partner” written anywhere in my personal plan as a goal.”
“Women don’t know how to make five years from now relevant. You need to think about how to navigate that. What skill gaps do you have that you need to work on now, so that in five years time, you will unequivocally be ready for the next promotion or that challenging high profile assignment you are seeking.” In five years, Allen says she herself will be retired. “I’m looking to make a difference in those five years.” She cites closing the gender gap at PwC as one of the things she’s most excited about working on, focusing on issues such as: why women tend to leave the firm at manager level, building longer term career opportunities for women, and creating a stronger partner pipeline to promote women.
“When I leave in five years time, if I have made a difference in that area, I will have left the firm better than I found it and I’ll feel successful.”
“Every day I see high performing women leave the firm,” she said. One big reason is that most women at PwC are part of a two-career household that needs to be managed – and these types of duties generally fall to women.
“My husband has a career and manages his own company,” she said. “You can make it work.” The key is “convincing women that this is an option for them, and helping them through those mountains to climb along the way.”
Allen sees “the second shift and the burnout” it causes as the main barrier to women in her industry. Additionally, she says, “we find that there are barriers women put on themselves,” such as keeping their heads down, not getting noticed, not putting their hand up to ask for challenging or high profile assignments, not building their networks, and, as a result, being passed over for promotions. “Women need to proactively work on their careers on a long term basis. And they tend to undersell themselves – attribute credit to their teams. They don’t attribute credit to themselves,” she said.
Allen discussed several programs PwC has created to encourage the retention of women. Briefcase Moms, for example, helps women deal with the challenges they face as working moms, provides them with a network of like women in the firm to stay connected with while on maternity leave and in the years after childbirth. She explains that the program is designed to ensure that mothers are given the tools and support they need to pursue the professional opportunities they want – at their pace, while at the same time, ensuring they aren’t overwhelmed.
Advice for Emerging Leaders
And there is always the work/life balance issue. “It’s a very individual thing. People may think that I don’t have work/life balance. But balance was different for me at different stages of my career. Now that my kids are grown, balance is achieved in a different way for me than when they were toddlers, but it is still very important. For me, going part time for three years when my second child was born kept me in the firm. Later, while working full time, flexibility in the work day kept me sane. I would drive my kids to school and my husband or mother would pick them up… It’s about making the most of those free hours you have in the day.” Also, “having a nanny and a housekeeper has been a wonderful thing.”
She explained that many women feel guilty about having a nanny or extra help to care for children – but they needn’t feel that way. “The time I had was quality time,” she explained. “I had a flexible job and was at the important school events. A nanny at home allowed me to have that job. …I was a better person for them when I was working – if your work makes you happy, then you work, and you’re a better mom.”
Allen encourages women “not to be afraid to ask for help – really be a sponge to those around you. Allow yourself to learn as much as possible.” She continued, “don’t be afraid to take calculated risks. Those calculated risks are the ones that allow you to show your abilities.”
She also encourages women to take credit for their work and evaluate themselves fairly and not too critically. She recommends building networks early. “I think why I was able to be considered for promotions was finding mentors and coaches to help navigate the organization. All of my mentors and coaches have been men – they understand how the organization works.”
She stresses the importance of long term thinking, stating goals and going for them, and fulfilling competency gaps to be considered for the next promotion.
Allen has volunteered for a number of nonprofits over her career, including the Mississauga Living Arts Centre, the Mississauga Arts Council, The National Ballet of Canada, and The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. She recommends volunteering as an activity that is important for building leadership skills. “You get to practice skills in a boardroom in a really safe environment,” she explained.
Finding Inspiration in Family
Allen reports that she has found the most inspiration in her family. “The people who inspire me the most are my children,” Allen says. “They are my proudest achievement.”
She explained that her daughter just became a CA and her son is studying engineering. “They are constantly striving to be the best that they can be,” she said. “It’s such a pleasure for me to feel that I had something to do with that.”
“My grandfather always told me to be true to myself and that stuck with me as something to stand by – to develop a style that was authentic to me and not try to be like someone else.”