The CEO of KPMG reveals how she reached the top, and why women leaders need to stop being pressured to act like men


  • Lynne Doughtie is the chairman and CEO of KPMG, one of the big four professional services companies. She is the first woman to hold the position.
  • She has spent her entire career working her way up the ladder at KPMG.
  • Doughtie really got her start helping her parents with paperwork for the family’s trash-pick-up company when she was little.

Lynne Doughtie has spent her entire career working her way up the ladder at one company. And she’s found real success.

In 2015, Doughtie became the first female chairman and CEO of KPMG, one of the big four professional services companies that other companies hire to do things like accounting and auditing.

But she found it can be hard to be one of the only women at the top of a big company.

“We need to kind of break down these myths of a woman’s approach is the wrong one, and she should be acting more like a man,” Doughtie said in an interview for Business Insider’s podcast, “Success! How I Did It.” “We should think about how do we as business leaders embrace the differences of all people and advance the careers of all.”

On this episode, Doughtie discusses what it was like to be one of the few female CEOs at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, how she bounced back after not making partner as an auditor, and her love for accounting.

Listen to the full episode here:

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The following transcript has been edited for clarity.

Lynne Doughtie Alyson ShontellBusiness InsiderKPMG Chairman and CEO Lynne Doughtie sat down with Business Insider US Editor-in-Chief Alyson Shontell during the 2018 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Lynne Doughtie: I guess I was always destined to be an accountant. And I really loved that. But through the years, watching their business grow, and watching them succeed and how they were so focused on their customer, on their employees, and, it just taught me a lot about business, although it wasn’t like they sat me down and said, “Here’s how you do this.” It was just watching them because it was such a part of our family.

Alyson Shontell: You grew up in the area and ended up going to Virginia Tech.

Doughtie: I did.

Shontell: Didn’t you start in computer science?

Doughtie: I did.

Shontell: And then you switched to accounting?

Doughtie: I did.

Shontell: So what was that transition like – how did you figure out what you wanted to do?

Doughtie: Well, back in the ’80s, I didn’t know anything about computers before going to college. There was no PCs or anything like that. So I had no idea what I was getting into. And it was hard for me; computer science was tough, but I stuck with it. It was, like, “I can do this,” and actually I could have. But I remember this class where they said, “OK, now we’ve weeded out all the people who can’t cut it. And you guys are the ones who are going to do this.” You probably remember a class like that, in school.

And I thought, “OK, I did this, but I don’t really like this.” Back then, it was a lot of coding, so I took business classes, and it was kind of, like, “This is what I know, this is what I enjoy,” and it was more people-oriented. I think getting a major in accounting at Virginia Tech was one of the best things I could do.

How Doughtie found KPMG and decided to stay there

Shontell: Clearly. Your career has taken off. But you actually started at KPMG, so you are a lifer. You’ve been there for your whole career. So talk about how you found KPMG when you came out of school, and what brought you there.

Doughtie: I think that was, and it still it is today, one of the great things about accounting – there are so many options and particularly if you’re at a school that has a top-notch accounting program. The companies kind of flock to you. My attraction though to KPMG – and I think this is with everybody – it’s that person who you meet. And I think back then there were not as many women in leadership roles. This was 1985, and I remember meeting a woman from KPMG who was so impressive and articulate, and kind, and she made me feel so comfortable, and so that was kind of my first face of KPMG, which was very different from the other companies that I was talking to.

And that had a big impact on me. It was something different and special that drew me to KPMG. And then you look 30 years later, you probably don’t expect that when you start out, but public accounting is a great place to start a career, and it’s a great place to end a career, because you get a variety of experiences. And that was my experience, and I think that was what kept me in the profession all that time.

Shontell: When you started you were on the audit side, right?

Doughtie: Yes.

Shontell: And you rose through the ranks pretty quickly there, and by your mid-30s you really wanted to be a partner.

Doughtie: Yes.

Shontell: But the economy didn’t cooperate. So tell me about that experience. It seems like it was a bit disappointing, but you bounced back. So how did you deal with, you have this dream, you’re going to go for it, and all of a sudden you realise it might not happen.

Doughtie: Yeah, looking back on my career, I probably wasn’t as broadly focused as I should have been. I really had this “I’m gonna do this industry – I want to do this one thing that I knew and I was comfortable with.”

And actually my career was progressing along those goals, and the year that I was up for partner I knew the exact clients I would be working on, it was all comfortable, you know. You’re at the top of your game. But that was also a time when there were some external forces happening in the business world. A consolidation in the banking industry, where I saw one right after the other of my clients that were acquired.

