5QW with Deloitte’s Lara Abrash: a new podcast from MBAchic
Fresh off of a chat with Deloitte’s US Audit & Assurance CEO, Lara Abrash, we are excited to finally kick off our new podcast series, Five Questions with… (5QW). Actually, we are geeked — this was personally exciting for me, as the idea of a podcast has long been a goal, but to kick this off with such a dynamic, inspiring leader, a woman who pursued her MBA in the same way, at my same program, who has led at the highest level and transformed her organization to perform and be ready for what’s to come tomorrow… it’s a dream. You can hear the excitement (and almost disbelief that this is happening?) in my voice, and I hope you enjoy this conversation as much as I did.
The idea of the Five Questions with… or 5QW podcast series is to bring you quick conversations with MBA women who have reached the C-suite and upper echelons of leadership. We know and are inspired by their many achievements, their resumes and book of work, the accolades they’ve received… what this series aims to deliver is an inside look, a pulling-back-of-the-curtain to find out what drives them, how they lead, what they believe has been key to their success, and, of course, what the investment in the MBA meant to them, now that they’re on the other side.
The conversations we’ve recorded have made us think, made us laugh and made us look inward, to what is driving us and how we want to move forward. Excited for you to dive in to my conversation with Lara Abrash, CEO of Deloitte’s US Audit & Assurance business.
Lara Abrash, CEO, Deloitte US Audit & Assurance
In this episode, we discuss Lara’s MBA and professional journey, the importance of remaining curious and open to learning, feedback and evolution, of accepting where you are (as opposed to dreaming of the many what ifs along the way), the huge role advocates can play and how key it is to focus on yourself and your well-being. We also discuss the importance of diversity, leading with compassion and empathy and developing the people around you. Truly enjoyed this chat and the excellent pop culture references that came up along the way.
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If you’d like to watch the full video interview, log into MBAchic and click the image below.
Lara Abrash, CEO, Deloitte US Audit & Assurance
Lara Abrash is the chief executive officer of the Deloitte US Audit & Assurance (A&A) business, where she is responsible for overseeing all aspects of the organization, including execution of the quality, innovation, growth, and talent strategies. Recognized as a leader in the public accounting profession’s drive to continuously improve audit quality, Deloitte’s public company audit clients total over 7 trillion USD in market capitalization.
Prior to her current role, Lara served in a number of leadership roles during her career at Deloitte: chief operating officer, national A&A transformation leader, and deputy CEO of the A&A practice. While serving in each of these leadership roles, Lara also maintained significant client responsibilities for the firm’s largest and most complex clients.
As national A&A transformation leader, she was instrumental in pioneering Deloitte’s leading position to transform the audit profession through technology and innovation. Her leadership philosophy is based on her deep understanding of multinational clients in various industries, her leadership roles and experiences, and her passion for advancing innovation and inclusion in the profession. Lara frequently speaks on topics focused on advancing the profession including diversity, equity, and inclusion, the future of work, and tech disruption.
Lara’s leadership extends to her community and other important causes. She is involved with the New Jersey Battered Women’s Service, where she previously served as the treasurer. In addition, Lara’s passions for inclusion and diversity as well as innovation and technology come together through her involvement with the Girls Who Code organization, whose mission is focused on closing the gender gap in technology. Finally, Lara is on the Board of Trustees of the SEC Historical Society and a member of the Financial Accounting Standards Advisory Council, which advises the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) on issues related to projects on its agenda, possible new agenda items, project priorities, procedural matters that may require the attention of the FASB, and other matters as requested by the chairman of the FASB.
Lara is a licensed certified public accountant in New York and New Jersey and is a member of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in economics from the University at Albany, State University of New York, and a Master’s of Business Administration from Baruch College.
When I was telling my kids what love felt like, that’s what I felt like when we were doing the books and records for Firehouse 123. Warm, warm, fluttering, and I knew instantly I wanted to be an accountant.
