Making Her Voice Heard
Kathleen Pawlus BS'82
Americas Vice Chair and Chief Financial Officer, Ernst & Young
New York, New York
“It’s always hard to challenge the status quo, but when you do, that’s when people view you as a leader and you start to get opportunities.”
“What I like most about my job is having a voice at the table—sharing my opinions on strategy, raising questions about what we are or aren’t doing, and highlighting and identifying when we, as much as any organization, struggle with inclusivity.”
Kathleen Pawlus is the Americas vice chair and chief financial officer for Ernst & Young. The Americas is the largest of Ernst & Young’s seven global areas, comprising roughly 40 percent of the global firm. Also a member of the Americas Operations Group and the U.S. Executive Board, she has an influential voice at a very important table—a vast difference from the young woman who came to IU in the late 1970s.
Pawlus always had an affinity for numbers, but in high school she was very shy. While she was deciding whether to study engineering or accounting in college, her father, who was employed at another Big Four firm, encouraged her to pursue the latter. “The number of opportunities you have to work with people, the challenges you encounter, and the need to relate to people are just so phenomenal in public accounting that he knew it would help bring me out of my shell,” she says.
Her transformation into a confident CFO began at IU and the Kelley School. She grew more comfortable interacting with people one on one and in groups, in part because of experiences such as the I-Core team project. She also learned how to work in a team: “The skill that has come in most handy throughout my career is the ability to read people and figure out how to get the most from them, whether they are subordinates, peers, or leaders.”
Pawlus has spent her entire career at Ernst & Young, although she notes, “I’ve moved around within the organization quite a bit.” After nine years in auditing, she transferred to the firm’s transactions practice, which deals with mergers and acquisitions. In transactions, she learned to interpret a company’s past performance to evaluate its future. She also learned to quickly identify trends, a skill that serves her well as the CFO. After spending time in the firm’s Quality organization and leading several business units, she was asked to tackle the Americas CFO position.
Looking to the future is one of Pawlus’s chief responsibilities as Americas vice chair and CFO. Overseeing finances, information technology, and administration, she makes sure the firm is on stable financial ground, has an effective long-term IT strategy, and has an efficient, satisfied workforce—all in support of the firm’s client-serving professionals. She also contributes to Ernst & Young’s overall strategic direction.
Remembering the many times she was the “only female in the room,” Pawlus has fought to give women a louder voice at the firm throughout her career. She speaks up with her opinions and wants all of her colleagues—women and men—to follow her lead. “It’s always hard to challenge the status quo, but when you do, that’s when people view you as a leader and you start to get opportunities.”
Choose your own adventure: “The great thing about public accounting is the ability to choose a stable or varied career path. You could stay in one practice your entire career, or you could be like me and bounce around. You can slow down to accommodate personal challenges, or speed up. It’s a super-flexible environment. That’s the beauty of it.”
Love at first sight: Pawlus “fell in love” with the IU campus on her first visit. “It just felt like home.”
Brush with fame: “In Bloomington I used to love going to a bar called Oscar’s. I got to see John Mellencamp there live before he was famous, when he was called Johnny Cougar. To this day, I still enjoy his music.”
Pastimes: Hanging out with her nephews and traveling, especially to Italy, with her husband, an Italian national.
Web sites I visit every day: “I’m a People junkie. I’ve got to get my People fix. I’ll go to AOL and read the blurby headlines, and then I go to CNN just to pick up the business headlines. And then, there’s always Internet shopping!”