Deloitte’s Global Chair on breaking the glass ceiling, her passion for inclusion, and the impact of imposter syndrome

For the first time, a Big Four firm has named a woman as Global Chair. Sharon Thorne became Global Chair of Deloitte in June 2019, blazing a trail which other women will undoubtedly follow. In one of Sharon’s first interviews since her appointment, she tells CLIC about her ambitions, her passion for inclusion and why she’ll never stop battling imposter syndrome.

Congratulations on becoming Global Chair of Deloitte. What signal does your appointment send out to the profession?

Hopefully, it sends out a motivating signal – particularly for women. I hope it will inspire more women to think: “I can lead too. I’m going to go for it.” However, it’s important to put my appointment into context – there are many other women in senior roles at Deloitte. For example, Cindy Hook is CEO of Deloitte Asia Pacific, Janet Foutty is the Chair of the US Board, and in 2003, Sharon L. Allen became the Big Four’s first female chair of our US firm . We have been doing a lot of work on gender equality as a firm for years, and we’re committed to continuing that.

You’re passionate about diversity and inclusivity. Why?

I’ve been passionate about fairness since childhood, and inclusivity is the foundation. In 2006, as Deloitte’s Talent Partner, I set up the firm’s diversity networks after two LGBT+ colleagues came to talk to me. I also introduced flexible working, childcare support, and maternity coaching. Additionally, I launched a ‘Women in Leadership’ group to try to work out what we needed to do to help more women attain leadership positions. At the time, the group was mainly made up of senior men, and we didn’t see the progress we wanted. But over the past few years, things have started to accelerate, and we have made real change.

I want all of our people to come to work and feel they can be themselves and have the same opportunity to achieve their potential – regardless of social background, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or other characteristics that make us who we are.

What will you focus on over the next four years? 

I’m looking closely at three areas. First, I want to ensure we have a world class board providing top-notch governance. Managing the effects of the Fourth Industrial Revolution requires constant transformation. To achieve that, we need strong governance. 

Second, I’m focused on inclusivity. I am personally championing Deloitte’s commitment to creating an inclusive culture for all. For example, we’ve recently launched a new initiative around gender parity – a subject that’s very close to my heart. 

Third, I’m supporting Deloitte’s broader purpose. As a firm, we’re committed to making a global impact – in two areas in particular. Firstly, through ‘WorldClass’ we aim to empower 50 million people to be successful in the environments in which they live by 2030. Secondly, we’re focused on having a positive impact on climate change.

What barriers hinder women from reaching the top?

First, there are societal hurdles. Cultural norms mean that women are still expected to undertake the majority of the world’s “unpaid work” – that is, to be the primary carers of children and to take on most of the housework. Women also tend to care for sick and aging relatives more often than men. The pressure of caregiving is hard to combine with a successful career. 

The second barrier is workplace culture and a lack of flexible working options. We’ve introduced agile working at Deloitte and it makes a big difference because it moves your focus from inputs to outputs. Suddenly, it’s not about presenteeism – whether you’re in the office from 8am to 8pm – but about what you deliver.

Unconscious bias is the third barrier – a fundamental problem we all suffer from, me included. Because it’s unconscious, you have to put things in place to counteract it; for example by looking at your recruitment processes; how you promote people. You’ve also got to look at the data, understand the statistics, and make changes if things don’t look right.

Finally – and this is something I feel especially strongly about – it can be tougher for women to attract sponsors. Sponsorship is vital for career development because without a sponsor putting your name forward, you don’t get the opportunities that allow you to grow. Not enough women get sponsors because – and this is partly to do with unconscious bias – we are naturally attracted to people who look like us, sound like us, and have similar interests. Therefore, men unconsciously sponsor people in their network – who tend to be other men. 

Sometimes sponsoring someone is a risk because you don’t know them very well, but backing a broad range of people is vital for the health of an organisation. 

How has leadership changed since you started your career 30 years ago?

Leadership has fundamentally changed thanks in large part to advances in technology and the impact of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. There’s no single recipe for success, but we’ve done quite a bit of research and we think that effective leaders have a combination of four primary skillsets. 