Hello, everyone. And thank you for tuning in. Welcome to Five Questions With, our series of quick interviews with industry leaders, change-makers, and those who inspire our community. We’re talking professional journeys and about investing in your education and career and self with those who have been in our shoes.
I’m Jeneta Hot, founder of MBAchic, a platform and community for MBAs and professionals around the world. We help navigate business school, careers, and more with the goal of propelling more women into the C-suite.
Speaking of the C-suite, I’m here today with Lara Abrash, CEO of Deloitte’s US Audit & Assurance business. In her role, she’s responsible for overseeing all aspects of the organization, including execution of the quality, innovation, growth, and talent strategies. As a leader in this space, Deloitte’s public company audit clients total US$7 trillion in market capitalization. She’s been instrumental in pioneering Deloitte’s leading position to transform the audit profession through technology and innovation. She’s involved with and serves organizations like the New Jersey Battered Women’s Service and Girls Who Code. And she serves on the board of trustees of the SCC Historical Society and is a member of the Financial Accounting Standards Advisory Council. A licensed CPA in New York and New Jersey, she received her Bachelors in Economics at SUNY Albany, and got her MBA from Baruch College’s Zicklin School of Business. Thank you for being here, Lara. I’m so looking forward to this.
Oh, thank you so much for having me. I’m equally looking forward to it. You didn’t share that we have some similar backgrounds when you were going through my bio. I’m hoping you’ll hit that.
Absolutely! We went to the same program. We did the MBA part-time and I’m so excited to get into that. Fantastic.
Okay, sounds great.
Yeah. All right. This is MBAchic. So, let’s get to that straight away. What drew you to the MBA degree and what did the MBA mean to you, the investment in yourself and your career, now that you’re on the other side of things?
Well, I’m lucky. I’ll just start with that. When I was in middle school, I was exposed to the world of accounting. We actually did a course in middle school where we did the books and records for something called Firehouse 123, and I got this warm and fuzzy feeling. People sort of make fun of me. I actually tell everybody that when I was telling my kids what love felt like, that’s what I felt like when we were doing the books and records for Firehouse 123, warm, warm, fluttering. And I knew instantly I wanted to be an accountant.
So, I ended up going to undergraduate school, got a degree in economics at SUNY Albany, but I always had my eyes set on accounting, and Baruch, for those of you who don’t know, it’s an awesome school. It’s a great school. New York City is known for a lot of things, but it’s really known for its MBA program for accounting. So, I chose it. I didn’t apply to any other schools because I knew that was the one for me, but it wasn’t easy.
And so I learned, I would say, the beautiful thing about MBAs, depending on where you are in your life when you do one, you get exposed to people that may have worked for a few years and then come back. And so for me, the benefits both of the coursework itself, but the people I was with every day, people that were five, 10 years older than me. Also, Baruch is an incredibly diverse school. So, I was surrounded by people that didn’t look like me. It taught me a lot and I knew it was an investment in me. I got a lot of support from my mom and my professors.
I did have to, actually, we were talking about this before we started. I had to commute from Long Island to get there. I would get up around 4:35 in the morning. I would take a train, the really long train for anybody who’s from Long Island on this call, to New York City. And then I would work all day at a small accounting firm and then around 4:00, I’d walk to Baruch and I’d be doing my homework in Penn Station around 9:00 or 10:00 at night at the Penn Station Bar. And then I would get back on that train back home.
So, there was so many lessons in that there was the academic lessons, there was the resilience of continuing on, learning about business. And then I would just say the diversity aspect was really, really amazing.
Oh my gosh, absolutely. Yeah. One of the most diverse and actually one of the largest programs, I later found out, which probably explains the traffic in the lobbies, but yeah, that’s fantastic. Oh my gosh. The MBA can also be just such a huge unlock. So, it’s great to hear what it’s done for you.
