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Accounting for her success

Deloitte Chairman Sharon Allen says 'straightforward, no-nonsense and transparent communication' is crucial to managing an organization.

October 10, 2010|By Shan Li, Los Angeles Times

The gig: Sharon Allen guides the strategy and overall direction of Deloitte, one of the country's big four accounting firms, in the position of board chairman — a title she prefers to "chairwoman." The 58-year-old executive spends 75% of the year flying around the country and the world, advising key clients and maintaining the company's visibility. With 37 years at the firm under her belt, she's a business veteran and the highest-ranking woman in the history of the big four. She also sits on the global board of directors of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu.


FOR THE RECORD:
Sharon Allen: An interview with Deloitte Chairman Sharon Allen in the Oct. 10 Business section described her as a former Midwesterner. In fact, as the article noted elsewhere, she is a native of the West, having grown up in Idaho. —

Rural roots: The youngest of four sisters, Allen grew up on a farm in the town of Kimberly, Idaho. She worked for a time on the farm as a kid and then as a car hop in high school, but said she lacked talent at both. "I learned very early that I wasn't very good on the farm," she said. "And as a car hop, I dumped an entire tray of soft drinks into someone's car once."

Book learning: Education was important in Allen's family. Her father graduated from Stanford with a journalism degree before returning to the farm. She attended the University of Idaho, planning to take a customary route and major in education to become a teacher. But her roommate was an accounting major and talked her into dipping a toe into the business world. "I was hooked from the time I took the first class," she said. She switched her major to accounting soon after.

The odd one out: In the 1970s, women were still a rarity in the business world. Allen was often the lone female in her accounting courses. The trend continued once she started at Touche Ross, a predecessor to Deloitte. Allen turned it to her advantage. "People found a way to recognize and notice me," she said. "While being a woman in a predominantly male profession early in my career, it would have been easy to adjust my style and focus on doing stuff like the men did. I learned I could be successful by doing it my own way."

Role models: Her great-grandmother, one of the first female legislators in Idaho, was a primary influence. "She lived next door and was quite aged and blind," Allen said. "She had lots of good stories, including some about legislating in the state. I wish I could go back and hear some of them again."

From Midwest to West Coast: The former Midwesterner chooses to live in Pasadena instead of New York, where Deloitte maintains its headquarters. " California is quite different when you think that the whole state of Idaho has 11/2 million people," Allen said. She's lived in Southern California for years. Before being elected chairman, Allen was based in Los Angeles as Deloitte's managing partner for the Pacific Southwest region. Technology and careful coordination allow Allen and other members of her team to live across the map: Her executive assistant is in Portland, Ore.; her chief of staff lives in New York; and her speechwriter is in Charlotte, N.C.

Hardest lesson: Learning to promote herself at work. Four years into Allen's first job, she got passed over for an early promotion into a management role. "I stomped into my supervisor's office and listed out all the things I had done to earn the promotion," she said. "He didn't know I had done any of those things."

"As well as you think you are doing, those in the organization have to be aware of it," Allen said. "Keep people well informed, make sure you talk about your contributions. That was one of those obstacles I learned early to overcome."

Prioritizing: At one point, Allen was the managing partner of the Deloitte Boise office and had recently been elected to the Deloitte board of directors and chairman of the Boise Chamber of Commerce. "I had a new boss at the time and my supervisor said to me, 'Everybody tells me how great you are, but I haven't seen it yet,'" Allen said. "It was a very sobering experience. I really stepped back and realized that I was not appropriately leveraging or prioritizing any of the roles I was then playing."

Management style: Consensus and communication. Allen says that "straightforward, no-nonsense and transparent communication" is crucial to managing an organization and the people within it. It is also vital to stick to your values, and make sure that the company culture reflects those values, she says.

Keep grounded: Friday date nights are sacred. No matter where Allen is in the world, she places top priority on flying home every week to spend time with her husband, Rich (they've been married for 38 years), who was also her high school sweetheart. "He's my best friend and biggest supporter and also the one who keeps me humble," she said. When she has time, Allen likes to garden, golf and entertain friends over bottles of California Cabernet. And she and her husband own a cabin by a lake in Idaho; they try to make it out there as much as possible.

Lend a hand: Find a mentor and also be a mentor, Allen says. "Sometimes we make finding and having a mentor too difficult," she said. "Stop and look around, and there are many people who are available to guide."

Career advice: Find something you are passionate about and stick with it. "From my perspective, being successful is rooted in finding something that you are passionate about and love to do," she said.

shan.li@latimes.com

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