‘If you don’t fail, you’re probably not trying as hard as you could’
Alison Kitchen has been a career girl at KPMG, but she’s literally one of a kind in her position at the helm of the big four’s Australian operations.
After joining the company in the UK straight out of university over 30 years ago, she’s gone on to work in a number of industry groups and lead a diverse and interesting career. She held the role of head of energy for a number of years, as well as head of audit in Melbourne during the GFC. She’s been on the board for six years, chair of the audit community and worked in all five major capital cities in Australia. All this off the back of a two-year secondment from the UK – which she never went home from.
It would be impossible to cover Ms Kitchen’s career without addressing the equality elephant in the room; Ms Kitchen is the first female chair of a big four professional services firm in Australia. However, focusing the discussion around that fact both glosses over the work she has done to get to that position and doesn’t do justice to just how far the accounting industry has come in 30 years.
“It is worth reflecting on how far I think we have come as a profession. I joined the firm over 30 years ago and started my career in the north of England, which is perhaps not the most enlightened part of the world. I had a number of interviews with a number of different firms, and one of the interviewers had been told he had to interview a quota of women, but he didn’t look at me once during the whole hour-long interview. He asked me questions and stared out the window.
“I had one interviewer who told me that because I was marrying a doctor, my career would never be considered serious, and I had one interviewer who felt quite okay about writing on my form that I had nice legs where it was visible for me to see. So, I genuinely hope and believe that none of our female graduates coming to interview either here or at any of our competitors would experience, I hope any, let alone all, of those experiences.”
Alongside the gender discussions, Ms Kitchen is focused on diversity in a wider sense and the benefit it will bring to both KPMG and the industry as a whole. In fact, diversity was one of the platforms upon which she was elected into the position of chair, alongside trust and growth.
Particularly in the current climate, as clients and consumers face a lack of trust in the businesses that surround them, with a focus on the financial sector, Ms Kitchen feels that for the industry to turn these opinions around, trust needs to be at the forefront of company considerations.
Ms Kitchen believes that, “as a profession, trust is at the very essence of what we stand for”, and that taking a stronger line on social issues and working out the role that KPMG and the industry at large has to play in these conversations, will help strengthen the trust from consumers.
She also believes there’s a time and a place for industries and companies to take a stance on social issues. KPMG took a firm stance for marriage equality in the debate at the end of 2017, and she said the company is always on the watch for causes it can support and ways to show the industry has a social conscience.
Not long after she had taken on the role of chair, Ms Kitchen was making waves by electing board members outside of the standard election process. This process is historically rarely used, board members are added via the voting process in which partners put themselves forward.
“It’s really just putting into action the comments that I made about my belief that we’re changing fast and therefore the businesses that succeed are the ones that are open to diverse thinking,” Ms Kitchen said about the move.
The issues Ms Kitchen found with the traditional method were that the people being elected were already partners in the business; therefore, any outside views they had would have to come from a time prior to their work with KPMG, or not at all.
“I wanted to bring in someone that was genuinely outside of the business to make sure we didn’t have groupthink. And that’s been beneficial. The other thing that was important to me was that because it’s all driven by partner vote, the people that tend to be well enough known to be voted for, are the people that are known, that are tried and tested, that have had previous roles in management in the firm, that have generally been here for a long time.”
Ms Kitchen recognised that sticking to tradition in this manner was leaving a gap in the skills and customer service, so she decided to use her position as chair to look outside the block.
When looking for the new people to bring in, Ms Kitchen was very specific that one be entirely external, and she also brought on two new partners who had recently joined and wouldn’t be able to make the board through the normal avenues. In doing this, Ms Kitchen hopes their new insights and opinions will further challenge the work KPMG is doing.
“The brief I gave to the headhunter was we wanted someone who knew enough about us to have an understanding of what we did, but I actually said I don’t particularly care if it’s not someone who’s ever worked in the profession, someone who actually knows in depth what we do, because we actually want someone completely different to challenge our thinking.”
Ms Kitchen then said she looked at the areas where KPMG had experienced growth, and the areas where there were gaps in board knowledge, and sought out partners to fill those needs. It’s a clear example of the growth and diversity platforms that Ms Kitchen stated as her key areas of interest being put into practice, and the out-of-the-box thinking that has got her to where she is today.
Someone with as long and successful career as Ms Kitchen has plenty of tips to pass on to those on their way up, or those struggling at a career crossroads, although she is quick to say that her lessons have strong roots in failure.
“There are things that I have learnt from past mistakes and I’d love people to learn from my mistakes and not have to make exactly the same ones. If you don’t fail, you’re probably not trying as hard as you could. And you’re probably not getting everything you want to out of your life. One of the things that made me able to get my head around fear of failure is just remembering that when you fail, and you feel like the world is looking at you and laughing at you, 99 per cent of the time the world’s not even noticing what you’re doing because they’re just dealing with their own stuff.
“You shouldn’t be so worried about what other people think, if it stops you having a go, and I most recently used that in my decision to run as chair. I really agonised over who do I think I am to think I am the person to lead these people, and I just thought well if I have a go and fail, people probably won’t think badly of me for it, but if I don’t have a go, I guarantee I’ll never have a chance to do the job and I’ll regret that for the next six years,” said Ms Kitchen.
“I have a firm rule which took me a long time to get to and that’s that I don’t do regrets. We all make mistakes, and we all say things that we wish we hadn’t said, there’s no point in beating yourself up about it. What you can do is apologise, learn the lesson, change the behaviour in the future and do it differently next time if you have the same opportunity, but I’ve long moved away from lying awake at the two in the morning thinking ‘how could I be that stupid?’ or ‘if only I’d done this’ – I don’t do that anymore.”
Lastly, Ms Kitchen wants people to be their own champions. Especially when it comes to interviewing or moving up the career ladder, Ms Kitchen says it’s time we embraced our skills and stopped being our own worst enemies.
“I say to people, women probably do this more than men, don’t talk yourself down. If people ask, particularly in an interview, ‘tell me why you’re good at this’ and the number of people that say, ‘well actually I’m not that good’. Don’t ever, ever, ever talk yourself down because there are plenty of other people who will talk you down, you should focus on what are your strengths and your learnings, and your way forward.”