You’re now CEO of Deloitte’s US Audit & Assurance business. Was this always in your sight? Your passion and love for accounting, from your post-MBA days to today, what did your path to the C-suite look like? And what do you think has been key to your success?
Well, in the early days, in my twenties, my early thirties, I wasn’t focused at that time on, I would say, long-horizon goals. I went from year to year. At that point in my life, I was really focused on things like, was I happy? That’s really important to me. Did I like the people I worked with? Was I learning new things every year? Was there opportunity to do something new? Was I relevant in what I was doing? Was I having fun? Over time, I started to accumulate experiences, accumulate relationships, start to learn about how you get different opportunities. And I really was focused on piecing things together to see what did I want to do next? I did start setting longer-term horizon goals. I became a partner at our firm. I started doing different things.
The CEO goal was probably not something until maybe the last 10 years, where it started seeming like something I could potentially do, but it was really something that was really, and this is a big piece of advice for me, as far as keys to success, is trying to think about not a goal in a job. People sort of get themselves very focused on, “I want this job.” I try to think about goals now around what are the experiences that I may want to have I don’t have today. People I want to work with. Things I want to learn. Places I want to work. Do I want to be overseas and learn about the rest of the world? Really focus on experiences and use that as the goal itself versus some end state and also start to realize there’s no straight lines.
We talk a lot about keys to success. I didn’t become the CEO because I did these five things. There’s no recipe. I have a lot of our young people come to me and say, “Oh, if I want to do this, what do I need to do?” And you start to realize there’s zigzags in life. There’s things that you go off and do.
I’m also, by the way, a huge fan of this movie called Sliding Doors. It’s a movie with Gwyneth Paltrow and basically she runs to the subway and she just misses getting on. It’s a whole movie about, had she gotten on the subway, what would her life have been? And if she didn’t get on the subway, what did her life look like? I do think about that with careers. People often think about, “Well, if I did that, if I didn’t do that.” Just accept the place you’re in, learn from it, as opposed to thinking, “Well, what if something wouldn’t have happened?”
So, my own, I would say, keys to success. A couple things come top of mind to me and things I would just encourage others to think about. One is the importance of curiosity is something that I’ve been known for. Just always wanting to learn and evolve. The importance of, as I said, not having a job, but really focused on development areas. The importance of taking risks. I would say to those of you who are listening, if you’re not failing, that means you didn’t take a risk. So, failure is actually a sign that you’re actually putting yourself out there and you should decide in your life whether you want to be on the carousel or the rollercoaster. But if you really want to get to these other places, you’re ultimately going to have to take a risk and you learn from them. So, that’s a big area that I’d say was a big evolution for me.
Being open to feedback, actually asking how you’re doing. A lot of people, and I would say women sometimes fall more into this, and even men don’t want to know how they’re doing. It’s okay to not be getting everything right. Matter of fact, that’s better than someone not telling you something. And then at the very end, you find out you didn’t live up to expectations.
Mentors and advocates are really important. That has been incredibly important over my career. Having people support me, help me.
And then the last thing I often talk about is the importance of your brand. And knowing that that’s when the elevator door closes and someone talks about you. They’ve got about a couple floors of time to describe you. And often we don’t think about it that way and we don’t shape it. So, think about when that door closes the next time or that subway door closes, if we talk about… what are they saying? And is that what you want your brand to be? If you’re trying to get those different opportunities, how do you make your brand something that’s authentic and different? Because otherwise, how are they going to compare you from one person to the next? So, those are just a couple things I would say were important to my getting here to where I’m at today.
Oh my gosh. I’m taking a ton of notes and I need to see Sliding Doors, for sure. That’s fantastic. Yeah. Okay, to keep this moving. What drives you as a leader and driver of culture and what’s your overall leadership philosophy?
