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Women in Leadership: Q&A with CrossCountry Advisory Partners

Seven powerful women lead CrossCountry’s Technology and Advisory practices. In honor of their accomplishments and Women’s History Month, we asked them about leadership, their mentors, and finding balance.

This week, meet two women leading our Advisory practice. Jill Agudelo is a Partner who leads our national Risk and Compliance practice. With over 18 years of experience in risk management, organization review and design, and internal controls, with expertise in Sarbanes-Oxley compliance and Internal Audit, Jill has conducted several finance transformation projects including design of future state organization structures and organizational change management. Dabie Tsai, who is a Partner in our Accounting Advisory practice and also leads our San Francisco office, has 23 years of experience in a wide-range of specialties including risk-based integrated audits of large multinational companies, US GAAP and IFRS, SEC and IPO filings for both domestic and foreign filers, SOX 404 controls and processes, credit risk, consolidations, mergers and acquisitions, and matters of corporate governance.

 

1. What do you think is the most significant barrier to female leadership?

JILL AGUDELO: In my experience, it’s often confidence that holds women back. I’ve observed that many of my female colleagues are hesitant to charge ahead unless they are 100 percent certain that they will be successful.  Whereas their male counterparts are more comfortable with the uncertainty and aren’t afraid of making mistakes. 

DABIE TSAI: Generally, I think the biggest challenge may be how each woman feels they can effectively manage the different demands across professional, personal, and familial realms. For many years now, I have advocated that when we look at “work/ life balance,” a better way to describe it may be “work/ life effectiveness” – as “balance” implies that things should be equal. If you also look at it from a “what is effective for yourself” perspective, you’d feel empowered to make conscious decisions based on your wants and needs at each stage, and not just what you feel you “should” do because of societal or others’ expectations. I think this is powerful – because then we can take control of our own narratives.

 

2. What is the one lesson about leadership that you’ve learned throughout your career?

JILL AGUDELO: Leadership has to be authentic and genuine. I’ve had a number of great mentors in my career and I’ve taken what I admired most to shape my own leadership style. However, I had to tailor their approach to my way of communicating and leading to make it my own. As a leader, I think the most important thing is to show genuine care for your people and they will work hard for you.

DABIE TSAI: I’ve learned so many lessons, but if I can only pick one thing, then I think it is to truly care about your team and your people. If a leader is not authentic, he or she is not going to be effective. If you don’t truly care, it will be hard to build genuine, trusted relationships with the team and for the team to want to strive with and for you. When people know you truly care about them, that trust and respect will help them to keep believing in you, in your vision, and in what you are trying to achieve as a team. This will motivate them to continue to grow and to keep reaching, and that is a very rewarding feeling to experience as a leader.

 

3. Mentorship is always a key topic when talking about supporting women in business innovation. Have you had any mentors that made an impact on your career?

JILL AGUDELO: I’ve had a number of amazing mentors throughout my career, although most of them were male. Growing up in very male-dominated industries, it was important to me that I be seen for my merits and not my gender. When I started my career at ExxonMobil, there were many great female leaders, but I did not find them relatable. So, as I evolved in my career, I didn’t necessarily look for mentors based on gender but rather on what lessons I needed to learn from them.

DABIE TSAI: I have been so lucky in my career that I have had many great mentors – in particular female mentors. My foremost mentor, who was at one time the highest ranked woman in a Big Four global network, not only taught me things such as the value of hard work, preparation, grace, and poise, but also really opened a huge door into the rest of my career.

Through the special rotation I undertook to be her Chief of Staff when I was a first-year Audit Senior Manager at the firm, I got to see how the entire global firm was run at the highest level. I had an amazing opportunity to learn at a much earlier stage at an accelerated pace. The combination of exposure, things I learned, and the relationships I formed with the other senior leaders of the firm translated into an infinite number of opportunities as I continued to grow. I cannot express enough appreciation for the opportunity and the experience of working with her, not just as a great mentor, but an even better role model and sponsor. I only hope I can pay it forward for others even a fraction of what I have learned from her!

 

4. What do you feel will be the biggest challenge for the next generation of female leaders?

JILL AGUDELO: Our next generation of female leaders need to continue to challenge themselves to stretch and grow beyond what they may see as possible right now. The skills we have today aren’t the skills we need to be successful even five years from now. Our next generation of female leaders will need to embrace technology and drive the evolution of how we work.   

DABIE TSAI: I think there are a myriad of internal and external challenges as follows:

  • Gender equality in leadership roles (as well as other underrepresented demographics) is still not widely achieved.
  • Getting into the C-suite across the board, and not just in the more traditionally accepted roles at this level; I would say the same at the corporate board level.
  • Personal decisions and management of work/ life effectiveness.
  • Setting boundaries and being comfortable saying “no” when that is the right answer for you.
  • How to manage and avoid “burnout” given the nonstop stimuli we have around us in today’s fast-paced environment.

 

5. How have you balanced work and family and what is your advice for women trying to advance in an organization on balancing both?

JILL AGUDELO: My son is the unofficial mascot of CrossCountry. I started with the firm after my maternity leave and really struggled to find balance. Instead of compartmentalizing my two lives, I’ve integrated them. I have brought him to the office throughout the years and I’ve had my teams come to my house for team events. To me, it was important for him to know where I go every day and it was important for my team to understand that just because I was leaving at 5:00 to go and pick him up, my job was not over by a long shot! Most importantly, I keep it all in perspective and let the guilt go. When I have an important deadline at work or when he has a school field trip, it’s about balancing both of my jobs and understanding what is important in the moment. 

DABIE TSAI: I may not be the best person to opine on this given that I don’t have any children. However, I am very close with and treasure my family. I think a helpful first step would be what I previously mentioned in terms of not looking at it as “achieving balance between work and family,” but rather seeking to understand and establish what your individual “work/ life/ family effectiveness split” would be at a particular juncture in time.

 

6. For fun! Is there a completely different career path that you saw for yourself when you were a child?

JILL AGUDELO: I’m one of those weird people who knew I wanted to be an auditor from when I was in high school. But at 30 years old, I took a sabbatical from consulting and went to culinary school – maybe it was from watching too much Food Network and “Top Chef.”  I imagined that I would start a catering business or join the food truck revolution. At the end of the day, I realized that wasn’t the right career for me and I found my way back to consulting (but with much better knife skills).

DABIE TSAI: This may sound a bit silly, but I wanted to be Miss Universe when I was little. I’m not sure if that qualifies as a career path, but seeing how I pride myself now on being a global citizen, having lived in five countries on four continents and worked in many more, maybe a part of that dream has been realized?

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