Hooked on Books with Susan Allen’s “Count Me In”

By Joanne Sallay

Posted in English Tutoring, Featured, Hooked On Books, Local, Parent Education Resources, Tips & Advice

Hooked on Books with Susan Allen’s “Count Me In”

While Teachers on Call’s Hooked on Books series is known for covering Canadian children’s books, our in-person and online tutoring service also spotlights adult titles. After all, learning never ends! In our latest interview, we connect with Susan Allen, an award-winning leader in corporate Canada and champion for women in business. While she has worn many different hats throughout her professional journey, she now adds author and educator to the list. In her debut memoir - “Count Me In” - she generously shares personal stories, honest experiences, and professional advice. It’s a thought-provoking pick for book clubs, and a memorable gift for special occasions (e.g. Graduation, Mother’s Day, International Women’s Day). On the education front our team believes it’s an important read for parents, grandparents, teachers, and guidance counsellors with an interest in helping students navigate the future of work and explore career pathways. Read on to take advantage of Susan Allen’s authentic pearls of wisdom!

What is Hooked on Books?

Our in-person and online tutors at Teachers on Call love to read and encourage students (and the adults who love them) to do the same. With Hooked on Books, we introduce our community to the latest books with a behind the scenes author interview to learn more. A large focus is introducing readers to Canadian children’s literature from coast to coast. Yet, we also sprinkle in books for grown-ups as reading role models to support their growth and development.

About our Author: Susan Allen

Susan Allen, FCPA, CPA, is an award-winning business leader, recognized as one of Canada's Top 100 Most Powerful Women. A dedicated advocate for the advancement of women in business, she improved hiring, retention, and promotion of women during her tenure at PwC Canada. Now in retirement, Susan continues to serve on four corporate boards.

Susan lives with her husband and her rescue dog in Mississauga, Ontario. She is a proud mother of two and grandmother of four. “Count Me In” is her debut memoir with all proceeds directed to two charities close to her heart, including pediatric cardiology at SickKids and a STEM scholarship at University of Toronto Mississauga where she is an alumna, more details here.

An Interview with Susan Allen

Check out Susan’s answers to our questions below!

Tell us about your debut memoir "Count Me In."

"Count Me In - A trailblazer’s triumph in a world not built for her" answers the question I have heard most from young women struggling to overcome the barriers they face while pursuing their careers, “How did you do it, Sue?”

This is a deeply personal and professional leadership journey that begins in a place and time where girls weren’t supposed to be better in math than boys, or crave a life beyond the dusty, beaten-down road our grandmothers and mothers took. It is the discovery of how wrong turns, misconceptions, and emotional setbacks, can lead you to the path you were meant to take all along. It delves into the challenges of dealing with imposter syndrome and perfectionism and reveals how one woman rewrote the rules to scale the corporate ladder while raising two children. The lessons learned and reflections shared are a guide for those seeking to do the same.  

Your personal and professional talents are diverse and immense, as are your accomplishments. What motivated you to add author to the many hats you wear, and how did your past experiences contribute to creating this book?

To be frank, I had not considered adding the author title, nor writing a deeply, personal memoir. How daunting a task I found this to be, exposing my vulnerability, admitting my mistakes and failings while sharing my personal truths without reservation. Writing my memoir could also imply I had too much time on my hands in retirement!

My three-year secondment in PwC’s Training department ignited my interest in and experience with the writing process. I loved being the ‘creative’ accountant developing case material (from real client experiences) and breaking down technical concepts into more manageable chunks. My adage is, “If I can understand it, anyone can.”  In this position, I learned how to write course material for PwC Canada’s auditors … with a bonus… I taught my material to aspiring young CPAs throughout the Caribbean! It was a tough gig, but someone had to do it.

During my 34-year career at PwC, I witnessed how women (and men) were moved by my journey, encouraged by my grit and determination, and inspired to reach higher armed with my advice. I was invited to speak to new recruits, do a keynote address for undergraduates pondering their uncertain future, participate on panels for new parents struggling to achieve work/life balance, and mentor my daughter and her millennial friends. With each scenario, my lessons learned resonated; audiences felt seen and heard. Ultimately, my daughter’s friends convinced me to put pen to paper or, fingers to keyboard, to write my story for others’ benefit.

My goal is to pay it forward to help aspiring, young professionals set their sights higher, accept more risk, find balance on their terms, and make their journey easier than it was for me.

All proceeds from my book sales support two causes close to my heart; a scholarship for women in STEM programs at UTM to encourage studies in Astronomy, Computer Science, Earth Science, Mathematics and Statistics, General Science, Biology, Chemistry and Physics, as well as towards pediatric cardiology needs at the Hospital for Sick Children  in Toronto, Ontario.

Do you have a favourite reading and writing nook?

