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How to Stay on the Partner Track While on the Flex Track

Jun 28th 2019
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Flexible work arrangements have become fairly common in accounting as firm leaders realize they have to provide CPAs options to balance long hours with their personal lives if they hope to retain and promote talented individuals.

There’s also little doubt that flexible schedules have been a game changer for female CPAs, who, research shows, tend to drop out of the promotion pipeline at mid-career level if it becomes impossible to balance the demands of family with the inflexible hours and rigid career paths many firms require of senior leaders.

But despite the increasing prevalence of flexible work arrangements—and the growing acceptance of idea that one can reach the corner office while working a flex schedule—some women on flex schedules still report feeling sidelined or disconnected from the valuable assignments required for the highest levels of promotion.

Is it still possible, many of them are left wondering, to stay on the partner track while on the flex track?

There may be a good reason to ask, according to the latest research on women in the CPA profession.

“Flex work is one option that retains women, but when it comes to promoting women it is by no means a silver bullet,” says Joanne Cleaver, President of Wilson-Taylor Associates, Inc., the content strategy firm that manages the Accounting MOVE Project. The MOVE Project is the CPA profession’s only annual benchmark of the status of women in the leadership pipeline. 

Cleaver says in its ten-year history, the MOVE Project has found there appears to be “only a little correlation” between the rising use of flexible schedules at CPA firms and the rising retention of women to the partnership level. “While firms are much better at helping managers cultivate the skills required to manage flexibly working professionals, flex work is far from a seamless experience,” Cleaver says.

For example, while 88 percent of firms surveyed for the 2019 Accounting MOVE Project reported that they coached their managers to support flex work practices, that support ebbed when asked about specifics. For instance, only 58 percent of firms reported that they offered 24/7 technical support for virtual employees. “That’s a pretty big gap between the permission to work flexibly, including from home, and the support to actually accomplish work ‘any time, any place’,” Cleaver says.

The AICPA’s 2017 Firm Gender Survey also points to a possible disconnect between flex schedules and advancement to partnership, says Yasmine El-Ramly, Senior Technical Manager, Firm Services and Global Alliances at the AICPA. At firms with more than 11 CPAs, the survey found more women using modified work arrangements at the non-equity level, while fewer women are using modified work arrangements at the equity level.

“We’ve seen a big evolution as firms and organizations increasingly realize that flex work is a great tool to attract and retain individuals, but these findings raise the question about how effective these programs are to advancing women,” El-Ramly says.

So how can women who choose flexible work arrangements ensure they remain fully engaged and poised for advancement to the partner level? How can they participate in key assignments, generate new business, develop strategic partnerships and serve major clients—all key factors in achieving partnership—while working a flex schedule?

Many of the answers come from pioneering female partners and progressive firms that fully embrace flexible work arrangements as a viable path to leadership.

Mary K. Fuller, CPA, Managing Partner at the Chicago firm of Shepard Schwartz & Harris LLP (SSH), is one of those flex work pioneers. When she joined the profession 38 years ago, Fuller says women had two choices: either “stay in the career or raise a family.” But she wanted to do both.

With confirmed skills under her belt and an excellent reputation for client service, Fuller did what was somewhat unheard of at the time: she asked for a part-time work arrangement. Because she had already proven her value, Fuller believes, the firm agreed.

At first, she worked three days a week as a staff accountant, then senior accountant. In 1991, she was promoted to manager and continued working seven more years on a flex schedule in that role. Today, she is the managing partner at SSH, responsible for oversight of the firm's operations, recruiting and professional development of its professionals.

Fuller, who serves on the Illinois CPA Society (ICPAS) Board of Directors, believes her focus and dedication to clients helped her earn her promotion to partner at a time when flex work wasn’t considered a viable path.

“I never wanted my clients to feel they were getting ‘less than’ because they were working with a part-time person, so I was very focused when I was in the office or with clients knowing I had to get assignments complete. I took work home and worked the weekends during busy season,” Fuller says.

If individuals on a flex schedule want to reach partnership, they have to be driven and love what they do, Fuller emphasizes. They have to prove themselves on the job, especially with clients, and stretch their skills by taking on new assignments. “Put your hand up,” says Fuller, who credits a sponsor for encouraging her to dig deep to take on new challenges. It also helps to develop a niche or a specialty that makes you invaluable.

Flex workers can continue to provide excellent client service if they communicate openly with their clients and colleagues about their schedule and let them know there is always another point person in the office. “A client can work with you anywhere as long as you communicate clearly with them,” she says.

When it comes to promotions, Fuller says, flex schedule or otherwise, the firm “is going to look at the person, their contributions to the firm, and their relationships with clients and client service. If they have proven themselves valuable they will succeed.”

Fuller’s arrangement was trailblazing at the time, but today, flex work is a baseline expectation in the profession, especially for women who anticipate that flexible work will be the starting point, not the end point, of their negotiations for accommodating their family responsibilities, Cleaver says. “While it’s true that men also value flexible work arrangements, it remains to be true that flex work is invaluable to women, who often take on caregiving for younger and older generations,” she says.

But if the profession wants to ensure women and other individuals on flex schedules can reach partnership flex work cannot exist in a vacuum.

“It’s important flex work not just be done by itself. There have to be other initiatives in place to advance women and others,” El-Ramly says.

Having an in-office sponsor who can advocate for flex workers, someone who can keep them visible and proffer them for key assignments when they are out of the office, is one of the most valuable compliments to flex work, El-Ramly says. Young professionals also need a “road map” of what is required at every level of promotion to ensure they acquire key skills, and access to strong women roles that have succeed on the flex path.

Cleaver says several MOVE Project firms also use a variety of techniques to ensure women can advance on flex schedules. They:

  • Show each managing partner a “snapshot” of how women are retained and advanced in that office 
  • Use their women’s initiatives to help similarly situated women find each other for peer mentoring and coaching through flexworking transitions and decisions—“delivering the right relationships to retain women through demanding phases,” and
  • Build partner-qualifying business development skills through content marketing specifically designed for virtual professionals

Christie Streit, Principal at Clark Nuber PS in Bellevue, WA, a MOVE Project firm, says Clark Nuber’s pro-active acceptance of flexible work arrangements helped her “stay in, and thrive in, public accounting, while still being very involved and engaged in the lives of my family.” After the birth of her second child, Streit shifted to reduced hours and moved to a flexible role (her current flex time schedule is 90 percent, with Fridays off).

From day one, the firm sent the message that flex time did not preclude promotion to partnership. “During my 13 years at Clark Nuber, I have felt that the firm that is very supportive of flexible schedules. I have been treated the same as full time employees and am able to grow in all areas – from practice development to team development, technical growth, and client service,” Streit says.

She acknowledges choosing a flexible schedule can have an impact on the pace of promotion; however she sees that “as being more than fair.” 

“There are individuals that choose to spend more time growing the practice with evening and weekend events and give 110 percent to their career. I believe flexible schedules do not sideline or disconnect from valuable assignments, rather it slows the pace of promotion slightly,” Streit says.

She advises flex workers, of both genders, who want to follow her path to serve their clients well, and continue to grow technically and develop teams. “Working non-traditional hours is fine, however, following through with commitments is critical to future success in a flexible work environment,” Streit says.

Flexible work arrangements are no longer just a “perk” at the most progressive firms, Streit adds.

“There is inherent pressure (in firms) to move up at a certain pace and that can be overwhelming with other commitments at home,” Streit says. “The option to slow down the timeline while still following through with all commitments is imperative to retaining talent.”

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