Inspirational Woman: Frances McLeod | Co-Founder & US Head, Forensic Risk Alliance

Frances McLeodI am a co-founder and the US head of Forensic Risk Alliance (FRA), an international consultancy that focuses on forensic accounting and data governance.

We help clients navigate a wide range of white collar scenarios, ranging from government investigations, to responses to regulatory inquiries, to litigation. In addition to my executive role, I maintain an active practice of my own. I am deeply involved in the firm’s corporate compliance monitorship work, having recently served as a DOJ-appointed monitor myself, and I am also passionate about the data governance aspect of our work, and co-chair the firm’s Data Governance, Technology Solutions and Forensics practice. The data governance work is especially interesting because it underlies so many different conflicts of law across the globe, particularly as structured and unstructured data continues to grow exponentially each year, and countries enact duelling regulatory requirements with which multinational companies must comply. It’s a fascinating field that requires a lot of creative thinking and ingenuity, as well as cultural sensitivity and an openness to leveraging technology.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

I really didn’t! I started off in in investment banking focused on M&A/corporate finance. Since I’m multilingual in French, German, and Chinese, I had the opportunity to work on a number of fascinating projects, including undertaking the Swiss bank investigations into dormant Holocaust era assets, also known as the Nazi gold investigations. It was on that project that I met my co-founding partner of FRA, Greg Mason, who was a database architect and programmer. While my background was in banking, the project required an investigative mind-set, and I discovered that I was really good at it. As we worked together over those two-and-a-half years, we saw how well my talents as an investigator and his as a data analyst/database programmer worked in concert to create a unique and valuable offering. When the project drew to a close and we were thinking about next steps, we brought aboard my brother, Toby Duthie, who added significant financial modelling skills, as well as an understanding of financial structures, and from there FRA was born. Our approach has always been different from our competitors in that we marry data governance, data analytics, and forensic accounting, and are constantly evolving our offerings to provide end-to-end solutions and meet the increasingly complex demands for clients facing a range of white collar and regulatory compliance challenges.

Have you faced any career challenges along the way and how did you overcome these?

As a woman in investment banking in the late 1980s, I was one of four women out of 150 bankers in our department. It was pretty stark, statistically speaking, and I was very good at just soldiering on—it certainly helps you toughen up! At the time, it was more a question of ignoring that you were a woman and—if not be like the men—play with the men. Thankfully, this has evolved over the years, and I think that women no longer need to blend in with the men. You can now stand out with your own female-centric approach and be just as, if not more, successful than the men by cultivating your own style.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

As a firm, we’ve been involved in high-profile white collar matters, including implementing claim evaluation and administration systems for the German Slave Labor Holocaust settlements; the anticorruption investigations into the UN Oil-for-Food Program; and the recent landmark Airbus settlement – all incredibly humbling and rewarding engagements.

Of personal significance, it was a huge milestone to serve as the US Department of Justice-appointed compliance monitor to a German engineering company that had been implicated in the Dieselgate emissions scandal. The appointment has enabled me to work closely with many of the up-and-coming stars from across our global team to create methodologies for testing the company’s environmental regulatory compliance and anti-fraud compliance. It was an incredibly intellectually challenging project, and—as FRA’s first environmental sanctions monitorship—demonstrated how our core offerings could be applied to a wide range of regulatory matters.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

The importance of relationship building cannot be understated. We are incredibly fortunate at FRA that we have built relationships with many of our clients that have lasted more than two decades. They continue to be champions for us and refer us interesting and challenging work. I think that we’ve been able to build these strong ties because we are so committed to client service—really listening to our clients to understand the challenges their facing, thinking creatively about how we can leverage technology to address these challenges, and ultimately delivering the best, most efficient results. On the back end, this has meant that we have needed to constantly evolve how we’re approaching matters by adding new skills to the team and, equally importantly, developing bespoke tech solutions to respond to our clients’ growing data governance needs. Another important factor is our commitment to being technology agnostic so that we are able to partner with the best in breed providers of cutting edge technology and offer the efficiencies and benefits this brings to our clients.

What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in technology?

