June 30th, 2010 | 6:00 am

Voice of Experience: Susan Siegmund, Partner, PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP

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Susan SiegmundBy Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

In honor of Pride Month, The Glass Hammer is featuring an interview with PwC’s Susan Siegmund, the first female partner to sit on the firm’s GLBT Advisory Board. Siegmund’s personal story illustrates the value of GLBT support in the workplace.

Susan Siegmund is a Fort Worth, Texas, based audit partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers and the first female partner to sit on the firm’s GLBT Advisory Board. PwC’s GLBT Advisory Board – the first of its kind among the Big Four firms – is comprised of openly gay partners and professionals with varied tenures, skills and life experiences. The group provides visible role models for PwC’s GLBT professionals and advises firm leadership on the planning and implementation of GLBT initiatives.

“What we are trying to achieve at PwC is making sure everybody is comfortable – that we are bringing our whole selves to work,” explained Siegmund. “We’re trying to build a culture of inclusion, bringing together all of our experiences and stories.”

Siegmund’s own story was a major factor in her decision to get involved in PwC’s GLBT community in the first place, and later to take a more active leadership role.

“I’m excited but also anxious about stepping out and being a role model. I’ve always been more of a private person – I’m a little out of my comfort zone,” she said.

She joined the firm in 1988, and for the majority of her career didn’t think it was important to make a big deal about being out at work. But a relationship she began in September 2001 changed her perspective. “I started a relationship with Teresa,” she said, referring to her partner Teresa Martin. Eventually, Siegmund came out to her family and the two moved in together.

“Over the next few years, I still didn’t come out at work. I thought people already knew. I really didn’t think I was hiding it. Teresa would come to various work functions or parties, but I never formally introduced her as my life partner or my domestic partner,” she explained.

It wasn’t until a crisis forced Siegmund to come out to her colleagues that she realized the value of being open at work.

Out at Work: Finding Support in Being Open

In the middle of the night, after attending a charity event, Teresa suddenly experienced significant stomach pains. The severity of the pains prompted Susan and Teresa to make an early morning trip to the emergency room. Following several hours of waiting and tests, the doctor identified spots on Teresa’s liver as potentially cancerous and admitted her to the hospital. “That night was the Fort Worth office’s holiday event, and I obviously couldn’t go. I eventually called up a couple of the partners and explained the situation. I came out to them,” she said.

“After surgery a couple days later, Teresa, at age 41, was formally diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer. Due to the uncertainty of what was ahead for us, I had to come out to more of my partners, my engagement teams, and to a few of my clients. It was December of 2007 and we were about to embark on busy season. Teresa was hospitalized for most of December. Due to complications from surgery, she had to return to the hospital on December 30, so we celebrated both Christmas and New Year’s at the hospital. Eventually, she was released again on January 19.

“During that time, I worked remotely from the hospital as much as possible, whenever I didn’t have client meetings,” continued Siegmund. “I would spend the night at the hospital – I didn’t sleep much because no one can sleep in a hospital with nurses coming in and out all night. I also was able to do a lot of work from the Arlington Cancer Center, where Teresa sought treatment. Fortunately, technology now enables us to work efficiently from wherever we are, which, most importantly, allowed me to be with Teresa.”

She continues, “Everyone to whom I’d come out to was amazing – asking what they could do for us, what kind of support did I need. Unfortunately, 18 months later in June of 2009, Teresa lost her battle with cancer. But throughout it all, my colleagues showed tremendous support and respect.”

In the fall of 2009, PwC’s diversity leader for North Texas asked Siegmund to be the partner champion for the GLBT affinity group in the region, and she agreed. Shortly thereafter, she also joined the national GLBT Partner Advisory Board as the first female partner of the group.

As Siegmund explained, “After going through what I had gone through during the previous two years, I truly understood the need to be able to bring my whole self to work. I felt that becoming partner champion allowed me to give back and potentially help someone be more comfortable being out instead of waiting on a life-changing experience to force their hand.”

The mission of the GLBT Advisory Board, according to Siegmund, is to serve as visible role models for PwC’s GLBT staff and to bring a unique and unified voice to the Firm’s diversity planning and strategy. PwC’s diversity strategy focuses on developing the cultural dexterity of PwC’s people. The firm believes this improves interaction with clients and colleagues who may be different from them. It also seeks to ensure equal rates of satisfaction across all of PwC’s demographic groups and to create a culture of inclusion where all of its professionals can succeed.

“Obviously because it’s Pride month we’ve been a lot more focused on being out in the workplace,” she adds.

As part of PwC’s efforts to spark dialogue and raise awareness of GLBT issues, Siegmund recently participated in a firm-wide GLBT webcast with the theme “I am Open,” a primary platform for PwC’s GLBT support efforts. The program enabled PwC professionals – gay and straight – to share their personal stories and engage in dialogue with each other to address the challenges of coming out at work, why language matters, and simple things straight allies can do to support their GLBT colleagues.

“Through personal stories, we can really connect with our straight colleagues and help them understand the business case for this. At the end of the day, we’re about as normal and boring as they are,” she said laughing.

Can’t Take Texas Out of the Girl

Siegmund, who attended and played basketball for Texas Wesleyan University, has been based in Fort Worth for most of her 22-year career with PwC. She briefly transferred to San Francisco for a client in 1999, but missed the wide open spaces of Texas.

“I learned you can take the girl out of Texas, but you can’t take Texas out of the girl,” she conceded. “So I helped shore up our client team and convinced the firm to let me move back.”