Well, people. I’ll just start with that. I would not be a great leader if I was a leader of running assets. And I’ll just say things that don’t have heartbeats and don’t come back. I love being with people. It gives me energy. I’m cathartic. I enjoy the ability to help others. I would say in our firm, it’s a wonderful place. We bring people out of college and we help sort of start their career and extend their career, whether they stay with us or go somewhere else. And so over my life at Deloitte, I’ve had the opportunity over and over and over again to see someone come in at 22 years old and help them really get to where they want to be.
I often talk about our role is taking over where the parents leave off. Doesn’t mean that the parents go away. I’m now about a parent of one child who’s about to go to college. I’m not expecting their employer to take my role over, but there’s a lot of things about how are you successful in a corporate environment? How do you navigate that world? How do you get the experiences you want? And I think that’s our job.
So, I would say one thing that just energizes me and drives me every day is the ability to be with people. And so that leans clearly to my leadership philosophy, which is how do I engage with people? And it’s really about the values I’m looking to promote. And so three attributes come to mind: vulnerability, empathy, and compassion.
Now, vulnerability is an outlook, it allows us to tear down our walls, and being a vulnerable leader puts people in a place that you’re relatable, that actually you are opening up to them so that they can open up to you. And that’s a really important thing in an organization where you’re trying to inspire people to be authentic and to thrive.
Empathy is also an important thing for me. I would say in the pandemic over the last couple years, it really came to roost when all of us were dealing with the same challenge. Often in life, we don’t know what each other are dealing with and it’s hard to be empathetic unless someone’s willing to share with you the loss of a relative, a hardship they may be having. When all of us at the same time were dealing with the same issues, no matter where you were in the world, you were scared and you didn’t know what was going to happen. So, we talked a lot in our organization about that and that empathy and connectivity really helps, again, our people feel like they’re heard because things become full circle.
And then compassion. Hopefully, you hear this in my voice, comes back to just caring about people. It’s who I am. It’s genuine. It doesn’t mean sometimes you don’t have to make hard decisions at work. Unfortunately, not everything is easy, but everything I try to do is around trying to be compassionate. And that means actively listening to people, not just speaking at them, listening, sensing. When you’re a leader of an organization, you can’t talk to… We have 15,000 people. I can’t talk to every one of the 15,000, but what I try to do is use a lot of mechanisms to sense how our people are doing and then to really be part of the change. So, I take those attributes and I focus on how do I change?
I would say one example of that has been a real, real focus in the last several years on diversity, equity and inclusion. When we look at our business and our profession that I’m in, certified public accountants, and you look at Black CPAs as an example, the percentage that are Black CPAs and the percentage of Black CPAs coming out of colleges that could be a CPA is woefully, woefully short. And so I went on a listening journey, trying to understand the data, trying to understand why not. And I use those vulnerability, the empathy, and compassion to come up with something I’m really proud of. As a firm, we’ve developed something called MADE, it’s called Making Accounting Diverse and Equitable. And we put $75 million behind helping not just the Deloitte employees, but how do we help people who are young in their career, in their life rather, want to actually pursue a career in accounting? And it’s scholarships, it’s money into communities, we’re doing a lot of things. And that’s just something that shows how you could take your compassion and put it to good use.
Wow. That’s amazing. Yeah, absolutely. It really all gets back to your compassion and your empathy for people, really, just connection and having that. I think we’ve kind of touched on this, but this is sort of a compound question. What are you most proud of during your career and time at Deloitte? What’s been the most challenging? What’s been the most surprising and why?
Yeah, probably the thing and it’s not being the CEO of the business right now. Probably the time in my career that was the most challenging and surprising for me was a few years ago, I raised my hand to be our transformation officer. I was starting to see what was happening outside of the walls of our organization relative to people’s ability to use technology for personal use. I was looking at our own business saying, “We still use Excel and Word.” We weren’t truly changing the way our people showed up and what they got. I often joke they could order a pair of shoes off of Zappos and then they’d come in and have this horrendous experience. So, I raised my hand to do something that, quite frankly, at the time, I was probably the last person that should have done it. I was probably still printing my emails and I said, “Can I do this?” At that time, audit and innovation were two words you’d never hear together.
