An interview with AlixPartners’ Susan Markel.
CCBJ: Before joining AlixPartners, you had a successful career at the Securities and Exchange Commission. What were some of the key career decisions you made there that helped you move ahead?
Susan Markel: At one point, during Chairman Arthur Levitt’s era in the early 2000s, the SEC was looking to form a group called the Financial Fraud Task Force. The goal was to have a team of accountants and attorneys working together to bring cases much more quickly than ever before. Since some SEC accounting cases can take four or five years to finish, certain high-profile cases would be assigned to the task force and additional resources would be put toward these to get them done as quickly as possible.
At the time, I was in a supervisory position, and a request was sent around asking if anyone was interested in being on this task force. No one had raised their hand, but I thought that it would be fun to do, it would be high-profile and I’d be working with great people. So I asked to have my team of accountants assigned to the task force. We did several cases as members of the Financial Fraud Task Force, the most significant of which was the Xerox case in the early 2000s. We brought actions against Xerox as a company and KPMG as an audit firm, as well as individual auditors at KPMG and key members of management at Xerox. So that turned into a big opportunity for me.
Another key decision point came earlier in my time at the SEC. An opportunity for promotion came up, and I applied to be a supervisor. I didn’t get the position. It went to somebody who had more seniority. But that didn’t stop me from applying the next time an opportunity came up, and this time I was promoted to supervisor. That put me in position to work on the Financial Fraud Task Force I just mentioned. Several years later, my supervisor, the chief accountant of the Enforcement group, left the SEC. I put my hat in the ring for that role. I was selected, and that was a great job, which I held for the next five and a half years.
When I look at these career decisions, I think that sometimes you just know that you’re looking for more, for an additional challenge – you feel that within yourself. So you end up searching for and being open to new opportunities. When you see something different that seems both exciting and challenging, do not be afraid to take that jump.
What are some things that professionals in the private sector should understand about the dynamics and priorities of government enforcement agencies?
Whether they’re career government officials or only there for a few years, most government employees are very dedicated to their work. On the enforcement side, when the accountants and the attorneys get a case that they feel is deserving of an enforcement action, they will dig in. And the way they can do that has changed. When I started at the SEC, the idea of receiving millions of documents electronically wasn’t on anybody’s radar screen. Instead, we were reviewing boxes and boxes of millions of documents, and the hallways were lined two deep and five high with boxes of documents received from the companies or individuals we were investigating. Today, the commission has put a lot of resources into handling and analyzing electronic data, and it is rare for them to get documents in paper form. That allows the people working the case to do things more efficiently – to do searches, to be focused in where they look as opposed to digging through tens of thousands of pages of documents.
If you get a team of attorneys and accountants at the SEC that is dogged in their pursuit, you just have to respect the process, and I think it’s very important that you cooperate along the way. If someone at the commission is taking things too personally, you can report that. But overall, the people at these agencies are government servants, and they’re looking to do the best they can with the resources provided.
Beyond your work at AlixPartners, you’ve held leadership roles in different industry associations and groups. Can you talk a bit about that?
I’ve been associated with a number of women’s initiatives. For example, I’m very involved with the WWCDA – the Women’s White Collar Defense Association – and our firm is a sponsor of that group. There’s also WIPL – Women, Influence & Power in Law – which is a conference put on by Inside Counsel. We’ve been involved in that for the past four years as a sponsor, and we’ve seen it grow from 100-plus people to more than 300 people attending. It’s a great networking event as well as a substantive event for senior partners at law firms, general counsel and people who want to be promoted up through the ranks. I’ve been very proud to be associated with that, and enjoyed building networks with the people that I’ve met through those events.
What career advice would you give to other professional women, and perhaps to men looking to help women advance their careers?
Don’t be afraid to reach out to your contacts and ask for advice or ask for help. I think women tend to be less comfortable than men in picking up the phone and asking for a favor. Women hold back on that. But you have to realize that people feel good when they help somebody. Asking for help not only enables you to get advice, it also helps the person giving the advice feel good. And don’t be afraid to raise your hand, whether you’re a man or a woman. Opportunities don’t come up that often. You have to seize them when you see them.
As for men helping women in their careers, I think it starts with an awareness that diversity and inclusion are important parts of any legal or business venture. They should include women on their project teams. Companies and general counsel offices are understanding this more and more, so they will notice if someone is stacking the deck with a team that isn’t diverse. Inclusiveness is not just good at the personal level – it’s good for business. However, when people are looking for somebody to help on a project, they may tend to look to people they’re most comfortable with, and often those are people who look very much like themselves. So it’s important for men to step back and try to see if there is a blind spot and whether they need to include other types of people.
Susan Markel is a managing director in AlixPartners’ Financial Advisory Services group in Washington, D.C., where she oversees matters involving corporate financial reporting, regulatory investigations, whistle-blower actions, Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) enforcement, and internal controls. Formerly at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), she served as chief accountant of the enforcement division. Markel has received several awards including the SEC’s Distinguished Service Award in 2006 and The National Law Journal's 2014 "Governance, Risk and Compliance Trailblazer and Pioneer." Reach her at email@example.com.
Published April 2, 2018.