Siegmund cites making partner in 2005 as the professional achievement to-date of which she is proudest. Among more recent accomplishments, however, she feels that becoming a more visible role model for GLBT professionals over the past six months is equally significant.

“Ultimately, my greatest satisfaction comes from seeing the staff that I work with succeed,” she said. “Whether being promoted internally or even being successful if they choose to leave the firm.”

Regarding industry changes, Siegmund is watching the movement toward adoption of International Accounting Standards, or IAS, with great interest. “There are some very aggressive milestones and I’d like to see how realistic they are in the outcome.”

Looking forward, Siegmund is eyeing increased involvement in charitable work or academia, and she hopes to be ready to pursue those interests closer to full-time in about ten years. Meanwhile, she’ll continue to be active by serving on the board of a couple of local charities, supporting PwC’s involvement in community activities and honoring Teresa’s memory through participation in the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life.

“I think it’s important to step aside at some point to allow younger talent an opportunity to lead,” she explained. “In about ten years, I see myself embarking on a new journey – working in charity or possibly at a local university. But who knows?”

Advice for Auditors – Take Chances, Network, and Don’t Give Up

Siegmund said she’s learned many lessons over the course of her career, but the one she’s appreciated the most is the realization that you don’t always have to succeed at everything you do.

“Failing at something can be hard emotionally and mentally. There have been times when I didn’t think I was qualified to take an opportunity or I stayed back in the crowd because of the unknown or risk of failure,” she explained. Sigmund says she encourages others to seize those opportunities, because she believes in the long run it would be better to take that chance.

Siegmund’s advice for young women entering the auditing field: “Come on in, but be ready to work hard.”

She continued, “Take advantage of all the programs being offered to help you succeed. Relationships are really invaluable. If I don’t know who you are, how the heck am I going to be able to help you out? Don’t skimp on networking, because in the long run, it will really help you.”

As women advance in their careers, she emphasizes the importance of developing a plan.

“Communicate what you want to achieve, but be open to possibility,” she said. “It helps keep you more on track. I may have wandered around a little bit in my own career, but I’m always impressed by people who plan their path forward.”

For GLBT professionals, Siegmund offered several pieces of advice: “First, get involved. As a GLBT individual you have to identify yourself – you wouldn’t recognize [that someone is gay] walking down the street. You have to put yourself out there.”

“Second,” she continued, “it’s important to cut straight allies some slack. If someone uses the wrong terminology, or asks the wrong question – they don’t know. Be more inclusive and more active.”

“Finally, and most importantly, don’t give up. Tackle challenges that are in front of you. We typically make things out in our heads to be worse than the really are – you’ll survive.”

Challenges to Women

Siegmund believes that barriers women face are not unique to the accounting profession, with the greatest challenge being that women tend to not want to talk about their success.

“You really need to speak up and help people understand why you’re qualified for certain positions and not take a backseat,” she advised. “You’ve got to, or find someone else who will, otherwise you’ll risk getting overlooked.”

PwC has always valued coaching and development of its people, and Siegmund is involved as a mentoring partner in several of the firm’s initiatives. One of the programs PwC offers, the women’s mentoring partnership, connects top performing women and senior managers and provides them with information about the partnership process.

She also points to programs such as Full Circle, which allows women (or men) to step away from the firm for up to five years to care for a child or loved one. Full Circle keeps those individuals connected to the firm and the profession while they’re away, and keeps the door open for their eventual return. Siegmund is currently serving as a mentor to a woman participating in the program.

She added, “I’ve worked with a lot of great people over the years – a lot of people willing to invest in me and I’ve learned a lot from each of them. You need to have multiple role models and multiple mentors. I’ve gotten a lot of support from people, and hopefully I’m becoming a better role model.”

Siegmund believes that PwC’s successful gender initiatives have helped pave the way for the firm’s GLBT programs. “The women’s initiative is fairly established. And the GLBT initiative is making great strides,” she said, pointing to the Human Rights Campaign‘s recent recognition of the firm.

When it comes to managing work and life responsibilities, Siegmund believes it’s more about achieving flexibility than balance.

“This is not an eight to five job, and it’s not a fifty-fifty work-life balance, so I try to focus on flexibility,” she said. “If I need to do something, I’ll try to find a way to do it during the day – whether it’s running errands or taking a longer lunch to catch up with friends. It’s about deciding what’s important to you, making choices and making it work.”

When not at work, Siegmund enjoys her time in the country. “I have 65 acres and about 20 longhorns. Every new calf that arrives gets a name. It’s fun to watch them play on spring weekends,” she said.

“I spend a lot of time on my tractor mowing the grass – it’s really my escape. As an auditor, I spend eleven months working hard and at the end, I sign a one-page audit opinion representing the culmination of all of my team’s work and that’s it. The thing about mowing that I find satisfying is that there’s some immediate gratification in seeing something done well that looks good,” she added, laughing.

1 comment

  1. Ilene H. Lang

    I couldn’t agree more with Susan Sigmund—her story really speaks to the importance of bringing your whole self to work. A 2009 Catalyst study, Building LGBT-Inclusive Workplaces, revealed that female LGBTs reported less friendly workplaces than LGBT men. That fact is, everyone wins when you don’t have to expend energy on hiding who you are. As I wrote in a recent blog posting on catalyzing.org, LGBT employees working in inclusive environments reported increased career satisfaction, better workplace relationships, and greater commitment to the job. In the long run, this can translate to greater productivity and less staff turnover.