Paying It Forward Pays Back: A Conversation with Susan Allen, Monica Banting, and Danielle Cerisano

From Left: Susan Allen, Monica Banting, and Danielle Cerisano.
From Left: Susan Allen, Monica Banting, and Danielle Cerisano.

May 2, 2014Meet Susan Allen, a Partner at PwC and a 2013 Catalyst Canada Honours Business Leader Champion for her stewardship of PwC Canada’s Women in Leadership (WIL) initiatives. Susan recruited Monica Banting, a Senior Manager in her office, to help lead these initiatives. As a result of their successful teamwork on WIL, Susan became Monica’s mentor and sponsor at PwC. Susan’s daughter, Danielle Cerisano, then joined PwC as a member of Monica’s audit team—and soon became Monica’s mentee. Although all three women have moved on to other roles both within and outside of PwC, Susan continues to mentor Monica and Monica continues to mentor Danielle.

CATALYST: What a lovely example of multiple generations of women coming together to support one another professionally. Your story really bears out Catalyst’s research about how women interact in the workplace. Contrary to popular belief, we’ve found that there are very few queen bees around—most women are ready, willing, and eager to help other women!

Attracting a Mentor

Susan—could you share a little bit about why you chose Monica as a mentee? What made her stand out?

I don’t recall “choosing” Monica to be my mentee. I think we chose each other. We developed a close working relationship while I was leading PwC’s Women in Leadership initiatives. Everything about her impressed me from the first moment I met her: her strategic vision, communication skills, drive to exceed expectations, ambition, and passion. In so many ways she reminded me of myself—a female version of the “mini-me” pattern we typically use to describe senior male leaders mentoring younger men. I quickly came to learn that Monica faced many of the same challenges I faced early in my career. So, I felt compelled to help her through these challenges however I could—to overcome her fears, to not make the same mistakes I made, and to help her and others recognize and appreciate her potential. 

Monica: Tell us about Danielle. We know she’s Susan’s daughter, but what did you see in her apart from that?

I started mentoring Danielle when she was an associate at PwC, and at first I was struck by how much she reminded me of Susan. They are both creative, courageous, and passionate about challenging the status quo and driving positive change in everything they do. But when Danielle was faced with a particularly tough decision about her career (whether to stay at PwC or leave for a job with one of our clients), I saw that she had an entrepreneurial spirit and the drive to take on a leadership role in building a business from the ground up. It was a privilege to work with Danielle through this decision and it has been incredible to see her career develop. 

How to Inspire—and Be Inspired

Danielle: Tell us about what you’ve learned from both Monica and your mother. Any surprising differences in their perspectives?

Monica is someone I can trust, and she really helped me at a difficult time in my career. Her door was always open, and when I was deciding whether to leave public accounting and move into industry, she encouraged me to believe in my own talents and be patient and wait for the right opportunity. I cannot thank her enough for that advice.

My mother has always been my biggest supporter. I saw how happy and fulfilled she was because of her career and I always thought to myself growing up, “I want that.” She taught me how to be a strong yet empathetic leader, and also that there is no substitute for hard work.

I would say the most surprising difference between their perspectives is that my mom is a lot harder on me! This made me realize how important it is to have objective mentors outside of your circle of friends and family. Although it’s fantastic to have a mother I can look up to, it’s vital to have an unbiased mentor as well. Monica has been that mentor for me.

Monica: Has Susan ever said something that changed your assessment of your own capabilities?

When I applied for a secondment to manage our Women in Leadership initiative, I was finishing my second year as a manager in PwC’s audit practice. While I had enjoyed challenging client assignments, I was questioning my ability to progress at the firm. I was being told I could get the job done but that I needed to build my confidence. Susan advocated for me to take on assignments that gave me direct exposure to the firm’s most senior leaders and increased my profile outside the firm. Susan not only positioned me for these stretch opportunities, but also coached me on how to execute them effectively. Susan was consistently encouraging and eventually told me, “You should be a partner at PwC.” Those words inspired in me a vision of myself as a future leader.   

Best Advice

Susan: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received? What’s the best advice you’ve ever given?

The best advice I ever received was from my grandfather when I was eight years old. He gave me the family Bible, inscribed with the following message: “To my dear, beloved, and first granddaughter, Susan: may she always be true to herself.” His wise words have helped set my moral compass whenever I face a difficult decision. He taught me that the power of authenticity trumps all other leadership qualities. 

Danielle: You’re probably used to getting advice. What would you tell older women if you knew they’d listen?

I would tell older women that although my generation has been branded as lazy, entitled, and prone to jumping from job to job, all we really want is a career with meaning. We care less about monetary compensation and more about a having a job in which we feel we can make an impact. At the beginning of our careers, it’s difficult to find meaning in menial tasks, but there are ways to help us out. Give us ownership over our work, involve us in strategic discussions, and have career path conversations with us early and often. Gen Y-ers are pretty candid and you’d be surprised at how open we will be if you ask!

Another piece of advice I would offer to older women is that you don’t need to be intimidating and flawless to be powerful and successful. Show us your weaknesses! We need someone to look up to who we can actually relate to. The best women leaders I know have been kind, hardworking—and unafraid of showing emotion. You can laugh and have fun at work and still be an extremely influential woman.

Sisterhood Is Powerful—And So Are Male Allies

Have you always felt supported by other women in the workplace?

Susan: Yes, never any doubt. There is a special bond that women in PwC and women in senior positions generally feel. I have never experienced the “Queen Bee” phenomenon, thankfully, which makes me a firm believer in promoting more women into leadership positions in order to give more junior women the opportunity to be mentored and supported by female role models. 

Monica: I have always felt supported by other women…I believe it’s unproductive to focus on a dichotomy between women who help other women and women who do not, because this issue is not unique to women. There are fewer women in senior positions to begin with, so it may be that the examples of women who do not support the career development of other women are more pronounced. By continuing to focus on these two supposed categories of women, I think we reinforce stereotypes and create myths about women in leadership that are unproductive. I have felt most supported in my career when I have had access to sponsorship, and this has been true whether I was working with men or women.     

Danielle: I have been very lucky to have been supported by women at PwC and now at Blue Goose. At PwC, I was surrounded by smart, successful women who mentored and sponsored me. Without them, I would not have had the opportunities to step out of my comfort zone and excel. At Blue Goose, our Audit Committee Chair, Nancy, has been very supportive of my career. It’s great to know that she always has my best interests at heart.

What role should men play in supporting women’s careers?

Susan: Men play a critical role in supporting women’s careers. Anyone who thinks they can make it on their own is mistaken. It’s still a man’s world in business today, and it’s crucial to have the support of male colleagues who take the time to teach, support, mentor, and, most importantly, sponsor us. 

Monica: I have had the good fortune of working with several of PwC’s senior male leaders. They have advocated for me and challenged me to operate outside of my comfort zone. Their sponsorship has given me access to opportunities that have helped prepare me for leadership. Without men’s sponsorship, we simply won’t move the needle on increasing the representation of women in senior roles.  

Danielle: Men play a huge role in women’s careers. The reality is that there are still lots of male-dominated management teams and industries. Men need to recognize that in many companies, young women employees have no female leaders to look up to—and male leaders can help fix that by nurturing talent regardless of gender.

The views expressed herein are solely those of the guest blogger and do not necessarily reflect those of Catalyst. Catalyst does not endorse any political candidates. The post and the comments are presented only for the purpose of informing the public.