Donna Sylver, CPA
AFTER HIGH SCHOOL I HELD SEVERAL JOBS that gave me the opportunity to get into the trenches and understand the operations of a business. The diversity of that experience was a great help in my career. Two kids and a failed marriage later, I went back to college. I wrote an audit program for Pioneer Savings Bank as part of an internship, and it hired me to start its first budget department. I spent the next six years climbing the corporate ladder, putting in long hours and breaking the glass ceiling in an industry that typically did not embrace minority females in executive roles.
I WAS PROMOTED FIVE TIMES over a five-year period, thanks in large part to my boss, Bill Wall, the executive vice-president and CFO. He insisted I learn corporate politics and taught me to play hard ball when I needed to. I moved up to CFO when he left.
I WENT BACK TO SCHOOL FOR MY CPA ACCREDITATION after Pioneer was acquired by First Citizen. Being part of senior management during the acquisition made me realize that I needed more than just a bachelor’s degree to go to the next level. The CPA added substance to my rsum.
I ALSO HAVE CERTIFICATION IN PROJECT MANAGEMENT from the American Management Association. Manufacturing is very much about customer-driven processes, continuous improvement, benchmarking—and the project management concepts of scheduling, deliverables and budgets can be applied across many industries.
I LIKE TO DOCUMENT AND EXECUTE and see my initiatives come to fruition. You’re never going to get everything 100% right; it’s not a perfect world. But it’s important to try to visualize the end of what you are trying to develop, work your way backwards through all the deliverables and have plans B and C.
I LIKE TO GO THROUGH ALL THE DETAILS of tasking out a project and all the scenarios that could make the critical initiatives get off-path. If you can do a lot of the foundation work up front, you can ward off some of the surprises.
I LEARNED A LOT FROM WATCHING LARRY MOORE, who was then general manager of Consolidated Diesel Company (now he’s senior vice-president of Pratt & Whitney). He was an absolutely great leader. His engineering background made him an analytical and strategic thinker, but he also had the greatest people skills. He’d go out on the manufacturing line and know everyone’s name. I learned from him that a leader needs those soft skills as well as the technical ones.
MY LIFELONG MENTOR, THOUGH, WAS MY MOM. Watching her maneuver around in a man’s world—managing retail shops and starting small businesses without the proper formal education—taught me that success depends on having both drive and skills. And watching her participate in civil rights marches taught me to give back to the community, because life is always about something bigger than you.
CPAs ARE SOMETIMES STEREOTYPED as being introverts, but I like to think I have a little personality. I like to do fun stuff—exercising, music, book clubs, concerts, shopping and golf. I try to force myself to get out of the office and not allow work to consume me.
MY ADVICE TO YOUNG CPAs is to pay attention to networking and mentoring. Fill that Rolodex; nothing compares to being able to call people as resources when you need them. If you see someone you want to be like when you “grow up,” try to connect with that person. And when you get to be successful yourself, pick others to mentor.
—As told to Cheryl Rosen