And basically my business case of, you know, my goal of achieving, working in this particular industry, in auditing, in Richmond, Virginia, it evaporated really quickly. And so, at that time, it seemed like this huge disappointment, and it was. And I can remember feeling a bit sorry for myself, because it wasn’t anything that I did, it was bad luck, really. It’s actually good luck, for me, because it forced me to think, more broadly, about other avenues that I could explore, and there was an opportunity at that time, to go into information risk management, which would allow me – actually, kind of back to my computer-science roots – to do something different that I never would have done, if it hadn’t been for one door being closed.

And during that time I felt uncomfortable. Because it was something that I needed to learn and build my experience. And it was risky too, because you feel like, “I’m in this space, I know it, I’m really good at it,” and now, I’ve got to kind of start over and prove myself. What I learned – and this would become a series of opportunities for me – was that when you feel your most uncomfortable, and maybe scared a little bit, and nervous, that’s actually great because that means you’re growing.

And so I think it’s important to take some risks, and I think it’s important to ensure that you’re getting a variety of work experiences. Careers are really long. At 13 years it seemed, like, “If I don’t do this one thing, my career’s over.” No, it was just starting. And I think that my ability to rise through the ranks at KPMG, I was clearly benefited by having a variety of experiences. And I was fortunate that I was forced to make a change. In hindsight I should have been more proactive about looking for change.

Shontell: Yeah, I mean, one of your pieces of advice is that you should take risks and you need to be confident and you need to raise your hand for jobs, that you might not even feel ready for. Is that something you did, and how did you do that?

Doughtie: Yes, I think that, even when you’re unsure, there are so many things that made you successful in these other areas, that you can apply to new areas. So being confident in your abilities to be successful in new areas, taking risk, it’s important. I always think about this concept of confidence and how do you get it. And it shouldn’t just come because you say, “I’m smart and I can do this.” I think it comes from action. It’s actually just jump in, do it, impress the heck out of yourself, that’s how you get confidence, and then, as each new challenge and opportunity comes, you jump in again. You do it, you say, “OK, I can do this,” and that’s how the confidence builds.

And I think that this confidence factor is really an interesting one, and there’s also some interesting gender dynamics, when you talk about confidence, as well. And I just encourage everybody who’s going through their career, that things that made them successful, heretofore, will make them successful going forward. Just embrace it and go for it. And speak up about it. As you said, speak up about the things that you’re looking for, and the opportunities and new challenges that you want to take on.

Shontell: The gender roles, too, I could appreciate. I wonder what you think about quiet confidence, versus assertive confidence that you think of. Can you be successful in both? Like, can you be an introvert and also be confident, and lead a great team?

Doughtie: I think you absolutely can. This was a dialogue that was happening last night here in Davos, where there were a group of women talking about this very topic. Because there are differences between women and men, and our styles of leadership. And I think, stereotypically, there is this view that men, from a confidence factor, are off the charts confident, even if they don’t have the experience that’s required for certain role. They believe they do; they believe they have even more than that. You know? Where women have the opposite view. Of questioning “Do I have enough?” “I should tick off if it requires these five things, and if I don’t have all five, I’m not feeling that confident about it,” where men, if they tick off one, they’re, like, “OK, I got this!” And one is not right or wrong.

But somehow we’ve labelled it as being wrong. That women are taking the wrong approach. And so there’s this concept that I heard some folks talk about last night that I thought was really interesting. We need to kind of break down these myths of a woman’s approach is the wrong one, and she should be acting more like a man, and we should think about how do we as business leaders embrace the differences of all people and advance the careers of all.

How Doughtie became a pioneer for female leaders

Shontell: It’s 2015. You get this huge promotion, well-deserved. You were running the fastest-growing division at KPMG, and you got this job. So, first off, what’s it like to be promoted to CEO? What’s the conversation that happens?

Doughtie: Well, when you take on those, these new roles, and I think you have some butterflies, and you think, “Is what got me here going to help me be successful in this new role?” So it’s hugely exciting. It can be a little scary, at first, like any new role. But then, I think that you quickly realise that it’s humbling, it’s an honour, especially when you’ve, you know, just like you, spending a long time in one place, me being able to lead the firm that is just a part of me, that I love.

You feel a sense of responsibility to do the very best that you can because it’s all about people that you care about, and the work that we do is really important. So there’s certainly a sense of responsibility that goes with that. Of course, being the first woman CEO at KPMG, there’s an opportunity to show women, the opportunity that I didn’t have, to see a woman do that role, and I feel really excited that I can be in that role, and I can be that role model for future generations of women as well, to see a women lead. It’s amazing, and it just shows that this is a profession that all can succeed, and I think it’s a great time for our profession to see women’s leadership.

