Women in Business Q&A: Erica O'Malley, National Managing Partner of Diversity & Inclusion, Grant Thornton LLP

05/11/2015 04:26 am ET | Updated May 10, 2016

Erica O'Malley is the national managing partner of Diversity & Inclusion at Grant Thornton LLP, the national leader of the firm's Employee Benefit Plans Audit practice, and a member of its Partnership Board. Grant Thornton LLP is the U.S. member firm of Grant Thornton International Ltd, one of the world's leading organizations of independent audit, tax and advisory firms.

In her current role, she leads the Women at Grant Thornton initiative, which is designed to enhance the recruitment, retention and advancement of women into leadership positions at the firm. Her leadership has played a key role in Grant Thornton being named to Working Mother magazine's 100 Best Companies list every year since 2006, as well as the National Association for Female Executives' list of Top 50 Companies for Executive Women. She is a board member of both the YWCA Metropolitan Chicago and the Northern Illinois University Executive Leadership Forum. She is also a member of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (CPAs) and the Illinois CPA Society. She received a bachelor's degree in accounting from Northern Illinois University and is a CPA in Illinois.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I would say that I've had a very full life. As a mother of five children, I worked a reduced work schedule for more than 15 years, so I had my foot in two worlds. I also faced some pretty significant adversities as a child and young adult, but these challenging experiences have allowed me to be more open to experiences that other people bring to the table and granted me a willingness to help them overcome difficult times. They have also made me more resilient -- and I think this has made me a more effective leader in addition to helping me grow as a person.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at Grant Thornton LLP?
Prior to joining Grant Thornton, I spent 15 years with Arthur Andersen LLP and was part of the wind-down of that firm. At one point, I felt like I knew everything about the business. The end was a humbling experience and made me realize I didn't know as much as I thought I did. It taught me the importance of staying grounded and continually challenging yourself to learn and grow as a professional, because you never know what could be on the horizon.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Grant Thornton LLP?
An exciting day in my career was when I was elected to Grant Thornton's Partnership Board. The role offers me a great opportunity to help shape the firm's approach to attracting and retaining the best people and building a diverse workforce -- something I've been passionate about throughout my career.

I've also had some rewarding challenges. I was one of the first working mothers to exercise a reduced work load in my former firm, as well as the first to specialize in auditing benefits plans. When I joined Grant Thornton, I had the opportunity to bring that experience with me to help grow the Employee Benefit Plans Audit practice and expand the firm's diversity efforts.

How can we help to support and promote women in senior management positions?
That support is certainly needed. The number of women in senior management roles in the United States has increased by just 1 percent during the past decade, according to recent data from the Grant Thornton International Business Report (IBR).

In my view, sponsorship and advocacy are key. Having a mentor and advocate who can propel (and sometimes pull) you through the organization and help you navigate the politics of advancement is so important. This is an age-old career development skill for men, but, unfortunately is not something that manifests as well in women. At Grant Thornton, we offer a mentoring circles program which provides a platform for internal networking and organic, reciprocal relationships for women at the firm.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I'd say that I've always had a good balance. I've worked anywhere from 50 percent to full-time-and-then-some. I make all decisions based on the principle of what is the best and most effective use of my time during a particular period. Whenever I'm faced with a conflict, I try to look at it through the lens of what will lead to the fewest regrets. That said, my definition of balance isn't everyone else's. Often, people think balance is 50/50; for others it might be 70/30. It's a very personal commitment. You have to define it for yourself and commit to it.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Unconscious bias, hands-down. According to the Grant Thornton IBR, nearly 20 percent of female business leaders say that bias is a barrier for women entering senior management at their organization -- and only 10 percent of male business leaders agree. Gender bias is a particularly relevant issue with respect to hiring processes, given long-held stereotypes regarding leadership.

When choosing a successor, we all have a bias to select someone with a similar leadership style, since we tend to believe we're good at what we do and we want to replicate that. Because men and women tend to have different leadership styles, as long as male leaders are choosing their successors, they will have that bias to select men.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
In my personal life, my husband is a grounded individual and has always given me practical advice on how to approach what life brings. In my professional life, not many people have five children, so I didn't have one person in particular as a role model. However, something I love about public accounting is that you're constantly working in different places, so you have the opportunity to meet many different people and take note of what you'd like to emulate.

For example, Dan Wright, a retired partner from Arthur Andersen, was a very happy father of eight children. I noticed the way he behaved and how he approached life. Although he was a working father with a stay-at-home wife, he shared life skills that helped shape the person I am today.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
At Grant Thornton, there are several female leaders whom I admire greatly. Jacqueline Akerblom was the first woman to take a leadership role in Women at Grant Thornton and make that her focus for a period of time, which was a risk; now she's the firm's West region managing partner. I also admire Pamela Harless, the firm's Chief People & Culture Officer, who has a vision for a partnership that I don't think has existed in professional services before. She is elevating the firm's People & Culture function to the highest level possible, and it's inspiring. Julie Figueras, a young female partner within the Employee Benefit Plans Audit practice, grew up in the Philippines and has overcome many obstacles to get where she is today. Her achievements are truly impressive.

What do you want Grant Thornton LLP to accomplish in the next year?
One thing I'd really like Grant Thornton to accomplish in the next year is to fully integrate our culture and values into everything we do as an organization, which is a key differentiator for the firm and the foundation for meaningful growth. I believe that continuing to align our culture with our mission, values, vision, purpose and strategy will enhance our ability to grow and achieve our strategic goals at every level.

A healthy, high-performance culture depends on people and processes that are interwoven and interdependent. If you start by ensuring an effective culture, this increases trust and accelerates the speed of decision-making, making the organization more agile and efficient. The more clearly we see ourselves, our clients and their industries, the more purposeful our actions can be in delivering extraordinary service.