Growing up in a small village in the UK, Alison’s parents were conservative and no strangers to the struggles of war, rations and heartbreaking loss of family. These early childhood experiences cultivated Alison’s deep sense of gratitude for small things and a hard work ethic.
Accounting wasn’t initially on the radar for Alison. Considering her career options as a teenager, she applied to study physiotherapy but never actually started the course.
“I was set to go. Then the uniform requirement came through and it said ‘four pairs of green crimplene trousers,” she recalls.
“There were two things I pathologically hated. One was crimplene of any form and one was bottle green. So like all responsible teenagers, that drove my career decision and that was the end of my plan to be a physiotherapist,” she laughs.
Instead, she completed a Bachelor of Arts (BA) in Business (Hons), at the University of Sheffield and afterwards started with KPMG in Sheffield in 1983. She’s been with KPMG ever since.
“Several times in my career I’ve paused and thought, is there something else I should do? Frankly, every time I’ve thought about that, something new and really exciting has opened up within KPMG so I’ve kept reinventing myself,” she says.
After relocating with KPMG from the UK to Perth, her career boomed when she landed the role as head of the mining practice. A huge opportunity, coming unexpectedly from former Chairman, Doug Dukes.
“He rang me up out of the blue when I was in Perth and said ‘Ok, I need to make a change to the head of the mining practice; I’ve looked at all the people and every time I look at the names of the new jobs we’re winning, your name comes up. You need to take this role on and I want you to be the head of mining.’ It was such an amazing opportunity,” says Alison.
Once in the head role, she appointed a general manager with a different background to her own; the diversity of thinking between the two made for excellent leadership decisions.
“I never say ‘get smarter people around you’ because I’m not really sure that people who say that believe it. But I do think it’s helpful to get different people around you and just be open-minded,” she says.
When preparing to deliver difficult news or making a challenging request, she focuses on seeing the situation from the other person’s perspective. It’s a valuable management skill, but putting herself in someone else’s shoes didn’t always come naturally.
“I like trying to think from everyone else’s perspective, whereas in my younger days it was all about 'I’ve got these great ideas and I just want to charge ahead!'” she recalls.
Shyness in her younger years has been replaced with confidence to put herself forward for opportunities, including her current role as KPMG’s National Chairman. She was also the first woman on the KPMG board after Doug Dukes again encouraged her to put aside her trepidation and "get some backbone", as Alison fondly recalls, to step up to the position.
“There’s been so much published research now about how women don’t put themselves forward. Sometimes young women say to me ‘Everyone knows that, so they should come and ask me, shouldn’t they?’ I say no, you know that too, you have to take responsibility for stepping up, so please do,” she says.
Staying energised is Alison’s key to keeping a finger on the pulse of her multitude of professional commitments. She guards her weekends, keeping them work-free where possible, carves out time for the gym and loves to hang out in nature…without earphones.
“I think I’m the only person left in the world that walks in nature without earplugs stuck in my ears. I can’t understand how people do it,” she laughs.
“Walking along the beach or in the bush where you can just listen to the birds, the waves and let that wash over you is an incredibly good way of clearing your mind.”
* The author of this story, Catherine Robson, is the founder of award-winning financial advice practice Affinity Private. With over 20 years’ experience advising sophisticated private clients and families, Catherine has built a reputation as an expert and respected adviser.
** The Constant Investor is published by respected financial journalist Alan Kohler. It provides “unbiased, independent, daily insights for the financially curious.”