Date posted: 08/03/2018 5 min read

Leading the way for women

Jo Heighway CA, multi-award winning leader of the Deloitte SMSF Audit team, tells Acuity about her passion for super, founding her own business and innovating her way through finance.

In Brief

  • Last year Heighway was named Accountant of the Year and Innovator of the Year at the Women in Finance Awards, and she won the Women in Finance Excellence award.
  • Jo Heighway became a Deloitte audit and assurance partner in 2015.
  • An Australian leader in her field of SMSF, she’s also an entrepreneur and founded her own business.

Jo Heighway is certainly spoilt for choice when it comes to picking career highlights, but 2017 will go down as special. On a Thursday evening in September 2017, she walked away with three awards from the inaugural Women in Finance Awards: Accountant of the Year, Innovator of the Year and the biggest prize of the night, Women in Finance Excellence award.

Between paving the way for women in finance, founding her own business and innovating her way through the industry, Heighway has earned her place as a leader in her field.

(Pictured: Jo Heighway.)

Breaking into finance

She broke into finance in 1995, joining Deloitte as an SMSF auditor. Specialising in superannuation wasn’t a conscious decision, but it’s come to be both her work and her purpose.

Her direction has its roots in her early life. “Growing up, I felt the impact that poor advice had on my family and the impact not having enough superannuation savings has on everyday people who need that money at that time in their life,” she says.

Audit and SMSF is special to her, she says, “because it’s an opportunity to impact on a large number of people and secure the safety of their retirement on a very regular basis”.

The annual compulsory SMSF audit provides the perfect opportunity for professionals to ensure that superannuation funds are secure. For Heighway, “it means I can be regularly providing independent feedback, let them know what strategies are going well, where mistakes have been made. It’s actually a really vital part of keeping retirement money for retirement.”

The entrepreneurial life

In 2005, with 10 years as an SMSF auditor under her belt, Heighway gave expression to her entrepreneurial side and set up her own firm, Engage Super Audits. It was a bold move. Heighway says the decision “just felt necessary” at that time. It was also when she learnt her most important career lesson – to back herself all the way.

“Have the confidence to … put yourself out there and to ask for what you want. That has been critical for me. I don’t sit back and wait for opportunities or whinge about what I don’t like. I back myself and I do something,” says Heighway.

Engage was celebrating its 10th birthday in 2015 when Heighway did the deal to move her team to Deloitte and become a Deloitte audit and assurance partner. It was “every entrepreneur’s dream”, she says. “To feel like you built something so worthy and that an organisation like Deloitte saw the value to say, ‘we want what you have, and we think we can take it further’ – there’s no greater compliment, I would say, for anyone who started a business from nothing.”

Striving to be better

The Deloitte buyout also underlined Heighway’s ability to build the skills of a team.

One of her former staff, Sarah Lawrence, benefited from that ability in the early 2000s at LWM Group, an accountancy and business advisory firm. Now owner of her own business, she says the skills she learnt in Heighway’s team have stood the test of time and industry. 

“She had so much going on and she could have left me sitting in the office punching out audits, but she chose not to because she knew the value in mentoring a team and getting their skills set up. She made sure I went to every conference she went to.

“As well as that, she said: ‘We’re going to make sure that we set you up for success and make you the best that you can be professionally’. That’s a very rare combination to find in any kind of business person,” says Lawrence.

It’s not just work for work’s sake, it’s not hours for hour’s sake. But actually, I’m making a difference to a lot of people
Jo Heighway CA Deloitte audit and assurance partner

Working under Heighway in the SMSF audit team was Lawrence’s first job in accounting. But it’s only now, looking back with more experience, that she realises what a great opportunity it was. “The majority of people at that age aren’t getting that kind of experience’,” Lawrence reflects. “They’re not getting taken to conferences, so I just thought that was how it all worked.

“She was fearless and would go into a situation and say: ‘This is how we’re going to do it and if it’s not working we’re going to pivot and work around it’. A lot of my success today has come because of my experience with Jo. It’s knowing that I can get out there, have a go and if you fail, just pick yourself up and keep going. She’s been one of the most influential mentors I’ve worked with in my career.”

For her part, Heighway stresses the importance of retaining talent, not just through mentoring but also by making work fun.

Challenges and rewards

When Heighway rejoined Deloitte, she decided she would work remotely from her home on the Gold Coast. The decision presented challenges with which she still grapples. “It’s not easy every day. It’s a decision that I question at times.” But she sees herself setting a precedent for others and finding solutions for those who will follow her. “This is what I’ve done and I’m not saying it’s easy, but it’s possible,” she says. 

Being recognised at the first Women in Finance Awards was an honour, she says, but it also meant a great deal to her four children. 

“It gives them a sense that I really am making an impact. It’s not just work for work’s sake, it’s not hours for hour’s sake, but actually, I’m making a difference to a lot of people.”

By sharing the hard times and the challenges as well as the achievements, she believes she will encourage future leaders to say, “If she can, I can. She’s just like me.”

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Picture credit: Cameron Ramsay/Studio Commercial.