| ||Current position: |
Retired partner and former Americas Inclusiveness Officer
| ||Last Ernst & Young office: |
| ||Born in: |
Fort Scott, Kansas
| ||Board/community involvement: |
On the Board of Directors of ITT Exelis, Inc.; will join the Board of Directors of Annie's, Inc., upon completion of its initial public offering; Treasurer of the Executive Board of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra Association; and on the Board of the Dallas Symphony Foundation
| ||Career highlights: |
Serving as Global Coordinating Partner in the Assurance practice for several of the firm's largest global accounts. Serving as a member of both Ernst & Young's Americas and US Executive Boards. Leading the firm's efforts to promote and embed a culture of inclusiveness. Serving in Ernst & Young's Transaction Advisory practice and its Center for Strategic Transactions
| ||Recent read: |
The Help, by Kathryn Stockett
| || || |
Finding strength in diversity
Born the granddaughter of Italian immigrants in the tiny town of Magnolia, Arkansas, retired partner Billie Williamson views her highly successful career with Ernst & Young LLP as "living the American dream." Having served the last portion of her tenure at Ernst & Young promoting diversity and inclusiveness, Williamson has valiantly sought – and continues to seek – to make that dream a reality for all who seek it. Connect recently talked with Williamson at her home in suburban Dallas.
You put Ernst & Young on the map as a leader in the area of diversity and inclusiveness. Was that a role you ever envisioned for yourself?
Williamson: Actually, no. In fact, in 2005, when (now Global Chief Operating Officer) John Ferraro asked me to take an active role leading diversity and inclusiveness, most people are surprised to learn I initially told him "no." I was serving as lead partner on a number of large, global accounts. I just loved serving my clients and getting to know their businesses and felt like I was really contributing to their operations and controls.
What changed your mind?
Williamson: The firm had already accomplished quite a bit in the areas of gender equity and flexibility under Deborah Holmes (current Global Director of Corporate Responsibility). But John and Jim (Turley) were looking at the bigger, global picture. They understood that the faces of our clients — and their boards and audit committees — were changing. They had the foresight that we needed to significantly ramp up our inclusiveness efforts and make it a critical part of our business. They also felt that in order to take things to the next level, the firm needed a well-respected, client-serving partner to lead the charge, someone with real operating line experience who could break through some of the barriers we were facing at the time. Once I better understood the business imperative, I took the job.
And you soon became passionate about it …
Williamson: I had always been passionate about diversity and inclusiveness. And that's partly because I personally experienced a world that wasn't always open to people who were different. When I started my career in 1974, there were very few women in the profession and tons of people who said I couldn't become a partner. I remember showing up for my first day on a new account and the manager remarking, "Oh, you're the new girl; go make some coffee." I politely told him I didn't drink coffee (and I still don't) and that someone else should make it. We later became great colleagues and friends. Another time, a client saw me and said he was glad the firm was finally sending a secretary along. This was not an unusual assumption at the time. We actually ended up getting along quite well after he understood I was the audit manager.
Both of those experiences ended well, but what did they teach you?
Williamson: They showed me that you can approach things with a positive attitude and figure out how you're going to deal with them, or you can get bitter. I chose not to get bitter and to focus on advancing my career and my relationships with colleagues and clients. So, in my view, your attitude is a critical part of being successful.
We will always have to deal with our natural biases. However, the overwhelming evidence is, when we put diverse teams together, we form broader relationships, increase client satisfaction and improve operating results.
What are some other important lessons about diversity and inclusiveness that you learned in your role?
Williamson: What I learned, and am most proud of, is that it is possible to change the conversation around diversity and inclusiveness. It's not a regulatory or have-to thing. Ernst & Young now recognizes how critical it is in the way we form relationships and serve our clients.
Another thing that really opened my eyes came through the work we did with (Harvard psychology professor) Dr. Mahzarin Banaji. She helped me understand how our brains work. She taught me that we all have biases based on our collective life experiences. And those biases shape how we see others. What I found fascinating is that Dr. Banaji says the biases themselves are not a bad thing — they're an unintentional part of who we are. But, just like anything else, we need to realize our biases exist. Once we do, we can change our behavior and approach each person as a unique individual.
This made me start looking at my clients and our people in a new way. I started seeing every kind of person on my teams and my accounts — young, mature, people of all nationalities and cultures, gay and straight, etc. — and I began to understand the importance and richness of that diversity. You can't just keep 'charging the hill' the same way for every client or every person on your team. I started to see and understand people through a new lens — and through their life experience. Ultimately, I think this not only improved my client service, but made me a better person overall.
Did you accomplish what you set out to do?
Williamson: We've made much progress, and I think there are now great numbers of people at Ernst & Young who better appreciate the strength of diversity. But in terms of creating a world where things like gender, color, orientation or being differently abled are no longer an issue, we're not fully there yet.
Do I think we can get there? Absolutely. We will always have to deal with our natural biases. However, the overwhelming evidence is, when we put diverse teams together, we form broader relationships, increase client satisfaction and improve operating results. That's because we all see things differently and try to solve the puzzle from a slightly different perspective. The more we realize that our diversity is our strength, the more we move to a place where our individual differences are actually our competitive advantage.
More about Billie Williamson
Billie Williamson began her career in public accounting in 1974 after graduating first in her business school class at Southern Methodist University. She interviewed with all the then-Big Eight in Dallas and chose Ernst & Young, largely due to the welcome she received from (retired Ernst & Young Dallas Office Managing Partner) Adrian Alter. Williamson recalls Alter looking at her and saying, "If you can do the work, I'll make sure you make partner." According to Williamson, he did.
At Ernst & Young, Williamson spent her career serving as Coordinating Partner for clients such as Fluor Corporation, culminating with her role as Americas Inclusiveness Officer. She continues working in that vein today by mentoring young professionals and helping to place women and people of color on boards of directors.
Williamson enjoys retirement and the luxury of having more control of her time. However, she remains active on two corporate boards, as well as the boards of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and a number of local charities. "I'm not at home just sitting on the couch," she laughs.
She has one adult daughter and two grandchildren (ages four and one), as well as two stepchildren, ages 20 and 15, and is married to Mack Forrester, who is also an accountant.
Getting back to our values
by Billie Williamson
If I had a chance to sit down with the next president of the United States, I think I'd suggest we step back and see if we're on the right path from a values perspective. I've been very disturbed by the recent economic crisis and what drove it. Some of the transactions that led to the crisis were more about "how can I make money on the transaction" rather than if it was a good, solid transaction.
I know it sounds a bit old-fashioned, but I think, as a country, we have gotten too materialistic versus working for the good of the whole. For me, this means investing in all Americans and helping them be proud of what they can accomplish. This requires strengthening our education system and investing in our communities.
I'd tell the next president we need to go back and focus on what made America great: it wasn't greed; it was innovation, hard work and caring about one another.
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