Five years ago, Harrah’s Entertainment Inc. was evaluating its contract with then-auditor Arthur Andersen. Harrah’s had invited top guns from the country’s premiere accounting firms to Las Vegas to pitch the giant casino company account. After that meeting, Harrah’s chose to stick with Arthur Andersen. But one individual’s name kept dropping from the lips of Harrah’s board members: Sharon Allen of Deloitte & Touche.
“Sharon really stood out. She gave this powerful and impressive presentation, and the other board members said: ‘Boy we sure would like to have someone like Sharon Allen leading the audit team,’ “says Gary Michael, a director on Harrah’s board and the former chairman and CEO of Albertson’s Inc. grocery chain.
Five months later, in August 2002, Arthur Andersen shut its doors following the Enron scandal. “Harrah’s immediately called Deloitte and said: ‘You can have us, but not unless Sharon Allen is involved,” Michael says. “This move was Deloitte’s foothold into the gaming industry — of which the firm now has a big presence. That’s just how much impact Sharon has and how much people count on her.”
Less than one year later, in May 2003, Allen was appointed chairman of the board of Deloitte & Touche USA – an executive position that made her the first woman chairman of a Big Four accounting firm, an organization that currently has revenues of nearly $10 billion. The move catapulted Allen into the accounting industry spotlight during an era of tumult and transformation in the field. Turns out, Allen’s strong ethical core (she grew up on an Idaho farm, after all), holistic leadership style and engaging presence — coupled with 30 years of solid number-crunching skills and public accounting — were just what the industry needed.
It didn’t take long for the accolades to multiply. Allen was chosen twice (in 2006 and 2007) as one of the “100 most powerful women in the world” by Forbes magazine, and this year was one of the “Power 25” in Crain’s 100 Most Influential Women in NYC Business. She is in constant demand as a speaker both in her profession and on the university circuit on issues addressing the capital markets, corporate governance, diversity and ethics. What’s more, she also extends her influence to numerous boards and business leadership councils including the Women’s Leadership Board at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and the President’s Export Council.
Part of Allen’s appeal is that — in a world filled with lingo-laden, business motivational gurus — her messages are backed with statistical collateral. Early in her career, Allen talked a lot about the correlation between the value of having a sound, fulfilling personal life and the ability to make fair and ethical judgments at work. “People often ask me: ‘How do you make the tough decisions and calls?’ ‘How do you deal with the pressure?’ “Allen says from her chairman’s office in New York City. “Frankly, it is easier for me to deal with that because I have the base of my connection and balance with my husband and my extended family. As long as those relationships are sound, business decisions are much easier.”
But Allen wasn’t content simply verbalizing her experiences. She needed cold, hard data. So, she teamed with an interactive research company to poll 1,000 employed adults about whether they believed that balance with work and life made a difference in extending ethical behavior in the workforce. “We actually found a surprisingly high correlation,” Allen says, adding that the research has gained some traction as colleges, universities and industry associations like the Chicago Bar Association pick it up to use in training and business classes. “It’s rewarding to see the results of your research getting legs,” Allen adds.
This research-based decision making policy has become Allen’s signature style. In the early 1990s, Deloitte was experiencing high female turnover. Allen became deeply involved in the accounting firm’s “Women’s Initiative,” which included a study using Catalyst and other research firms to conduct the interviews. “It was enlightening for us,” Allen says. “One of the most important findings was that women were not being assigned to the most significant and prestigious clients because there was a concern women would leave and break the continuity with the client. As a result, women were leaving the firm, and the whole cycle was perpetuating itself. It was an ‘Aha!’ moment for us.”
A transformation of the company’s processes — to include more women in the promotion pipeline — helped change the landscape. Today The Public Accounting Report confirms that Deloitte leads the Big Four in percentage of women partners at its organization, which currently stands at around 19 percent. This spring, Allen and her organization each earned the Work Life Legacy Award from the Families and Work Institute for leadership in workforce talent management.
Those leadership skills are tapped daily and applied broadly as Allen works to assure Deloitte & Touche has good governance, appropriate oversight, sound direction and accountability to the organizations’ partners, employees and clients. She also serves as an advisory partner with a number of the firm’s large accounts. “I carry the Chairman’s business card into significant opportunities,” she says. “I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the meaning of the business card and the opportunities the role of chairman of the board have provided me both in terms of impacting our client organizations as well as some broader leadership forums.”
That business card fits like a glove for Allen, who has dedicated three decades of her professional life to Deloitte. The youngest of four sisters, and the great grand-daughter of one of Idaho’s first women legislators, Allen earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting from the University of Idaho, and promptly interviewed with all eight of the Big Eight accounting firms.
Accounting firms were eager for women back then, but unsure how to tackle ticklish gender issues. (“Only 5 percent of the accounting graduating classes at that time were women,” Allen notes. “Now, the number is more than 50 percent.”) In 1973, Allen took the job as the first woman auditor in the Boise office of Touche Ross, Deloitte & Touche’s predecessor company. Allen’s acceptance letter, which she still has, spells out that her travel and overtime work would be the same as the men in the office and gently suggests she negotiate an “understanding” with her husband. “I think it’s fair to say I have traveled just as much as the men and have certainly worked as much overtime,” Allen quips.
Over the years, her roles and responsibilities grew at the firm, earning a partner role and then becoming managing partner of the Pacific Southwest practice. Her client list includes The Boeing Co., Computer Science Corp., Health Net Inc., Hewlett-Packard, and Washington Mutual Inc. There were times when clients courted Allen with tempting job opportunities, but her heart was always with Deloitte. “It’s about the people here,” Allen says.
Today, she spends her weekdays based out of her New York office — conducting meetings, traveling the globe for corporate events, juggling phone conferences and serving as an advisor on some of the firm’s heftiest accounts — and wraps up the week by flying home for a non-negotiable dinner and date night with her husband (“My staff knows I don’t like to be scheduled on the East Coast late on Fridays,” Allen says.) in Southern California. She also makes time to visit with her sisters, other extended family and friends. “We take the time for this. It is part of the grounding I find so important,” she says.
Indeed, former Albertson’s CEO Michael — who has a vacation home in Idaho near Allen’s — says it is sometimes surreal to see Allen on the keynote speech circuit one week, and in the grocery aisle clad in flip flops the next. “She is just genuine,” Michael says. “What you see is what you get, and Sharon is the real thing.”