Family Focus Forges Flexible Career Path for O'Malley and Others

Erica O'Malley, '87, is this year's NIU Alumni Achievement in Business and Industry Award winner.

Erica O’Malley credits her career success to employers’ willingness to let her put her family first. The winner of the Alumni Achievement in Business and Industry Award has become a champion for working mothers to give other women the same opportunity.

O’Malley, ’87, leads the organizational strategy practice for accountancy firm Grant Thornton, but her impact in the workplace extends far beyond her role, College of Business Dean Balaji Rajagopalan said.

“She has always known her impact can be much broader than a list of job responsibilities, and that sets her apart,” Rajagopalan said. “Her discipline is accountancy, but her role is leadership and leading organizational change. We are very proud of her and there is no question she is an inspiration to us and a role model for the next generation of leaders.”

After graduating from NIU, O’Malley went to work for Arthur Andersen in audits. After several years, she began focusing on audits of employee benefits plans. When her department was absorbed by Grant Thornton, she continued her focus and broadened it to a national perspective. Eventually she began leading the firm’s internal corporate culture efforts as well. She created the firm’s diversity strategy and led alumni relations functions before moving into her current role.

For 15 years while she was building her career, O’Malley had a flexible work arrangement in which her work load was reduced by 50 to 80 percent. This allowed her to spend the time she needed to raise her five children without leaving the work force.

“That flexible work arrangement had a significant impact on my career,” O’Malley said. “If I didn’t have that I would have been a stay-at-home mom. I don’t know where my career would have ended up, but I certainly wouldn’t have accomplished the things I have done.”

O’Malley’s passion for helping people to balance their families and careers has had significant impact on the business community, Rajagopalan said.

“Grant Thornton is listed by Working Mothers magazine as one of the 100 Best Companies to Work For, and it is Erica’s leadership that put Grant Thornton on that list,” he said. “She has championed support for women and working mothers, and that support has set her employer apart in a very competitive space.”

Rajagopalan also pointed to O’Malley’s success in building diverse and inclusive work forces and in aligning the cultures of two separate businesses when
acquisitions and mergers occur. She is particularly gifted at assessing the impact of an organization’s culture on its success and productivity, he said.

O’Malley says she is fortunate to have worked for employers with “phenomenal” cultures that aligned with her personal values. The key features to a great
corporate culture are trust in leadership and respect for people, she said.

“One of my biggest strengths is difficult conversations. For a lot of people that’s an area of weakness,” she said. “I always approach them from that perspective of respect. I consider if it were me in their position, what I would want to know.”

The NIU lesson that has lasted the longest for O’Malley is that anything is possible with hard work, she said. She came from a blue-collar background where work and education were valued, and worked two jobs while taking classes full time at NIU.

“I never envisioned myself where I am today, but part of that may be because I’ve always looked up and never paid attention to the noise at my level,” she said. “When I began my flexible work arrangement, people said, ‘Oh, aren’t you afraid it will impact your career?’ I didn’t know and I didn’t worry about it. I never wondered whether it would work, I just lived one day at a time. A lot of success is just putting one foot in front of the other and not letting anyone hold you back.”

The 2019 Alumni Awards Luncheon photo album