My favourite reading nook looks like this. It’s a warm, sunny day and I’m curled up on my backyard sofa with my dog, Corabelle. She is snuggled behind my neck on the crest of the cushion behind me, surveying for dangerous prey; bunnies and chipmunks. I am deep in the world of historical fiction, the latest Louise Penny mystery, or a best-selling business book, when I am unexpectedly, and repeatedly disturbed by a fearless dog leaping off the couch in pursuit of her latest victim. I write when the mood strikes me, which is typically in the morning, tucked in my office with a bottomless cup of earl grey tea.

What would you say to parents with daughters who struggle with math and have low self confidence early on in school?

I may not be the best mom to answer this question; my daughter and son both loved math growing up. Products of two math loving CPA parents, no doubt. Nonetheless, we introduced numbers, counting and all things arithmetic at an early age. At the same time, we developed their love of reading and singing songs. (My math skills are quite superior to my singing voice.) Math was a game to be played, not stressful or demanding. I also believe math is a subject girls and boys must believe they can be proficient at. Like any other subject or activity they attempt, it is one of the building blocks for life learning just as we encourage writing, reading, music, swimming or playing on a team sport.

We are drawn to activities and subjects that we are intrinsically good at. I suggest if a withdrawn or insecure girl is given the opportunity to explore subjects and extracurricular activities she likes, her natural strengths and interests will shine. She is taking her first steps to achieving a win. With a boost to her self-confidence, the prospect of more challenging subject areas can be nurtured.

Rather than obsess over whether your child ‘gets’ math, inspire in her the belief that she can do this if she gets out of her own way. Trying new activities in a non-threatening, do it at your own pace setting is an ideal way for mistakes to be made, without the negative consequences of failing to measure up to her (or others’) high standards. Each time she takes a risk, she must have your unconditional support.

For the record, tap dancing, involving the intricate counting of beats (each tapping sound) while keeping time to the music, nurtured and developed my love of math!

A hallmark of your career involved the work you led to retain and promote senior women at your firm. What advice do you have for teachers and parents with young children to support future leadership development for the next generation?

I devote three chapters to this meaty topic in "Count Me In, Section VII: Blazing a Trail to Pay it Forward."

I encourage men and women to gain an understanding of societal norms we learn in the sandbox that profoundly shape our beliefs and the expectations we hold for ourselves and others. Our behaviours and actions impede or advance our careers; suppress or promote our potential. Ironically, my ‘aha’ moment came when I gained a deep understanding of the misconceptions and behaviours I held. Were it not for the courageous male partners pushing me and believing in me more than I believed in myself, I would not have a story to tell.

Unconscious gender bias is baked into evaluation systems. It plays a role in which leadership attributes and communication styles are preferred. Women are held to a higher competence threshold than men, trapped in a no-win ‘double bind’ dilemma forced to walk a tightrope between competence and likeability. In my research fostering the retention and promotion of women, which I discuss in the book, I explore the reasons a leaking pipeline exists between leadership talent and a women’s path to partnership. Finally, I share an integral piece of the puzzle – the critical role male champions play in crushing unconscious bias in the workplace and the next step on this journey; the broader role for improving diversity and inclusion, beyond gender.

Which brings me to what you can do to support the future leadership development of our future leaders, our kids.  Be acutely aware of societal unconscious biases that hold them back and shape their perspectives. Arm them with the confidence and tools to believe in themselves and their potential. Be a role model, mentor and sponsor to show them the way and be wary of the naysayers who will not have their best interests in mind. Encourage them to use their voice, raise their hand, ask for more, and accept that they are strong and capable of setting their sights higher.

Like teachers using books as a resource in the classroom, how can employers and organizations take advantage of your memoir for the workplace?

Here are some suggestions based on recent experience:

  • I have worked with HR and visited employer workplaces to speak to their high potential, high performing women (a ‘Lunch and Learn’) about my career journey and lessons learned. The company purchased copies of my book for the women in attendance. I provided handouts summarizing my key lessons with reflective questions for them to consider with their coaches.
  • I have given a keynote address for an in-person and virtual session for women in technology, to kickstart the company’s mentoring program. I sold and signed books for those interested.  
  • I have given a learning podcast for LumiQ (offers qualified training for CPAs) which is available to anyone who signs up for their learning program.
  • I am leading a monthly book club with 50+ women across Canada with a global corporation. We convene virtually over lunch once a month. Over its duration, I share my insights on the section of the book they have just read and answer their questions.. In smaller, facilitated groups , they consider the reflections questions I pose at the end of each of the eight sections covered in my book.
  • I am always open to ideas on how I can help companies with their women in leadership and retention of women initiatives. Currently, I am working on an event with a fireside chat and a book reading for the fall.  

