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Why Accounting Firms Need More DEBI Advocates

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Many accounting firms have taken a hard look at how they can be more diverse, and most professionals are strong allies of BIPOC. In this article, Nikki Watson explains how you can transform yourself and your firm from an ally into an advocate and achieve greater success in terms of DE&I.

Apr 19th 2022
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“Be a thermostat, not a thermometer.” It’s brilliant advice from Emmanuel Acho, former NFL linebacker, celebrated broadcaster, New York Times best-selling author and current change-champion of diversity, equity, belonging and inclusion (DEBI). The accounting profession needs more thermostats: Leaders who can assess and adjust the temperature of a room and the cultural climate within their organization. A thermometer, on the other hand, simply gauges the temperature but doesn’t affect change. Each is an essential tool, although one is in tune but relatively static, while the other is not just in tune but also in constant motion. 

In many ways, the thermostat/thermometer comparison is similar to that of allies and advocates. We need both, for sure, but I believe a shift to advocacy is crucial to our ability to make continued DEBI progress in accounting and finance. 

Making the Shift from Ally to Advocate

Allies recognize that others face barriers to success and understand something should be done. Allies may leverage their advantage or privilege and align themselves with their underrepresented colleagues to ensure they’re heard or included. Being an advocate is a continuum of allyship but with a heightened focus on action and accountability. Advocates are more than supportive observers. They couple knowledge with purpose. They leverage their platform to hold peers accountable to DEI strategies and metrics. They work internally to identify policies and standards that improve representation and inclusion. Advocates invest their time, reputation and resources to not only make change possible—but make change happen.  

3 Ways to be a Better Advocate – and Leader

1. Be empathetic

We must gain insight and a level of understanding before we can be an ally or advocate. Understanding the specific issues and challenges that underrepresented and historically marginalized colleagues face enables leaders to recognize where and when their support and action can make a difference. Empathy doesn’t mean we have experienced the same situation; rather, it means we have a connection to the emotion the other person is experiencing. It’s easy to listen to someone talk or complain about things they would like to change. However, if you aren’t empathetic to where that person or group of people are coming from, it won’t resonate as deeply, and you won’t be as motivated to act. Identify with the struggles and acknowledge emotions and feelings. Seek out perspectives and take them to heart. Ask questions and create a safe space for vulnerability to exist. Leading with empathy takes practice, but it’s foundational to creating a more inclusive culture—and is an important lever in DEBI advocacy. 

2. Be educated

Open yourself up to learning. Do you know the factors that contribute to the small numbers of BIPOC representation along the career spectrum within the accounting profession? There are many senior leaders who say they support and promote diversity because they sanction “tributes” – recognitions of Black History Month, Hispanic Heritage Month or Women’s History Month. But salutations aren’t strategies. Advocacy is learning how to empathize and then developing strategies that combat challenges; it’s vocally and actively spearheading the organizational changes. Equally important is having high-quality training, such as Continuing Professional Education (CPE) courses that instill and reinforce cultural competency and DEBI policy changes.  Training isn’t a one-off; it should be recurring and evolving. Upskilling and continuous learning are critical to creating the momentum that sustains long-term change. 

3. Be engaged

The most powerful advocacy relationships emerge organically and develop over time, often beginning when a leader sees potential in someone and invests time in getting to know them. In these relationships, advocates take a sincere interest in the other’s career, providing advice and direction, and encourage the exploration of opportunities that they may not otherwise think of—or have access to—on their own. Advocates are willing to lend their personal brand to change the narrative. Advocates can also broaden their reach by forming groups of colleagues interested in improving workplace culture and inclusion. They look for like-minded people in all parts of the organization, including other business units, satellite and remote locations, and employee resource groups, and expand their sphere of influence. Focus advocacy on data-driven tactics that will drive small wins and create opportunities to interact through networking, mentoring and professional development events. As a senior leader, push for organizational change through accountability and transparency. No matter where your organization is on its DEBI journey, you can champion and lend time and energy to designing and implementing antibias, recruitment and leadership development policies that have impact.

Be an Agent of Change in Your Organization

It’s one thing to recognize that colleagues and peers are affected by a lack of diversity and inclusion strategies. But it’s another level of commitment to have this elevated awareness and act on it.  And it’s why we need more advocates—those who put their skin in the game, get uncomfortable and take risks in the process. As a profession, it’s beyond time to shift from awareness to action. Are you up for it?

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