I’m really proud that five or six years later, we have transformed our business. We use technology. It’s part of who we are. Our people are tech-savvy. They’re on the cloud. They’re leveraging analytics, they’re leveraging AI, we’ve created next-gen applications. It’s an amazing turnaround. And we see it in the experience of our people and it gets back to my passion for people.
There’s a lot of other really great reasons that I can say we did this for. We did it so that we would be the best quality firm. I could say we did it because we’d be the fastest-growing firm. But ultimately, I wanted our people to not call their mom and complain about their day and say, “I had the worst day of the world because I was working with Excel.” I wanted to give them something that was real.
So, that was probably the biggest challenge because telling people to do something very different and auditors by their nature are skeptical. That’s why we do what we do so well. And getting people that were skeptical to change. So, a big part of my role was really to be the ambassador of change. And it surprised me, ultimately, to look on the back end, how well we’ve done, but it was a really, really big challenge. I joke with people. And again, this is supposed to be a call for you to walk away hopefully with some lessons. I said out loud that, “If I was half-successful, we’d be halfway better than we already were today.” And it gets back to the willing to take a risk, fail, fail fast, and learn, but also recognize that not everything has to be perfection. Progress is also pretty good.
That’s fantastic. I can’t believe we’re already here, but we have the last question. We’ve definitely woven this throughout, but what words of advice would you offer for those embarking on ambitious career paths, setting big goals in life and their career? What would you like to leave them with?
Maybe a few things. One, harness the power of relationships. I loosely talked about mentors and advocates, but ultimately in your life, people will be the biggest driver of your success or failure and your willingness and openness to be somebody that gets mentored is really important. You could have a mentor, but if you don’t use them, you don’t approach them, you don’t be vulnerable with them, you’re not going to get out of it what you put into it. You’ve got to put the effort in. So, mentoring and harnessing those relationships is important.
Asking for things, even if you don’t get them, at least use that as a mechanism. Look for advocates, which are different than mentors. Advocates are people that have the ability and the authority to help you get what you want. Make sure you have those people. So, relationships is incredibly important.
I focused on this idea of brand. Differentiate yourself, really start to think about how am I different from others? Find your superpowers. Those are the things that are your really top important things that come out of you and make sure they’re for good, but also be focused on always learning. I talked about curiosity, both in getting smarter, thinking about around the corner, but also learning about yourself. You’re not going to change by the time you’re my age, the things you do really well or don’t do really well from a personality perspective, but know the things that in your dark days, you’re not your best you, and try to be focused on when is that going to happen? You’re not going to make it go away, but it’s about being aware of it.
Be bold. I tell people you’d be shocked how quickly you’ll be my age in your life. Don’t let time go by and not be bold. Use the time on this precious earth to be bold, take risks. Those are really important for me. Be authentic. Don’t hold back. Don’t not be you. If you have a passion, go for that passion.
I would say the last thing, which is maybe a little bit more for women, claim what you do. Often, I find women in particular will do some really, really great things and they just expect to be recognized. They expect someone’s going to come and find them and pat them on the back and say, “Hey, you’re doing a really good job. Why don’t you go do this?” Where the men typically are spending probably more of their time, and so for the men listeners, I apologize, but there’s a little bit of my years of watching, not every person, but the men’s minds will spend more time on telling people what they do, getting that next opportunity. So, claim what you do.
Spend the time, be smart. I have a daily to-do list. Maybe at this point, I have more than one list. I have a lot of lists, but at the top of every list is a list of people I want to connect with. And some of them is to make sure they know what I’m up to. Some of it’s checking… At my point in my career to check what they’re up to, but make sure that connection and that sharing what you’re doing and openness to change is something that’s top of mind.
Gem after gem, I’m scribbling these notes.