For women in the prime of their careers who are raising families at the same time, what suggestions do you have for achieving balance and eliminating feelings of guilt? What message do you want them to have?

My mentors and bosses were all male, with stay-at-home spouses who didn’t experience the ‘double shift’ after a long day at the office, two career families face. How could they appreciate that this second shift fell on the shoulders of their female managers? There is no magic bullet. I don’t know any parent who is able to completely eliminate guilt or achieve complete work/life balance. As engaged parents who want it all, we make difficult decisions and compromises daily.

In terms of work/life balance, after my second child was born with a congenital heart defect, I created a flexible work arrangement, unique for the firm, essential to my situation. I worked part time when my workload was lighter (the summer months) and full time when they needed me most (the winter months). To my surprise, my employer accepted my terms. The way I saw it, they could have some of me, or risk me leaving, and have none of me.

When I was overwhelmed with too many tasks in too little hours, I applied the familiar ‘urgent/important’ quadrant to determine what how I should be spending my time. Asking questions like, ‘Is this the most important thing for me to be doing right now?’ ‘What can I delegate to provide my staff with a stretch assignment?’ ‘Can this task be taken off my list altogether?’  I also learned to apply the ‘80/20’ rule, because of my annoying perfectionism after too many unproductive, late nights. You, too, may find that your 80% effort is as good or better than expending the other 20% to make it ‘perfect’.

Guilt plagued me. My solution was a pledge to live my life without regret and be present for my kids. I held myself accountable by writing this personal goal in my annual work plan and openly discussed it with my boss/coach. (He decided to write a similar goal for himself!) I vowed to be there for my kid’s most important ‘can’t get back’ moments and blocked off personal time, as a meeting, in my calendar. This meant I often burned the midnight oil to meet client deadlines, when I snuck away for my personal meetings. But I was good with this. These meetings allowed me to attend my son’s rugby victories, my daughter’s performance in the school play, and to hear my kids’ say their grade school speeches in front of the entire school. There was virtually no meeting that was so important to be bound to a specific day and time, that could not be rescheduled. But there were hard choices to make and solutions to develop to keep my promise of no regrets

My advice: Stay true to yourself and remember what matters most. My regret: I didn’t share my approach to secret meetings with my staff at the time, to give them permission to do the same.

How have you found the transition from life in the fast lane to retirement? What advice do you have for women nearing this phase in their careers?

I imagined retirement being hard to settle into, transitioning from a global executive role, spending 50+ hours/week monitoring audit risk in eight countries, to having my biggest decision of the day being, “What shall I make for dinner?” This might sound like paradise to some, but it was stressful for me. I need to feel I am contributing, putting my work experience to practical use and taxing my brain so it doesn’t turn to mush.

When I first retired my body told me it had quite enough of travel and challenging time zones. I was sleep deprived and badly in need of personal TLC time. I slept in, went for long walks, read books, got massages and gave myself the space to reflect upon what I wanted to do next.

Then a friend asked if I would serve on his newly formed board. They needed help with governance, financial reporting and choosing auditors. Just what I needed to give voice to my need to feel useful. I accepted the position and set myself to work, pleased to hear how my advice was valued. After decades of reporting to boards on audit findings, I found irony in moving my seat to the other side of the boardroom table, auditors reporting to me! I relished the debates with fellow directors and management, and enjoyed helping them solve their business issues. I had found my calling. Today I serve on four corporate boards as Audit Committee Chair.

Not even my second career, however, can match the joy I experience spending precious time with my kids and my growing family, four grandchildren. I supplement this with my daily walks with my retirement present, a feisty rescue pup from Arizona.

My advice: Don’t jump into anything. Avoid busy work to keep your mind off the weighty decision you are facing on what is next. Instead, take the time you need to reflect upon how you want to spend your days. Ask yourself, what makes you happy, what gives you purpose, what is missing, what have you have always wanted to do, and go about making those important things happen … at your own pace.  

Are you currently available for speaking engagements or author visits? If yes, how can wider groups engage with you?

Yes! I love to share my journey, including all my wrong turns and lessons learned for audiences of any size. Speaking engagements are one of my favourite ways to connect with potential readers and continue to pay it forward for young, aspiring professionals.

I share my appearances as a keynote, my book launch, blog posts, and other information on my website. And please send me an email or connect with me on LinkedIn.  

Is there a second book in the works? What’s next for Susan Allen?

I don’t have a second business book in my plans, but anything is possible. I do think about writing something personal for my grandkids, to help them understand where they come from. It would be fun to describe our family, vacations and traditions, and their parents’ childhood experiences. A more exciting read than a ‘23 and me’ or DNA test, in my opinion.

We hope you benefit from the advice and insights shared by Susan Allen. If you’re looking for further reading material from successful Canadian business leaders, check out our past Hooked on Books with Julie Cole from Burlington, Ontario.

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