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February 6, 2014“It’s only a matter of time…”

This is what David, a respected partner at PwC, said on my first day as a staff assistant in accounting. He was answering an innocent question posed by one of the new hires: “Why are there no female partners in this office?” I was one of only three women starting that day, representing 20 percent of the class of ’81.

“It’s only a matter of time until women make partner; they just haven’t been here long enough to come up through the system, get the requisite experience, and receive their well-deserved promotions,” David told us. This wasn’t the first or the last time I would hear this reasoning from a well-meaning partner.

Fast-forward a decade to 1991, and there were still no women partners in our office. Surely our time had come. How long would we have to wait for our pipeline to fill up with experienced, eligible women?

Finally, in 1994, a woman made partner. As you may have guessed, it was me. Thirteen years, including three years of part-time work, and two children later, I was finally the best person for the job. The time we’d all been waiting for had finally arrived. But I soon came to realize how easily I could have been overlooked. Had it not been for the partner in charge of my office respectfully asking me if I even wanted to be a partner, it might never have happened. “If the answer is yes,” he said, “then why don’t you include this significant strategic goal in your personal plan?”

Frankly, audacious goals like the one he suggested hadn’t existed in my dreams, let alone in my written plan. Without his encouragement, goals like that would have struck me as much too bold to put on paper! Luckily, I had an influential partner looking out for me—and he knew I needed bolder goals and a broader vision to qualify for a substantial promotion. Thanks to one person and one simple question, I was suddenly considered a candidate for a game-changing career move. How many equally capable and deserving women had come before me who were simply too afraid to write their biggest dreams down on paper? It’s sad to think about.

My experience reminds me of a speech my daughter gave in middle school on the concept of time. “We can’t make time, save time, or find time; no matter how hard we try, we have no control over time and once it’s gone—it’s gone forever,” she observed. How insightful she was to appreciate the importance of seizing opportunities as they arise.

How do we act on opportunities as they present themselves—and ensure we notice the ones that are staring us in the face? It’s crucial to overcome your fears and take that first step. Put your hand up, state your qualifications and intentions, and ask for a promotion! You may find this terrifying and risky. If you can’t manage it on your own, find someone you trust and respect to help you navigate this labyrinth we call the corporate ladder. More often than not, our career paths are long and winding roads, not straight or easy to follow. Good mentors are critical. And in the end, it doesn’t matter how we achieve our goals; it only matters that we do.

I was ready to be made partner because of the opportunities I was given, the experience I had, and the growth I’d achieved. I would never have been in that position without the guidance and support of the male partners I worked for. They challenged me, made me believe in myself as much as they did, and continued to offer me stretch assignments to broaden my skills, experience, and personal network across the firm.

I’m often asked why I’m so passionate about helping others in the firm, and why I believe mentoring is so important for women and men at both senior and junior levels. It’s because I believe everyone deserves the same access to opportunities that I was given. Often my mentees teach me more than I teach them, and our experiences, fears, and questions are strikingly consistent. If I can smooth the way for others by sharing my experiences and mistakes, I will have made my own mentors proud. It’s not a matter of time; it’s a matter of opportunity, experience, and confidence. Let’s stop waiting for the future and start preparing for it.

Susan Allen is a 2013 Catalyst Canada Honours Business Leader Champion and Assurance Partner, International Team Leader, Global Assurance Quality Group, PwC Canada.