First, good leaders invest significantly in technology to make sure their business is fit for the future. 

Second, they focus on developing their colleagues, giving them the right skills for the business to thrive. 

Third, due to the sheer volume of information available today, they employ great data analysts and base their decisions around those analytics.

Finally, they recognise that their business needs to be purpose-driven, not just profit-driven, and they must ensure that it has a positive impact on society. 

The pace of change in the industry seems to be increasing exponentially. Does it worry you? 

We’re experiencing enormous changes, particularly in technology. It’s a challenge but also an opportunity. Organizations need to make sure they are on the edge of disruption. They need to think about what could disrupt them and get there first. 

The second big area of change is around how we work. Business used to be about making profits, but expectations have changed. Now, it’s not enough just to exist to make a profit. The other questions organisations must answer are: “What impact are we having on the world and society?” “Are we a force for good?” You cannot be a successful business today without trying to improve the world around you and the community you live in. That’s why Deloitte is focused on our ‘WorldClass’ initiative which seeks to empower 50 million people globally by 2030, by providing them access to the education and skills required to find meaningful work in the new economy. And it’s also why we’re turning our attention to climate change.

What personal challenges have you overcome during your career?

Sometimes you look at successful people and think they’ve sailed through life; that it’s been a walk in the park. However, that’s rarely true – I’ve experienced many challenges during my career. One of the biggest is imposter syndrome – the idea that someone’s going to tap you on the shoulder and say: “You’ve got away with it for years, but we’ve found you out; you’re rubbish.” A vast number of people – both men and women – suffer from it and I think it’s important to talk about it. Since I have, I’ve received many emails from all sorts of people saying that hearing me talk about it has been a relief. 

A few months ago, I went to Davos for the first time – I’d just been nominated as Deloitte’s next Global Chair. I was excited, honoured and upbeat. However, I arrived in Davos and immediately felt out of place. What was I doing here? I had to return to my hotel room and immerse myself in work to get myself back together. I’ve been working on techniques to overcome imposter syndrome, but it doesn’t matter how much you achieve; it’s always going to be there to some extent. To overcome it, I’ve had to rely on one of my most significant assets – my enormous resilience. 

How do you achieve an appropriate work-life balance? 

Work-life balance means different things to different people. Your perception of what’s ideal also changes over time. For me, work and life are intertwined. I think that’s the case for a growing number of people because of the way technology keeps us constantly connected. It can be hard not to be working, no matter what time of day it is or where you are. Equally, you’ve got to find downtime to make sure you recuperate. 

The most important thing is being happy and fulfilled in what you’re doing. At Deloitte, we have a clear purpose – to make an impact that matters for our clients, for our people, and for the communities in which we live and work. I get enormous satisfaction from fulfilling that purpose. In my new role, there are even greater opportunities for me to make a difference, which makes me even happier and more fulfilled. My work is an enormous source of energy for me. 

Having said that, my family and friends are critical. I love spending time with them and will always make that a priority. I’m happiest when I’m with my husband walking our dogs. There’s lots of research now saying that just 20-30 minutes of walking in a different environment is really good for you.

Who inspires you?

I’ve met many amazing people during my career – lots of whom have worked for Deloitte. Over the years, I’ve taken different bits from different people – not just leaders but other individuals with excellent skills, incredible values, and fantastic work ethic. 

I’m also inspired by people who’ve reached the top of their game by working incredibly hard, not just in my sector but also in sport, government, and music. For example, Andy Murray, Barack Obama, Madonna… people often laugh at me when I mention Madonna, but as a young woman growing up, she was inspirational. She was different, determined to do her thing, and she didn’t worry about what other people thought!

Finally, what’s your advice for aspiring female leaders?

Be the best you can be. Keep working hard and always try to do your best. Think about what you want, believe you can get there, and absolutely go for it. Far too many women think they haven’t got the skills or capabilities needed to reach the next level. Half the battle is having the confidence to put yourself forward. 

Also, make sure that you’ve got a sponsor who’s going to champion you, plus a mentor to push you on. But the biggest thing to do is to raise your sights and ask yourself, why can’t I do that?