I’ll give you one more that I think I missed throughout the call. I haven’t talked about well being and work-life balance. I just want to share two thoughts. I’m not a believer of the words, work-life balance. That sounds like there’s some spreadsheet that you’re going to have some percentage of your time doing one thing and not doing another. I’m really focused on impact. So, in your life, make sure you’re focused on high-energy, high-ROI things. I play softball and I love it. It gives me a lot of energy, but it’s not a lot of time, but it really fills my tank. So, knowing those things that fill your tank, doing those and making sure you do them in advance of the things that don’t fill your tank. I joke about Thanksgiving at my house. That’s a tank-taker for me when all the relatives come in and it’s like I could script it out. So, making sure you’re focused on impact is important.
And then the other thing I would say is being really focused on you. You’ll see as your life evolves, and if you’re really somebody who is, I’ll say a leader, you’re not just a leader at work. You’re a leader in all aspects of your life. You’re a leader with your friends. You’re a leader with your family. You’re a leader in society and your community. And you could start to get pulled really quickly. And so my mom’s advice to me that I hold true every day is you can’t be there for others if you’re not there for yourself first. And so putting you first, making sure you have the energy, you’re taken care of, that allows you to be that leader with others.
That’s a really great way to end. You can’t pour from an empty cup. Oh my gosh. I love this advice. Oh my gosh. Thank you so much. I can’t believe we’re at the end of it. This was fantastic. This was such a nice, quick hit and to get kind of a view into what drives you and kind of how you’ve gotten to where you are is really a treat. So, thank you so much for sharing.
Oh, it’s been great to be here.
Yeah. Now, this is a quick interview, but we do love to end our questions, our conversations on a fun note with a quick rapid-fire. Shall we move to the final piece?
Okay. All right. Here we go. What was your first job?
I was a cashier and worked at the deli at a supermarket called King Kullen on Long Island.
Oh my gosh, yes. King Kullen. We had those where I [grew up]… Oh my gosh. What is your go-to power breakfast?
Sunny-side eggs, two of them, and a piece of whole wheat toast.
Nice. Nice. Do you have a secret talent or hobby that people might be surprised to hear about?
Well, I mentioned softball. I think a lot of people who know me know I play. I would tell people I love to cook, but I’m an awful baker. So, I’m more on the savory side, but I do really enjoy it. And I do enjoy baking with my daughter, but I’m not as good at it.
What song is currently playing on loop for you?
Well, I’m like a music junkie, so I listen to so many wide-ranging things. Broadway shows, Beatles, Madonna, Post Malone, Doja Cat, but recently I’ve been listening over and over to the soundtrack of Hamilton, the Broadway show. My favorite song, maybe a good way to close this type of interview, is there’s a song called The Room Where It Happens and it means a lot. I know there’s this concept of it having a seat at the table. To me, it means two things. You clearly want to be in the room where it happens, but if you can’t be in there, you want to make sure the people that are in there have your best interests at heart. So, I love that song. I love that album. And it’s something I try to think about when I think about having a seat at the table or being in the room.
Yeah. Oh my gosh. That was perfect way to end. Absolutely. Thank you so much. Yeah, that soundtrack is fantastic. Thank you. Oh my gosh. Thank you so much. Thank you for playing that fun rapid-fire round. This was great. Thank you for being here, for sharing your experiences. I feel like this flew, but it was great to hear about your journey and get your advice for those of us following in your shoes. We really thank you for making the time.
Again, thank you for having me. I had a great time being with you and thanks everybody.
You can find Lara Abrash on LinkedIn and on Twitter. On Twitter, she’s @AbrashLara. So, go follow her where she chats her passion for her work, the work of her colleagues, a view into her travels with Deloitte and her family, and the latest on building a truly diverse and inclusive environment. And you’ll get a view into her love for softball and the New York Mets. We’ll share everything, including her full bio on our website. So, head to MBAchic.com after this. Thank you again, Lara. Thank you so much. Have a great day.
Thank you. Have a great day. Take care.