Find a good mentor who will give you fair and honest feedback. I would say that's true for both men and women, but particularly in a field like technology, which historically has been so male-dominated, it has a great deal of value. When we were smaller company, I was keenly focused on informally mentoring some of the talented women that I saw coming up through the ranks, and it was wonderful to see them eventually become partners in the firm. Now that we’re a larger firm, we’re developing a more formal mentoring program and have invested in coaching, much of which is quite heavily geared towards the female high performers. I also looking to leverage my female management team to take under their wings and help mentor others at more junior levels. Having an advocate and a model for success is a fantastic way to keep our team motivated. Success breeds success, and we’re continuing to see that as we recruit more high-caliber, ambitious, bright and competent women to the firm. Networking is also incredibly important; being present, engaged and open to professional dialogue—even when it may not have a direct line to your work—often results in a positive impression that could turn into referred work down the line.

Do you believe there are still barriers for success for women working in tech, if so, how can these barriers be overcome?

Having lived and worked all over the world, I’m acutely aware that the single most determining factor for success in the technology field is being male, and I’m passionate about ensuring that there are pathways to success for the talented women on our team. One area where I still see a lot of room for development is helping women build the confidence to speak up in meetings and to volunteer ideas. As women in technology, we need to be leading by example so that the next generation knows that their voices should be heard, that they are entitled to be heard, and that what they have to say that's interesting and valid. Unfortunately, there is still some societal pressure for women around women not speaking up, and that needs to change. One development that I think is incredibly positive is that there is a very collegiate movement among women in the tech world to help develop other women and bring them up through the ranks.

What do you think companies can do to support and progress the careers of women working in technology?

The FRA Data Governance team is quite unique in the industry because we do have all female leadership, led by myself and my co-head Britt Endemann. We’re very focused on giving women career paths in technology, which is still such a male-dominated field. It has been a revelation to hear the excitement from clients when they discover we’re a women-led team, because they have mandates to diversify their teams.  There is huge talent out there and we need to be helping these women with strong technical skills have successful career paths in data governance. I also think it’s important to build a culture of a flexibility into the workplace, particularly taking into consideration motherhood. As a mother myself who has faced challenges balancing family and work, I'm very keen to create a supportive environment to allow women to have families if they so choose and feel secure in their professional reputation and career path. Additionally, building mentorship into career pathing creates a sense of inclusion and advocacy that increases the likelihood retaining top talent. Having women at every level of leadership gives those at more junior- to mid-levels examples of how their careers can take shape. One development that I think is incredibly positive is that there is a very collegiate movement among women in the tech world to help develop other women and bring them up through the ranks.

There is currently only 17% of women working in tech, if you could wave a magic wand, what is the one thing you would do to accelerate the pace of change for women in the industry?

I would love for male colleagues to understand that gender diversity is not a women-only issue. When women (and other diverse perspectives for that matter) are underrepresented, the entire business is negatively impacted—we know that diversity leads to innovation and more creative problem solving. We launched the FRA Women’s Initiative last spring with the goal of helping bolster our talented women and also help male colleagues understand the role they play in creating an inclusive culture where women can thrive and are actively engaged in supporting and empowering women. We want our entire team to be modelling inclusive behaviors, supporting flexible work policies, mentoring high-potential women, and being actively involved in conversations about how we can continue to improve in this arena.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

How to Speak Machine, by John Maeda, is one of the most compelling books I read last year, particularly because I also have a passion for design. John Maeda is a former Professor at the MIT Media Lab, a former President of the Rhode Island School of Design, and a former Design Partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. As such, he has remarkably deep insights about the intersection between technology and design. He provides a framework for product designers, business leaders, and policymakers to better understand the power and the danger of advances in algorithms.

Another excellent read is The Open Organization by Red Hat CEO, Jim Whitehurst. He describes how creating an engaged and passionate workforce will result in a performance and revenue boost in both a work setting and in the greater world. He focuses on the greater community, demonstrating how building a strong collective will inevitably lead to success.

I also regularly read the WSJ Tech, which is a compelling and wide-ranging business/markets technology combination, and also MIT Technology Review—the magazine’s mission is “to bring about better-informed and more conscious decisions about technology through authoritative, influential, and trustworthy journalism.”—which intersects with the forensic accounting/compliance side of my interests


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