Growing the ranks of female leaders

Source: INSIDE Public Accounting (IPA)

Women are rushing into public accounting, but too few are making it to the top levels of leadership. While more than half of the college graduates in accounting and new employees in CPA positions are female, the proportion of women partners and senior executives is between 11% and 19%, according to the AICPA's Work/Life and Women's Initiatives Executive Committee.

Retaining experienced talent is a given for all firms these days, so a strong business case can be made for firms to develop more women leaders. IPA spoke with several female leaders, including partners and one MP about how firms – and individual women themselves – can pave a path to career success.

Gale Crosley, president of Crosley and Co., recently hosted the 2007 Forum for Women in Accounting. She says the industry is out of balance. Conditions are far more conducive for men to achieve success while women face the obstacles of few female role models and mentors, and therefore few best practices or other resources.

Everyone in the profession struggles with juggling the demands of work against the pull of personal and family obligations. "In our profession we work ungodly hours until we drop, and that's a problem if you want to have a family, work/life balance, etc.," Crosley tells IPA. "And at the very time that women have families is the same time they go up in the partner ranks, so that knocks their pins out. There are two competing priorities at the same time."

It is at this point when many women leave CPA firms, or deliberately choose a path that does not involve partnership. For those women who want to move up, the industry is making strides in working with them to succeed.

The "up or out" model of business is outdated, according to Crosley. Flexibility, which helps so many women feel successful at home and at work, "wasn't wired into the very fabric of firms from the get-go," she says. And while alternative work arrangements and paperless offices are emerging, they are not evolving as fast as the technology.

At Porter Keadle Moore LLP in Atlanta (FY06 net revenue of $9.5 million), four women in leadership roles were pregnant in the last year; two are now working traditional full-time hours and two are working flexible schedules. "We would rather have them some of the time than not at all, and with their client history, we're happy to accommodate them," says Chief Operating Officer Deborah Sessions.

Carolyn Mazzenga, tax partner at Marcum & Kliegman (FY06 net revenue of $86.1 million) of Long Island, recalls working as a part-time manager at an international accounting firm. "They didn't know how to handle someone on a part-time schedule." Mazzenga said M&K realized early on that keeping top talent is more important than sticking with traditional models, she says. "I believe that the firms that are more open to these types of schedules and this type of flexibility are really attracting the high-level, high-quality people."

Crosley says firms must create a family-friendly culture. "We have to have career options that are more than just the 10 years of 80 hours a week." Second, firms must overcome their "emotional resistance" to women's programs and ensure that strong mentoring and leadership development programs are in place, including rainmaking skills.

Lisa J. Cines, MP of Rockville, Md.-based Aronson & Co., (FY07 net revenue of $43 million) advocates constant learning from the earliest stages of a woman's career. As Cines was moving up the ranks, she said her mentor, a man, constantly challenged her to think in nontraditional ways to create new opportunities. "It's not enough to keep up technically," Cines tells IPA.

Few college students enter accounting because they have great writing and communication skills. Project management isn't studied either, but these skills are critical to growth and success at a firm, Cines says.

Nancy Chen, Manager of Training and Development at Marcum & Kliegman, spearheaded a Women's Leadership Development Program at her firm last spring. M&K partnered with a law firm in the area and invited a group of women to discuss ways to help them excel in their careers. Chen said the group, which meets quarterly, provides a comfortable environment for women to practice networking.

The first gathering featured a talk by Carol Frohlinger, co-author of Her Place at the Table: A Women's Guide to Negotiating Five Key Challenges to Leadership Success. Mazzenga loved one of Frohlinger's comments about how women manage their careers: "Hope is not a strategy." Mazzenga adds, "You can't just sit at your desk and do a good job. Promote yourself. Women have trouble doing that. They don't want to seem like they're bragging, yet it is very important that they promote themselves within their firm and in the community."

The community that firms work in is increasingly diverse, and Cines believes the industry needs to do better at reflecting that diversity within their own leadership ranks. "I think what we as a profession need to focus on is not just the growth and development of females. I think it's about diversity in general," Cines tells IPA. Cines is so gender-neutral that she was surprised at the "we're so progressive" buzz she created when she became MP six years ago. "I just didn't think about it, so I was surprised at the reaction of the firm."

Sessions is an example of a leader who hasn't changed who she is to get ahead. While she considers herself "one of the guys" she's also a peacemaker and a caretaker, and people feel they can open up to her. "I can hug people."

Sessions, who is active in women's issues in the industry and within the community, said women can certainly have it all, a rewarding family life and a challenging career, but women should think through their priorities long and hard. Any career involves choices and sacrifices, she says. "I encourage woman to write their own stories, and be very deliberate about that."

All the women agree that the industry as a whole is showing a strong desire to see more women in leadership roles. Crosley said: "They all really, really want this to happen. I see a mindset that says, 'Where are they and why don't we have more?'

The women we interviewed each have a different idea of what work-life balance looks like for them, but they all agree on some general principles:

  • Set realistic expectations for yourself. "The whole idea of being perfect has to go out the window," Mazzenga says. "You need to set your priorities and get rid of that bottom stuff that is muddying the waters." It's OK to say no sometimes.

  • Ask for what you need. Want more exposure? Ask a partner to take you to a client meeting.

  • Stop negative self-talk. It's easy to talk yourself out of re-entering the profession after having a child, or proposing an alternative schedule, for example. Chen says: "We can teach ourselves to take a risk, jump in, give it a try."

  • Gather a support network, which can include your spouse, family members, friends, housekeepers, caregivers, neighbors. "In today's environment, it's critical to create that team, and at the forefront is being honest with yourself about what you're capable of, and what you're willing and not willing to do," Cines says.

  • Outsource as many mundane tasks as possible to focus on what's really important.

  • Know that "balance" is a moving target.

    Crosley says certain changes – giving women more access to networking, leadership development and flexible work arrangements, for example – can help firms protect their investment in their talented women. Additionally, they can go one step further and develop new revenue sources from women clients.

    Consider this: Crosley tells IPA that more than half of the 10.5 million businesses in this country are owned by women, but few firms have developed that niche. "Grab this piece of the market," she says. "Become known as the firm that women business owners come to."

    Make sure your firm participates in the upcoming INSIDE Public Accounting 2008 Annual Survey. IPA names the Top 100 CPA firms, the "Best of the Best" firms and the "All-Star" firms each year. If you'd like to be considered for any or all of the designations, please contact The Platt Consulting Group at 317-733-1920 for inclusion in the upcoming annual survey! Be the next firm to debut on the INSIDE Public Accounting lists. Find out more at: www.plattgroupllc.com/2008survey

    INSIDE PUBLIC ACCOUNTING - (ISSN 0897-3482) The Competitive Advantage For Accounting Firm Leaders. IPA is the profession's authoritative independent newsletter for reporting and analyzing news, trends, strategies and politics. © 2008, The Platt Consulting Group, LLC. All Rights Reserved. www.plattgroupllc.com

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