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diversity and inclusion

Leveraging Advisory Services to Find D&I Solutions


Although most accounting firms agree diversity is necessary and important, the challenge remains: How can D&I be effectively implemented? Jina Etienne suggests a radical new approach: Utilize the same skills you use to make your advisory services successful. 

Feb 3rd 2021
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When it comes to advisory services, firms – large and small – across the accounting profession use words such as “agile” and “creative” to describe themselves and their advisory teams. By their very nature, advisory services are anything but cookie-cutter. The service being offered is more of a framework than an idea, and by “framework,” I mean the construct of the underlying issue or process. As advisors, we offer unique, client-centric solutions to solve those problems or overcome challenges.

Although we may leverage technology or even offer it as solution, the power behind advisory services belongs to the people. Good relationships with clients and within engagement teams are essential to success. In a good client relationship, the firm has demonstrated their value to the client, and the client has come to see the firm as an essential business partner.

Client service teams must be engaged, connected and able to work together toward a common goal. To drive innovation, teams need to be responsive, perceptive, imaginative and, to some degree, intuitive. There must also be culture of collaboration, an invitation to be curious and open minded, and a willingness to challenge the status quo. But innovation doesn’t happen in a vacuum; it isn’t something you can learn via PowerPoint or practice in a workshop. It happens in trusted spaces, where colleagues feel safe enough to share a crazy idea, explore a new approach, imagine a different strategy or turn an existing process upside down. This is called psychological safety, which is also a requirement for building workplace cultures that are inclusive and foster a sense of belonging. At the core of these teams is trust.

Today, we understand the importance of these connections, but that hasn’t always been the case. Our profession hasn’t always been perceived as trusted or advisors. In biblical times, accountants were seen as thieves, as “money changers [that] were neither trustworthy nor accepted by those of significant moral standards.” Negative perceptions persisted until the creation of a process to certify and license accountants in 1896. It would take decades for CPAs to be perceived as a “professional” and even longer to earn public trust and respect. Today, the CPA is considered a premier credential, and CPAs are perceived to have integrity and to be analytical, methodical and intelligent professionals with specialized knowledge and skills.

The shift in public perception driven by regulatory change is just part of the story. We had public trust, but the transition to advisor required us to see ourselves in that role. Over the last 10 years, the movement to differentiate ourselves as uniquely qualified business advisors has gained momentum. Today, we understand the value we offer clients, and many firms now have entire consultancy departments and teams. Foundational to the success of those teams is a good client relationship. Firms also recognize the importance of building teams with strong connections and a broad range of skills and experiences.

These things alone, however, do not result in agile and creative teams. Agility and creativity are essential skills that can’t be assessed on a resume or taught in a course. Many believe the former can be learned over time, but it requires someone to be open to learning and willing to adapt their performance by applying that learning. Creativity, on the other hand, is inherent. Some people are born with an intrinsic motivation to think outside the box, beyond traditional ideas or patterns, and explore different ways to see and do things. Together, agility and creative thinking can yield the innovative solutions firms offer clients.

Many people think innovation only relates to creating something entirely new or a novel adaptation to an existing product. But there are many different categories or types of innovation: Incremental, Disruptive, Architectural, Radical, Breakthrough, Sustaining, Basic Research and so on.  Advisory services resemble a form of innovation called “Sustaining,” described by HBR as follows:

“most of the time we are seeking to get better at what we’re already doing. We want to improve existing capabilities in existing markets, and we have a pretty clear idea of what problems need to be solved and what skill domains are required to solve them. For these types of problems, conventional strategies like strategic roadmapping, traditional R&D labs, and using acquisitions to bring new resources and skill sets into the organization are usually effective. Design thinking methods…can also be enormously helpful if both the problem and the skills needed to solve it are well understood.”

When it comes to diversity and inclusion (D&I), the same thinking applies. We have a clear idea of the problems and the skills needed to solve them. In conversations with clients and other leaders across the profession, most would say they understand the business case for D&I and the importance of fostering an inclusive culture. The challenge hasn’t been recognizing the need for diversity, but how to make it happen.

Advisory teams have been able to successfully leverage the mix of skills and backgrounds to build teams capable of being creative. Advisory services depend on going beyond the existing and offering new solutions based on what you already know. It’s about understanding the client beyond the numbers. We also consider additional factors, such as environment, organizational culture and tolerance for risk, industry trends, human capital and so on.

This means we have the skills to identify initiatives and strategies to address D&I within our firms and across our industry. Have you ever heard the expression “the shoemaker’s children go barefoot”? As the saying goes, it means the cobbler is so busy tending to others that they forget to make shoes for their own children. There are many similar proverbs and sayings in different languages and cultures, but they all boil down to the same idea: We don’t apply our expertise to ourselves.

There are many ways we can leverage our skills, thinking and process to the D&I challenge. By simply re-directing many of the types of recommendations we make to clients to ourselves, the solutions may very well be within our grasp. For example:

  • Hiring: We recommend clients consider building new teams or bringing in talent with specialized skills. Yet, we continue to hire the same types of people from the same types of schools with the same backgrounds. By following our own advice, we would look in new places for people with a mix of backgrounds and experiences, possibly with different degrees and credentials. Or, better still, they would have all of the above!
  • Product Differentiation: We may suggest a client expand their market or niche, which requires a different perspective or approach. By inviting diversity into our practices, we may identify new clients, service lines and industry specializations.
  • Process Improvement: We may suggest finding new ways to work with customers, which might include changes to workflow, management style or production. With a more diverse team, the firm could evaluate how similar internal changes might impact groups differently (i.e., women vs men, people without children vs parents).
  • Branding: We may suggest repositioning a product or service in the marketplace, which may result in changes to branding or communications. Diverse teams could help the firm expand their messaging externally to resonate with new clients or different markets, as well as internally to improve recruitment and retention efforts.

Connecting internal D&I efforts with strategies to drive innovation for clients offers a fresh perspective on identifying solutions and setting priorities to improve diversity, develop more equitable policies and processes, foster inclusion and create spaces where people from all backgrounds feel they can safely belong. Improving diversity is not enough. There is a correlation between belonging and engagement. It fosters a willingness to share, speak up and contribute. Data increasingly show that productivity increases when you bring people together with different backgrounds, perspectives and experiences and that they are more likely to contribute when they feel like they fit in.

Advisory services teams have been able to build the types of connections that foster trust and promote creativity. By expanding this approach across accounting firms, we just may be able to overcome the shoemaker’s dilemma and find D&I solutions that can drive lasting change.

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