Connect magazine - March 2014

Outside her comfort zone

Alice Schroeder organized her life around those experiences that will teach her the most.

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You may be surprised to learn that Alice Schroeder, former all-star securities analyst, CPA, best-selling author, FASB regulator and EY alumna, is a devoted ballroom dancer. In fact, she has taken dance instruction from none other than Tony Dovolani, an all-time Dancing with the Stars champion.

But then, mastering ballroom dances such as the waltz and the tango means making your partner look good. And after an auspicious and varied career, Schroeder has discovered that above all, she values playing a nuanced role, making a positive impact behind the scenes. And she is keen to leap into new experiences, learning all she can along the way.

High standards

Schroeder “fell in love” with EY after receiving her MBA in Finance from the Red McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas. Having started in Ernst & Young LLP’s Houston office, Schroeder describes her time at the firm as truly formative. “I learned the language of business,” she recalls. Serving on the audit team for multiple and varied clients was an “invaluable” experience that exposed her to an exceptional breadth of knowledge.

She fondly remembers working with extraordinary people who fostered high standards in themselves and in her. While she did not realize it at the time, the experience “led me to expect more of myself and nurtured a desire in me to work with these kinds of people for the rest of my life.” This includes such “brilliant business people” as Bob Zlotnick and Marcie Cohen, who later married and left EY to launch a highly successful energy company.

Another influential and memorable individual was Denny Beresford, who at the time was Ernst & Young LLP’s National Director of Accounting Standards. Schroeder reported to Beresford in the firm’s National office. After Beresford left EY in 1987 to chair the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB), he asked Schroeder to join him.

It was a great opportunity in terms of helping to shape accounting regulation and meeting people who were at the most senior levels of business. She embraced the opportunity to leave her comfort zone, drafting some of the most significant accounting rules affecting the insurance industry along the way.

A Wall Street veteran

Investment banking was Schroeder’s next destination. She spent 15 years on the Street, serving as managing director at several of the world’s largest investment banks, including Morgan Stanley. Her time there encompassed a period of high drama for the industry, culminating in the financial crisis and the meltdown of insurance giant AIG and others.

Schroeder describes having a ringside seat for these seemingly earth-shattering events as “an education in itself” that resulted in her being ranked at the top of her profession in the Institutional Investor All-America Research poll. Risk and Insurance magazine called her “one of the most respected — and unafraid — thinkers on Wall Street.”

As an analyst, Schroeder followed Berkshire Hathaway and in the process became well-acquainted with CEO Warren Buffett, one of the world’s most remarkable people. In 2009, she published his biography, which went on to become a number one New York Times best-seller, The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life.

Fostering understanding

Throughout her varied career, Schroeder has never stopped learning or embracing the new. But her wide-ranging roles in accounting, regulation and investment banking have revealed her strong suit. “It took me a long time to realize that my greatest strength is to help people understand the hidden aspects of their own businesses.” Today, as a member of the boards of directors at Prudential and Cetera Financial Group, she is proud of her role as a trusted advisor to management and maintains her involvement in the financial services industry.

Schroeder is passionate in her concern about the underutilization of women on the boards of US companies. She cites low turnover — largely due to the absence of term limits — as one major barrier. Another, she says, “is a mindset among decision-makers who do not look beyond CEOs as prospective candidates.”

She encourages executives to focus instead on individuals with the stature, presence and perspective to benefit the company. “There are thousands of women who are qualified to be on boards,” she says.

For alumni who are considering board membership, Schroeder has useful advice: she urges a thoughtful approach. “Choose your boards carefully. Don’t take the first opportunity that presents itself.” Ask yourself whether the board is valued by management as a source of independent insight and advice. And ask yourself whether you have the knowledge and background to make a distinctive contribution.

Schroeder reports that it’s not uncommon for directors to receive a thousand pages of documents to review less than a week before the next board meeting. “Unlike an auditor, an analyst or a journalist, the board member is privy to a lot of information accessible to no one else.”

Having served in and learned from each of those roles, Schroeder believes she has developed an ability to sift through the information — “millions of data points” — to identify what’s most important. “It’s gratifying when management comes to me, eager to get my help and advice.” It’s a role she seems destined to play.