Shontell: It’s huge strides. You were the first, and now there are three running the big firms, which is incredible. But it is still a small list of CEOs as a whole, so you’re one of the few female CEOs here at Davos. I know you’ve been recognised as a top woman in business, and you’ve talked about this sense of responsibility that you feel, to be a role model. How do you take on that responsibility?

Doughtie: Well, I think as women leaders we have a sense of responsibility to make a difference. As you said, even here at Davos, we at the World Economic Forum, there is still, we’re only in the 21% female representation, and so it’s not changing fast enough, and you want women to lean in, as Sheryl Sandberg suggests, which I think is so powerful, but we also have the opportunity as women leaders.

I feel a sense of responsibility to reach in and encourage and sponsor and mentor, and to show women that they can do this, and that’s very powerful. It goes full circle to how we started the conversation about even just me seeing my mother and my father, and the things that they did, you kind of see it, and you can see yourself doing that, and I think women leaders have that sense of responsibility to take action, and ensure that we are creating opportunities for all.

And the world is changing so fast, and the big topic here is around digital transformation, artificial intelligence, all the things that are changing the landscape of our world so quickly. It has never been more important to have different perspectives at the table, to be successful in business requires a diverse set of leaders, around the table. You don’t want everybody with the same experience and background. And so it’s never been a more important topic, I think for business, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s the business imperative, to be successful.

Shontell: Being a CEO comes with a lot of responsibility, a lot of tough decisions you have to make, it’s not all glory. It’s a lot of work. So one tough decision you had to make, that you got wide praise for, was last year, there were six executives who had found some insider information, at KPMG, they learned that an audit was going to happen, of your guys’ firm. And you made the prompt, quick decision to fire all six of the executives. How did you make that decision? It was widely praised, but I’m sure it couldn’t have been easy.

Doughtie: No, and I think all leaders, at some point in time, you’re going to face tough decisions. And it’s really important that the way I approach that, and I think others should as well. You have to seek the facts. It’s not something that you do in isolation; it’s getting the perspectives, seeking the truth, and I think it’s also looking at the core values of what you as a person and as a leader stand for, and what your organisation stands for, and there are certain things that are zero tolerance.

And it doesn’t mean you want bad things for people, but there are consequences, and you have to set the tone for the organisation. And so as any leader, or future leader, approaches those tough decisions, it is important that others are involved, but sticking to what you know is right, from your own core, is important. And then, also, usually, if it’s a really tough one, you’ve got to be decisive, and more quickly, and finding that right balance, seeking the facts, moving quickly, getting to the right answer, can be tough, but it’s something that other are watching, and it’s important that you, you set the example for your organisation.

Shontell: The decisiveness is important. You can’t waffle. Once you make a decision you just have to own it, and lean into it.

Doughtie: Exactly. And look: Leaders aren’t perfect. You’re going to make some mistakes, and it’s owning those mistakes as well. And that kind of gets back to the authenticity and real, and it’s just being very transparent about you. “Here’s what I thought through – here’s the decision that’s in the best interest of our institution”, and explaining that, and then moving forward, and I think when you do that, you get to the right answer.

Shontell: You were once asked about what you feel success is, what success looks like, and you quoted Mark Twain, and you said: “The two most important days of your life are the day that you were born and the day you find out why.” Success is finding out your purpose and living it. So how do you figure out what success looks like to you, and how do you advise other people who want to reach the top, like you did.

Doughtie: Well, it’s a journey too. And I think if you had asked me that question when I was 30, I was at a different point in time, having young babies, and trying to figure life out, it gets complicated. I think you do get wiser as you get older, at least that’s what I tell my kids, because I’m full of lots of advice. Sometimes you can get really, you know, things are hectic and you’re just go, go, go, and you really need to take some time to focus on: What is it, really, that are the most important things in your life?

This isn’t just about careers and promotions. It’s finding that – balance isn’t the right word – but all aspects of your life. It’s physical, it’s mental, it’s the things that you’re accomplishing in business. It’s spiritual. Do you really know what you’re striving for? And that kind of gets back to purpose, you know? That’s like, what can I do here to make a difference? And I think when you really explore, and then you live it, and go for it, I truly think that is, success.

Shontell: Lynne, thank you so much for the time. It’s been a pleasure.

Doughtie: Thank you for having me.

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