Three decades ago, Grant Thornton US chief operating officer
Shelley Stein* was one of a handful of women to
enter the profession. Now an industry leader, she shares the
lessons she has learned and reveals her optimism about the rise of
There weren’t many women in my accounting classes at the
University of Minnesota, and there certainly weren’t many women in
the boardroom either. However, I wanted a career in public
accounting, and I knew it was up to me to take the initiative and
pursue my own path to achieve my career goals.
I’d like to share some lessons that have proven very valuable to
me. I learned from those around me to remain open-minded and take
advantage of opportunities as they presented themselves. Early on,
as a client services audit partner, I learned how to serve both
public and privately held clients. I learned to convey that level
of attention even while, at times, delivering tough messages.
As managing partner of an office, and later, a region, I learned
the value of empowerment and accountability. As Grant Thornton US
managing partner of client services, I directed the activities of
the firm’s national managing partners engaged in assurance and
advisory, tax and international services, as well as the firm’s
industry groups, all focused on enhancing existing services,
implementing new services, driving strategy, achieving revenue
growth and maximising profitability.
I’ve also faced challenges. After years of serving clients, the
firm asked me to take an international liaison leadership role – to
be someone without ultimate authority, but charged with realising
specific goals. Through this new experience, I gained confidence in
my ability to lead by building consensus. The ability to build
consensus has been particularly valuable to me as we’ve tried to
improve the professional experience our people have within Grant
A few years ago, our leadership team began thinking creatively
about how to focus more effectively on our people. I knew that we
couldn’t grow the firm without growing our people, and that we
couldn’t provide outstanding client service without developing
outstanding people. We wanted to model for each employee the
personalised attention that we expect our professionals to give
each client. I learned that consensus management among office
managing partners is the key to developing our own
Coming up with a better way to accomplish this goal fell to me as
chief operating officer. The interrelated business imperatives of
retention and delivering quality client service were the challenges
I faced. Here, I learned to ask people what they wanted, to listen
and to demonstrate with action that I was listening – that
leadership was listening. So, to begin, we established a baseline
by asking our people what we were doing right and what we could do
better. Then we involved our people and communicated what we were
doing in response to their feedback.
Striking a balance
While our employee satisfaction was on par with
other firms we saw we could improve in specific areas, such as:
retention of women and senior associates, work/life integration and
career development. A key consideration was creating an environment
in which our employees could achieve a balance between their
personal and professional lives.
A key challenge for us was effective retention of client-serving
women. Through the Women @ Grant Thornton initiative, we focused on
the retention issue and what we could do about it. We also knew
that companies with the best records of promoting women typically
post higher profits and larger return on investment. So we knew we
needed to do a better job of filling the leadership pipeline with
greater diversity, including women.
Through innovative problem-solving and challenging individuals to
own improvement in each area, we gained real traction for all four
initiatives – which together we call ‘the Grant Thornton Experience
for our people’. Already we’ve seen improvement in retention and
promotion of women and we now have an increasing number of women in
decision-making capacities. We’ve also received external validation
of our efforts.
I’ve also noticed an accelerating national dialogue about women in
leadership roles in the public accounting profession. I’ve
personally had an increasing number of speaking invitations to
address issues such as mentoring, gender differences in
communication and work styles, and the progress of women in the
workplace. Every time I speak about the communication and
work-style differences between men and women, I see heads nodding.
Women approach me afterwards to say: “I thought I was the only one
who felt that way.” Such exchanges have reinforced my conviction
that talking about the issues of women in our profession by sharing
personal stories is effective mentoring.
Opportunities for women in senior leadership positions in
accounting are at an all-time high. Today women have a greater
opportunity to shape their careers, their firms and the profession.
Women in the accounting profession should focus on excellence and
demand what they and their firms need to be successful. As long as
women are willing to take ownership, learn from experience and be
accountable for their progression, the opportunities and potential
for success are limitless.
*Shelley Stein is the chief operating officer of Grant Thornton
US. She is responsible for operational and strategic priorities
critical to the firm’s success, including public policy and
external affairs, human resources, the office of strategy
management, strategic learning, and marketing and sales.