Sharon L. Allen, chairman of the board of Deloitte & Touche USA LLP, delivered the College of Business Leighton Lecture on Ethics and Leadership in late March. The first female chairman of the board of a leading professional services firm, Allen spoke about leadership, integrity, and the changing business environment to an audience of more than 250.
Deloitte & Touche USA LLP is one of the nation’s leading professional services firms. The company is also no stranger to the University of Illinois, which is the largest source of talent to the firm worldwide. Of Deloitte’s 34,000 employees, nearly 650 are U of I alumni.
Allen, who grew up in the small town of Kimberly, Idaho, said she never imagined being in such a significant leadership position. “Leadership is about raising the bar, getting the best performance out of your people, and out of yourself,” said Allen.
She developed her leadership style through observing others and incorporating the best traits she saw to create a composite role model and style of her own. While certain leadership styles work differently for each person, Allen pointed to three key elements that have guided her throughout her career:
Allen also addressed the significance of ethical behavior in large worldwide firms like Deloitte. She described ethics as maintaining an internal balance of what is right and wrong.
“You can’t legislate ethics, so choosing the right thing will always come down to the right personal decision,” she said, adding that “everyone’s blueprint for achieving success is different” and that an “unfailing ethical compass” is critical to acting with integrity.
Allen described the effort Deloitte takes in remaining fresh in a changing business environment. The number of truly engaged workers in this country is only 29%, according to a recent Gallup poll cited by Allen. Other data made the firm take a long look at how it can stay ahead of staffing and demographic changes and remain competitive. She says companies must offer their employees more than a high paycheck. Deloitte has taken a position where the firm aims to remain flexible so their employees can create a positive work-life balance.
The flexibility can range anywhere from taking time off to raise children, training for a triathalon, or simply slowing down. Allen explained how peopleoften need a break after 8-10 years. Deloitte’s new initiative – called “mass career customization” – allows employees to modify their careers when needed, and lets Deloitte rejuvenate and retain their best employees.
“We’ve made work-life balance a priority. Over the long-run, if we can actually keep a higher percent of employees than those who would leave us, then we’re successful,” Allen said.
Because of Deloitte’s commitment to ethics and integrity, the firm recently announced a $4 million commitment to fund the endowment of the newly created University of Illinois Center for Professional Responsibilities in Business and Society. The center is dedicated to educating future generations of business leaders about their professional responsibilities. Deloitte & Touche will be a founding partner in the center, which is expected to open by the summer of 2006.
The Leighton Lecture is named in honor of Richard and Grace Leighton, U of I graduates in ’49 and ’50, respectively, who contributed funds to endow the lectures, which focus on ethics in business.
-- Sarah Judd
Sharon Allen was interviewed on WILL radio's Afternoon Magazine prior to her speech. The audio of the interview is online: