Female leaders in accounting: Sheila Fraser

CPA and former auditor general Sheila Fraser shares the career path she took to become a leader in her field.

  • Title: Auditor General of Canada, Ottawa
  • University: 1972, Bachelor of Commerce, McGill University
  • Designation year: 1975
  • Fellow designation year: 1994

Sheila Fraser began carving her path to the auditor general of Canada’s office in 1972 at Ernst & Young in Montreal as a staff accountant.

Long before the uproar over the reluctance of MPs to let her audit the administration of the House of Commons, her trip to Afghanistan, the so-called sponsorship scandal and resulting Gomery Commission in 2004, and all of the other initiatives sprung by Fraser, she developed her leadership skills at one of the Big Four.

She passed the UFE in 1975 and stayed with E&Y until 1999, during which time she became a mom to a son and two daughters. In 1999, she made the big move to Ottawa as deputy auditor general.

Fraser believes her leaderships skills began at home. “My parents encouraged me, and my siblings, to do our best; not to be afraid of challenges,” she says. “I never thought of my career in terms of ‘leadership roles.’ I just focused on doing my best. The skills evolved, developed over time.”

Leadership style is also part of governing success; some traits may be innate. “I do think personality is critical,” she says. In her opinion, the most important characteristics to cultivate are “strong values, in particular respect for others.” In fact, she credits this to her success: “my focus on quality of work and respect for people.”

That respect comes into play in delegating. “I learned about delegation by treating others as I would like to be treated, which means giving them responsibility and authority. I work in a collegial fashion,” she says. “I care about my people and encourage them to do their best.”

As auditor general, she is responsible for a staff of 650. The position renders her the legislative auditor of the Federal Government and auditor of most Crown corporations, the territories of Nunavut, NWT and the International Labour Organization of the United Nations, and spokesperson for the Office. “No one could do this job alone.”

“My Office has produced a number of interesting performance reports over the past year on subjects as diverse as rehabilitating the Parliament buildings, aging IT, electronic health records and emergency management,” she says.

“We are also involved in an interesting collaboration project with the auditor general of Mali. I visited with him in January.” The western Africa country is one of the poorest in the world.

So, is it lonely at the top? “Yes, at times it is,” she admits. “Especially when a tough decision must be made. But I have great colleagues and advisors that I consult and who help me consider the different aspects.”

Fraser thinks an obstacle she has faced in this profession was the attitude toward women when she started out. “When I began my career,” she says, “there was a clear discrimination against women.” How far we’ve come.

At 59, Fraser says this is her last full-time job. “My mandate as AG ends on May 31, 2011 and I plan to retire, probably do something on a part-time basis. I want more time for reading and travel.”

She does not believe, however, that she had to give up anything for her demanding career.

“I have been blessed with a wonderful career and do not believe that I have ‘sacrificed’ a thing.”

Resume:

  • 1972 — 1976: Staff Accountant, Ernst & Young, Montreal
  • 1976 — 1977: Manager, EY Montreal office
  • 1977 — 1981: Manager, EY Quebec office
  • 1981 — 1998: Partner, EY Quebec office
    (1981: worked on assignment to AG of Quebec)
  • 1999 — 2001: Deputy Auditor General, Office of the Auditor General of Canada
  • 2001 — 2011: Auditor General of Canada

Update 2013:

Fraser did retire from her position as auditor general on May 31, 2011. In November, she joined the boards of directors of Manulife Financial Corp. and The Manufacturers Life Insurance Company.

In June 2012, she joined Bombardier Inc.’s board and is now a corporate director and member of the Audit Committee there. She also sits on the Ottawa Food Bank and the International Public Sector Accounting Standards Boards.

She received an honorary degree from McMaster University at the November 2012 Convocation ceremonies.

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