International Women’s Day 2020 marks almost ten years to the day since NIAO Director Suzanne Walsh joined the organisation. However, her association with the Office goes back further than that. Suzanne’s father, Raymond Jones, was a NIAO Director himself and an Assistant Auditor General when he retired in 2004. Suzanne recalls attending a Take Your Daughters to Work event with her two sisters when she was 15:
“I really enjoyed visiting the NIAO and finding out more about what my dad did, seeing where he worked, and meeting the people he worked with. I remember coming in and getting a tour of the office and the then C&AG talked to us about the work that the NIAO does to protect public money and the public purse. Did I think at the time that one day I would be working here? No, definitely not!”
Suzanne started her career at accountancy firm Grant Thornton, joining as a trainee chartered accountant following her graduation from Queen’s University Belfast with a degree in Economics. After that, she took up the role of Senior Consultant at the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) delivering a range of audit and accountancy courses and working with trainees completing their professional accountancy qualification (including several current NIAO staff members).
“I find it really rewarding, being able to prepare trainees for their exams and help them progress in their chosen career path. In fact, I’ve recently started delivering training and lecturing again for Chartered Accountants Ireland (CAI) on its new public sector elective.”
Following her time at CIPFA, Suzanne spent time working in PwC’s consultancy department and was involved in some really exciting projects including Account NI and IFRS implementation. It was after starting a family in 2009 that Suzanne decided to apply for a post in the NIAO, joining in March 2010. As she explains the decision made both personal and professional sense.
“Even though my work up until then had been in the private sector, most of it had been for public sector clients. The opportunity to work exclusively for public sector really appealed to me. I also thought that it would give me a better work life balance as I was doing a lot of traveling with PwC and I was conscious that it would be difficult to maintain that with a young family.”
Reflecting on her first decade in the NIAO, Suzanne notes the diversity of experiences she has had:
“NIAO has been a great place to work.. I’ve had excellent opportunities for development in the last ten years. I’ve worked in financial audit, value for money, technical and training, had a temporary promotion to director, and now the full time promotion to director. It has been a fantastic experience for me.”
She also identifies the NIAO’s GovTech Catalyst data analytics project as a particular highlight. Suzanne has been project managing the Office’s work to develop a data enabled approach to public sector audit.
“My work on data analytics has been really exciting and enjoyable. There’s an opportunity to really change the nature of the way we do things and improve the experience for our staff – to make the whole audit process more efficient and also improve the quality of our work. The challenge has given us the opportunity to work in collaboration with the private sector and I really value that diversity.”
Suzanne has just completed the Chief Executive Forum’s Women’s Leadership Programme. The year-long programme aims to give women working in senior positions with the NI public sector opportunities to develop their leadership potential. The programme includes training days, webinars, a residential and coaching and mentoring.
“It was a fantastic experience. There were around 50 women in total on the programme, each with their own story to tell. It was great to get to know these women in both a personal and professional capacity. For me, the most valuable part of the programme was the coaching. I was paired a fabulous coach and we did a lot of work on building resilience and developing my goals. It has had a huge impact on both my personal and professional life but then Francois would point out that you cannot really separate the two! ”
Was there any other particular advice from the programme that stood out?
“The best advice that my coach gave me was to care for myself and to stop being critical of myself. . He explained that self-care is like putting on an oxygen mask on an airplane – you need to put your own mask on first before helping others. I have really felt the benefit of applying this theory, and I think those around me have too!
Reflecting on her experiences during the programme, her wider career, and the theme of International Women’s Day 2020 being #EachforEqual, does Suzanne think things are changing positively for women in business?
“Things have definitely changed, there are more women in senior roles and it is great that we now have three female permanent secretaries in Northern Ireland. However, from my own personal experience as a Mum to two amazing children and through my observations, I feel that there is still a significant challenge for women in developing their careers while also managing domestic responsibilities. I never cease to be amazed at how women have successfully manage very challenging careers alongside domestic responsibilities, they are an inspiration.”
“I think it’s really important that women support each other. Our Chief Operating Officer, Pamela McCreedy has been very supportive of me, providing me with opportunities such as the women’s leadership programme and she has encouraged me to become actively involved in a number of CAI’s Boards and Committees. I have always made the most of these opportunities. I have some really great people working for me and I hope that I provide them with the same level of support to help them to develop and achieve their best.”