Deloitte LLP Chairman Sharon Allen has garnered many firsts in her life. She was the first woman elected to serve on the $11 billion company's U.S. board of directors and the first woman to chair its U.S. board. She is also the first woman to head one of the Big Four professional services firms. As chairman, Allen is responsible for corporate governance and oversees the organization's relationships with multinational clients. A lifelong Deloitte employee, Allen recently spoke to students and alumni at Emory University's Goizueta Business School as part of the Dean's Leadership Speaker Series and discussed three issues listeners could control regardless of the economic environment: decision-making, business ethics and career-life balance. She followed up those remarks with an in-depth interview on these topics and on the best advice she's ever received.
Knowledge@Emory: You mentioned that people often think of business ethics as separate from personal ethics. Why is that?
Allen: Thinking of business ethics as separate from personal ethics represents dangerous thinking. Much like keeping two sets of books, the results can be devastating. Consider the business scandals of the past decade. In those situations, the potential for ethical breach gained momentum when the fiduciary responsibility of a business took a back seat to self- or corporate interest. Often, such interests can be driven by the appetite of business culture for continuous growth and the ongoing demand to make the numbers. While it's never a justifiable excuse, the pressure to do more - and quickly - can lead individuals to extreme risks and unethical decisions that they otherwise wouldn't take or make outside of a business context.
Knowledge@Emory: Can you give an example of a time you had to make a tough business decision? What went into your thinking?
Allen: The easiest business decisions are black and white. The toughest business decisions, however, are those with the deepest shade of grey - that is, the benefits of choosing one particular option over another are not immediately obvious, compelling, or clear-cut. Whether you're looking at strengths and weaknesses or opportunities and threats, the combined attributes of the options under consideration may offset each other . Each has its own merits and flaws.
But the toughest business decisions can be made easier by focusing on one determining factor you can always count on - ethics. When your business is governed by ethical decision making, you contribute daily to the long-term sustainability of your business. At Deloitte, while highly specialized expertise or unique insights are important business offerings, our most important offering is trust - and no one client or no one fee will ever lead us to jeopardize priceless trust through unethical behavior. Without trust, the basis for the new and ongoing business relationships that sustain our business will cease to exist - and, ultimately, our business would be left with no decisions to make.
Knowledge@Emory: What do you see as the new frontier in career-life balance? What kinds of concerns do you hear from women at Deloitte?
Allen: For the past few years, Deloitte has pioneered Mass Career Customization, which we believe is the new frontier of career-life balance. After reaching agreement with their managers, employees can either choose to dial up, dial down, or continue their current trajectory across the variables of pace, workload, location, schedule, and role (but they will always work hard!). You can learn more about this program at www.masscareercustomization.com.
I also believe that another new frontier that's likely to emerge is at the micro level of how work gets done. With greater flexibility, people can exercise greater autonomy. That will probably translate into allowing individuals much more say in how they structure their workday. With greater flexibility, teams will also have greater autonomy in how they allocate tasks and roles to get the job done. Both of these possibilities will help enable people to better fit their work to their lives and their lives to their work while advancing their careers.
Career-life fit has long been a concern of women in the workplace. With a culture of flexibility now established in our workplace, women at Deloitte want and expect to see more women role models who have successfully advanced to leadership roles while balancing their career and personal lives.
Knowledge@Emory: You mentioned noticing that members of Generation Y, unlike boomers, have prioritized having a life as much as working (i.e., valuing a company where life can fit into work and work into life), and that Deloitte has responded with its Mass Career Customization program. As the job market tightens, do you see companies being less flexible to employees' needs in this area?
Allen: Whether the job market continues to contract or finally expands - and history tells us that we will get through this recession - I think that companies will need to offer greater rather than less flexibility to employees into the future. Today, technology is making such flexibility possible. Tomorrow, demographics will demand it.
Every day this year, an estimated 10,000 Baby Boomers in the U.S. will turn 62, which is currently the median age for retirement. Furthermore, research conducted by Deloitte indicates that there will be fewer young people to replace retiring workers in the U.S. for the next 30 years. With their supply low, members of Generation Y will eventually be in high demand - especially those regarded as top talent. If the newest members of our workforce don't find the flexibility they need in one organization, they will more than likely be welcomed by others that perceive flexibility as a competitive advantage. I believe those businesses that are actively establishing a culture of flexibility in their organizations are ahead of the game.
Knowledge@Emory: Did you aspire to head Deloitte earlier in your career? What do you think contributed most to your rise to the top?
Allen: When I joined Deloitte 36 years ago, I simply aspired to be the best accountant I could be at that time. Fortunately, I've been able to spend my career in an organization that values the contributions of women. In the early 1990s, Deloitte began a concerted effort to retain and advance the talented women it had worked so hard to recruit. Along with the helpful guidance of mentors and my own desire to work hard and succeed, I began to assume positions of greater leadership. I'm thankful that many people believed in me and have responded favorably to my ability to bring people together to solve complex problems.
Knowledge@Emory: What is the best advice you ever received?
Allen: Earlier in my career, I observed the leaders I most wanted to follow and considered their special traits that drew me to them. Eventually, I would build a composite model of the leadership traits that I wanted to emulate - including the ability to communicate, be decisive, create a vision of the future, and execute against it.
But I also came to realize that leadership is much more art than science. Just as there's no one right age or gender or cultural background for leadership, I came to understand that there's no single right way to lead. So I knew it immediately when one of my mentors gave me the best advice I ever received - be yourself. I understood intuitively that I had to lead in a way that was natural for me. Otherwise, I recognized that I wouldn't be a leader for very long. When you think about it, each of us really has no other choice. Perhaps Oscar Wilde, the 19th century Irish novelist said it best: Be yourself. Everyone else is taken. Those are good words to live by.