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Secrets of a CPA trailblazer

A conversation with Lynne Doughtie, CPA, VSCPA member and first female chairman and CEO of KPMG.
April 5, 2022

By Chip Knighton

In an organization filled with high-achieving professionals, Lynne Doughtie, CPA, manages to stand out. In 2015, she was named chairman and CEO of Big Four firm KPMG, becoming the first woman to hold both roles simultaneously in the Big Four. 

Doughtie, 56, works at KPMG’s main offices in New York, but still lives in her native Powhatan County, where her parents ran a family business. She has spent her entire career at KPMG, starting at the firm in the Richmond office in 1985 after graduating from Virginia Tech’s Pamplin College of Business, making partner in 1998. She rose through the firm as an auditor specializing in internal controls and information technology and moved into KPMG’s advisory practice. From 2011 to 2015, she led KPMG’s Advisory practice in the Americas, establishing it as the firm’s fastest-growing business. 

Since taking over as Chairman and CEO in 2015, Doughtie has increased KPMG’s revenues to $9.46 billion (fiscal year 2018), an 8.3 percent increase from fiscal 2014, the year before she took over. On her watch, KPMG has partnered with AWS, Google, IBM Watson, Microsoft and other technology brands to enhance the firm’s services. 

Doughtie is a governing board member of the Center for Audit Quality and a board member of Catalyst, Chief Executives for Corporate Purpose, LUNGevity, Virginia Tech’s Pamplin Advisory Board and NAF

Doughtie has received numerous accolades including Fortune’s Most Powerful Women in Business, Crain’s New York Business’ 50 Most Powerful Women in New York, Accounting Today’s Top 100 Most Influential People, the National Association of Corporate Directors’ “Directorship 100,” the National Association of Female Executives’ “Woman of Achievement,” and Glassdoor’s 2018 list of Top CEOs. She also received Virginia Tech’s Pamplin College of Business’ Distinguished Alumnus Award (2007) and Virginia Tech’s Distinguished Achievement Award (2018).

Doughtie and her husband, Ben, have a son, Schuyler, and a daughter, Evie. She enjoys outdoor sports, including skiing, water sports and golf, and is an avid Virginia Tech fan.

The VSCPA recently interviewed Doughtie about topics ranging from her career path to the prospects of women in accounting to the future of the profession in the face of automation and other technological advancements.

What was your early exposure to the accounting profession?

By the age of 10, I was helping my mother make the daily bank deposits and post accounts receivable for the family business. I learned about debits and credits early.

Were you always looking to go to a Big Four firm? What educational steps did you take with an eye on getting there? 

I actually started my college education majoring in computer science, but soon found my way to Virginia Tech’s Pamplin College of Business. I could really relate to my business courses as I had wonderful opportunities to help with our family business growing up. All of the “Big Eight” firms recruited at Virginia Tech and I felt public accounting would be the perfect place to start my career. I joined KPMG as an accountant in 1985 and have benefitted from tremendous professional growth opportunities across multiple service areas and industries. In addition, the culture and values of KPMG, along with people who care deeply about the work we do and about each other, is what has kept me at the firm for more than 30 years. 

What did you enjoy about working in Audit? Was it difficult to leave that side of the house?

Being an auditor provided me with meaningful responsibilities early in my career. I served on audit teams working with some of the world’s leading companies and had the chance to learn from and work alongside highly-committed professionals dedicated to serving the capital markets. The great thing about public accounting is the wide range of opportunities there are to build new skills and gain experiences in many different areas. In the late 1990s, I began to specialize in IT auditing serving both audit and non-audit clients. My experience in both auditing and advisory helped me to see the various facets of a multi-disciplinary firm and positioned me well for future leadership roles. 

Your career progression has mirrored the growth of women in the profession. What did it mean to you to become one of the first female CEOs of a Big Four firm?

Having spent my entire career at KPMG, I was extremely honored and humbled to be named chairman and CEO. That said, women are still in the vast minority when it comes to leadership roles in corporate America. As a woman, I recognized the tremendous platform I would have to help more women advance and move into leadership positions. 

It’s interesting that according to KPMG’s latest Women’s Leadership Study, seven in ten women (69 percent) are open to taking small risks to further their career, but far fewer (43 percent) are open to taking the bigger risks associated with career advancement. 

Yet study after study finds that companies with more women in leadership roles tend to be considered “higher-quality” companies, with better returns on equity. Companies that utilize female talent effectively also are 45 percent more likely to report improved market share.

Was retaining women more of a priority when you were starting out and progressing in the profession than it had been in previous generations? How did that manifest itself? How has the firm (and profession) improved in that area as your career has progressed?

The importance of inclusion and diversity has become front and center. Clients are looking for innovative solutions, fresh thinking and new perspectives. To meet those needs, inclusive and diverse leadership and engagement teams are needed like never before. This creates tremendous opportunities for women to grow and lead. 

Have you worked to “pay it forward” with other women at KPMG and the profession?

As KPMG’s first female chairman and CEO, I have an incredible opportunity to “pay it forward” to other women, and to pass on what I’ve learned. At KPMG, we have a culture that supports our long-time commitment to developing, advancing and empowering women both within our firm and the broader marketplace. At our firm, we continue to enhance career opportunities for women by driving national and local initiatives that support, advance, retain and reward them. Outside of KPMG, we strive to inspire greatness in the next generation of women leaders and positively impact the number of women in C-suite positions in corporate America through initiatives like the KPMG Women’s Leadership Summit. 

I personally have coached, sponsored and mentored many individuals throughout my career and continue to do so. Helping people grow, develop and move forward in their careers has always given me the most satisfaction. I strongly encourage others to do the same. 

What advice do you have for women trying to break into leadership in the profession?

Two things. First, make your goals known. Don’t wait for someone to ask you if you are interested. Be vocal about your interests and aspirations; proactively develop relationships with those who can help get you there, like mentors and sponsors.

And second, don’t be afraid to take risks. Whenever you leave your comfort zone, you learn and grow the most.

What more can the profession do to retain women and get them into leadership roles? 

It starts at the top. To make a lasting impact, leaders need to drive change that requires getting surgical. We have to do more than tell women to raise their hands. We have to identify high-potential women by name and strategically map them to those who are responsible for advancing their careers. We have to set goals, measure them and hold leaders accountable.

How can CPAs maintain their status as vital trusted advisors in the face of automation, AI and other technological advancements?

Never stop learning. The advancement of innovative new technologies including data and analytics and intelligent automation are changing the organizations we work with and the role of auditors. The profession strongly advocates a culture of continuous learning, especially as advanced technologies enable and enhance our people’s skills, augmenting their judgment and enhancing decision-making

A demonstration of KPMG’s commitment to lifelong learning and the ongoing development of our people is a $450 million investment we are making in a learning, development and innovation center – called KPMG Lakehouse -- in the Lake Nona community of Orlando, Fla. The 800,000-square foot structure sits on 55 acres that will accommodate 1,000 of our people at a time, who will come together to ideate, collaborate and create. It’s the largest capital investment our firm has ever made.

It will be a place that will spark creativity and allow our people to grow by sharpening their skills, exploring new technologies, building deeper relationships and challenging each other with new ways of thinking and working.

What philanthropic outlets do you support/donate your time to, and why?

I serve as a board member for several nonprofit organizations. I’m passionate about supporting causes that make a positive difference in the lives of others and advance societal change. The organizations I support align with causes I care about including advancing more women in business, improving education for underrepresented populations in high school and changing outcomes for people with lung cancer.