Sinead Donovan of Grant Thornton is smiling into the camera against a whiteboard.
Sinead Donovan. Image: Grant Thornton

Why Grant Thornton’s Sinead Donovan ‘reimagines’ herself every eight years

22 Apr 2020

Now an experienced leader in the accountancy field, Sinead Donovan credits her success to the positive influence of her mother and learning to ask for help when she needed it.

Sinead Donovan is the incoming president of Chartered Accountants Ireland and a financial accounting and advisory services partner at Grant Thornton, a role that allows her to work in what she describes as “the global one-stop-shop” for the financial, accounting and compliance requirements of multinational companies.

Last month, Grant Thornton published this year’s Women in Business report. To mark it, we caught up with Donovan about the path she has travelled to this point and how she prevents her work from becoming “stale”.

‘To ask for help is not a sign of weakness as I used to think, but a sign of strength, self-awareness and self-belief’

Has your career path been straightforward?

I entered accountancy straight from school and hence have been working in the profession since I was 18. I have worked in practice and industry and dabbled with academia as I assisted in the education of chartered accountancy students for a number of years.

My path may be considered straightforward in that I have remained within the profession since an early age, but every eight years or so there is a reimagining of myself through a changing goal, professional interest or passion.

This has seen me move from audit to industry, back to audit, then to advisory and now to representing the profession at officer groups of accountancy bodies. I need to challenge myself every eight years (not set in stone but that’s generally when the itch comes) so I know I need to set clear goals and targets to achieve.

The setup of FAAS was the goal I set eight years ago with two of my fellow partners and now my new challenge is as incoming president of Chartered Accountants Ireland. I do feel strongly that you need to constantly push yourself outside your comfort zone to ensure you get the best from yourself and not get stale.

Is there anything you would tell your younger self, if you could?

I would reiterate what I was told as my younger self: to always do your best and act with integrity and honesty and be true to your values.

I would also tell myself that to ask for help is not a sign of weakness as I used to think, but a sign of strength, self-awareness and self-belief. I spent years thinking the only way was to plough through things yourself and demonstrate your ability to do anything asked of you.

While that brought with it resilience and a work ethic, it also brought times of unparalleled stress and strain. To know that you can ask for help and not be judged would be key to my advice to my younger self.

What’s the importance of conducting and publishing reports such as Grant Thornton’s Women in Business?

Reports are only words on paper. What is important is the actions that lead to the reports. We need to spread the word on the importance of women in business and to ensure all know the immense contribution women are making to the business story worldwide.

We need this to become the norm and to ensure that true diversity and representation happen at all levels in business. If reports enable this development to happen then we must use them. However, for me, it is about embracing ambassadors and promoting effective gender diversity throughout our firms.

Do you have any thoughts on how we can encourage companies to be more inclusive?

Call out bad behaviour – as simple as that. We have all seen it and witnessed it in our careers. Be it inequitably, sexual harassment or ‘mansplaining’, it should not be permitted by those at the top and if it is seen to be dealt with firmly we would soon have a genuine and compassionate workplace.

Are there any women in particular that you look up to?

[An] obvious one is my mother, but not just in a maternal light. Mum bucked the trend of her generation and worked while being the primary caregiver to four children. She continually developed herself professionally in the science of medical education and achieved a master’s in education while we were teenagers while also working.

As this was the norm for me, I learned by example and thought nothing of it, but perhaps only now realise the trailblazer she was.

Another professional role model for me is Margaret Downes the first female president of Chartered Accountants Ireland in 1986 (I will be number three!).

I have got to know Margaret personally over the years and her tenacity, self-belief and ability to interact with a diverse group of people is amazing. She is not shy to be a strong voice and is confident and authentic. I have a lot to still learn from her and she is generous with her time.

Do you have any advice for younger women entering the field?

Get a professional coach. [Mine] saved my sanity and confidence many a time.

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