Climbing the ranks, step by step

Dec 08, 2015

Melanie Sheppard, Financial Director at Pfizer Healthcare Ireland, speaks to Accountancy Ireland about career progression, gender inequality and the broader benefits of the Chartered Accountant training.

Since joining Ernst & Young as a trainee auditor in 1991, Melanie Sheppard has climbed the corporate ladder with a steady determination. The Chartered Accountant is now Finance Director at Pfizer Healthcare Ireland and was recently voted one of Ireland’s 25 most powerful women in business by the Women’s Executive Network, but her career path wasn’t always linear.

From sideways moves with associated salary cuts to job interviews in airport terminals, there are aspects of Melanie’s career that could only be described as unconventional. However, the Dundrum native has made her mark on several businesses in several industries over her 24-year career.

Career path

Melanie, who is a Fellow of Chartered Accountants Ireland, completed a BSc in Management at Trinity College Dublin before entering the working world with Ernst & Young. While the majority of her career has been spent in the realm of industry, she credits her audit training with much of her success. “Audit gives you a feel for different cultures in different companies,” she said. “You also had to engage with the different partners, the clients and the various members of their teams to get what you needed to complete the job while being respectful so it was a great way to learn how to interact with people.”

After almost five years working with a range of clients including the K Club, Coca Cola and UNIFI, Melanie left the world of practice for an internal audit role with Sony in London. For her, it was a logical next step that allowed her to broaden her horizons beyond audit. 18 months later, she had moved to Aspect Telecommunications where she was responsible for statutory reporting and compliance for eight European entities within the group.

While Melanie’s career was blossoming in London, the lure of a move home began to grow. “I remember coming home for weekends and seeing all the job ads in The Irish Times,” she said. “I felt that, if I didn’t come home at that stage, I could miss the opportunity. So it was timing more than anything else – plus, the lease was up on the house where I was staying.” Melanie duly sent her CV to a number of firms in Dublin but one company in particular caught her attention. “I met Nicky Sheridan, who was setting up Oracle’s shared services centre in East Point, in Terminal 1 at Heathrow and I really loved his personality,” she said. “And he liked the fact that I was managing the reporting for eight countries out of a base in Stockley Park so it was a natural fit.”

Melanie later joined Oracle as employee number 19 and a member of the management team. She played a key role in growing the business, which is still in operation, into one that managed back office finance functions for 43 subsidiaries and handled $3.8 billion in revenue. “It was hard work but it was a young workforce, so everybody was at that energised stage and it was an infectious place to be.”

While Melanie was very passionate about Oracle, she reached a point where she knew every aspect of the business. “The challenge then for me was to find somewhere that was going to give me that energy, so I moved sideways from Oracle as a senior manager to Pfizer as a senior manager – and I took a salary cut to do it,” she said. “I was getting in at ground level and I really loved that the last time. When I joined, there were around 20 of us and we were setting up Pfizer’s shared services centre using the Oracle platform so it was like destiny.”

Words of advice

After growing the shared services team to 103 employees managing reporting for 214 legal entities, Melanie joined the business proper as Finance Director where she is now a member of Pfizer’s country management team and board of directors. While much of her career success has been down to her own hard work and instinct, she has worked with a total of 21 bosses from 17 countries – just two of which were female. This breadth of experience has taught key many key business lessons throughout her career.

When it comes to driving performance, Melanie believes that trust is the key ingredient for success. “I don’t like being micro-managed and I don’t like to micromanage,” she said. “Managers should be like the stabilisiers on a bicycle – you will support your team and won’t let them fall, but the onus is on them to come to you if there’s a problem.” She also believes strongly in the art of listening when managing up. Her advice is to let people finish the asking of their question before providing an answer and where you don’t have the answer, say so but be sure to get back to the manager in question. “Don’t just kick to touch and run out the door thinking you got away with it,” she said.

On the issue of gender equality, however, Melanie is “torn” as to the best way forward. “I hear so much about quotas and I get torn because I would be concerned if I thought I was only somewhere because I was filling a quota,” she said. “I want to feel that I’m where I am because of what I do and how I do it.” While Melanie is keen to see the gender imbalance improved through diversity initiatives within Irish businesses, she credits the growth of women’s networking events as a positive step on the road to equality. “They have grown without negativity, which is fantastic,” she said. “And sometimes men would like to be in those networking events, but we have to make sure that we don’t exclude people because we won’t solve the diversity issue without men being involved.”

A marathon effort

Throughout her career, Melanie has demonstrated a determined streak that has helped her achieve her goals. While she describes herself as “a hard worker”, her determination is also apparent outside the office. “A friend once read an article that said everyone has a marathon in them before saying ‘everyone except you’, so I did one,” she said. While golf is Melanie’s hobby of choice, she trained diligently for the 2008 Edinburgh Marathon spurred on by the suggestion that it was out of her range. “There was a challenge, and I loved the sense of discipline in the training and actually running the marathon,” she said. Despite finding herself in tears at the start line, Melanie completed the marathon and has since taken part in triathalons, adventure races, long-distance cycles and other marathons.

The discipline involved in training for such events, according to Melanie, is similar to the discipline instilled in Chartered Accountants through their training – something that has stood her in good stead in various aspects of life. “Chartered accountancy is a phenomenal brand but sometimes we undersell ourselves,” she said. “It’s important for people to see it as a really great starting point that can take you anywhere. And if I look within my own teams, I’ve hired lots of Chartered Accountants because they have a disciplined way of approaching problems and eating the animal bite by bite. They never give up.”