By Deanna C. White
Nearly four months after its release, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg's first book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, is still a hot commodity, burning up the New York Times bestseller list and inspiring women across the country to express themselves at the boardroom table and "lean in" to leadership roles.
In April, Plante Moran, a company long known for its groundbreaking approach to attracting and developing top female talent, announced the launch of its new Women in Leadership (WIL) initiative to ensure aspiring female leaders don't have to travel the path to leadership alone.
According to Plante Moran officials, the WIL initiative is designed to attract, develop, and retain women leaders. The long-term goal of the initiative is to have equal presence, impact, and influence from men and women at all levels of the firm, including partnership. The initiative is comprised of top female executives, including two female partners.
"Historically, Plante Moran has been a pioneer in women's issues. For more than twenty-five years, we have had the PTA (Personal Tightrope Action) Committee to create policies and practices to help retain women and working mothers at the firm. We've had flexible work arrangements, and we've encouraged balance for all of our staff members. While we've done these things well, we can't afford to stand still; competition for the best candidates is intense, and we want to continue to be able to attract and retain strong performers", said Gordon Krater, managing partner at Plante Moran and the initiative's management team sponsor.
This spring, Alicia Sturtevant, a tax associate and top-ranking female executive in Plante Moran's Traverse City, Michigan, office, was among the first group of women to receive a visit from members of the WIL program.
Sturtevant is steadily climbing the corporate ladder and mentoring other female associates, but she works in an office that currently has no female partners to emulate. She said the chance to hear career lessons from women leaders she can relate to as well as have the opportunity to trade stories on the best way to balance work and family and still rise to the top, was invaluable to her.
Sturtevant said the group discussed everything from the importance of sponsorship, the possibility of asking for tailored work arrangements, and, as Sandberg advocates, the importance of speaking up – whether it's to promote their ideas or themselves as valued employees.
"Knowledge truly is power", Sturtevant said. "For these women to be able to come here and say 'this is what worked for me,' was incredibly helpful to me. To know some of these women asked for a tailored work arrangement to balance work and family and still made partner showed that it was possible. There hadn't been success stories like that in my office."
The WIL initiative at Plante Moran is driven by four key strategies:
- Ensure the initiative has dedicated leadership, senior management team involvement, and coordinated activities and programs from all areas of the firm.
- Focus on increasing the visibility of women leaders both internally and externally by including the presentation of highly inspirational profiles of female partners and managers on the firm's intranet and seven panels of women managers and partners who spoke to female staff at Plante Moran offices.
- Provide targeted developmental career opportunities in order to retain and advance women leaders. For example, Plante Moran is planning an October 2013 forum on career navigation strategies for women.
- Continue to work on developing customized career and life integration strategies that complement the firm's existing and proven work-life programs.
The program's success will be measured by several factors, including more women achieving career successes quicker.
So why this initiative specifically targeted for women, and why now, in an era when some critics may argue initiatives for women in the workplace are no longer needed?
According to Plante Moran officials, the answer for many accounting firms, law firms, and Fortune 500 companies is simply in the numbers: the number of women entering professions and the number of women in top leadership roles are simply not proportionate.
According to Susan Perlin, CPA, a thirty-one-year Plante Moran staff member who raised two daughters while climbing the corporate ladder to make partner, Plante Moran already had one of the highest percentages of female partners among the nation's largest accounting firms.
But Plante Moran knew it could do more.
"Approximately 50 percent of the people Plante Moran hires are women. With Plante Moran's strong ability to attract and retain staff, between 40 and 50 percent of staff at all levels are women; however, our percentage of women partners has flattened out at 18 percent", said Perlin, audit partner in the firm's not-for-profit services group and leader of the WIL initiative. "We think we can be, and should be, better than that."
In a recent blog post, Krater echoed Sandberg's "lean in" mantra, vowing Plante Moran is committed to making sure its female staff don't "leave before they leave", or mentally check out of leadership roles because of work/life balance issues.
"Many organizations, like Plante Moran, are realizing more and more that we need to meet women halfway", Krater said. "That we, too, need to lean in."
Perlin says in today's diverse business world, cultivating women in leadership isn't option or an add-on – it's an essential component for any organization that wants to survive and thrive.
"There's a need for more diversity in leadership positions. Having more women in those positions reflects the demographic of the client base where we're living and working", Perlin said. "The business issues professional services firms face are complex, and we need diversity of thought and perspective in leadership to come at these issues from as many angles as possible."
Sturtevant and her fellow female employees now know they have the option to pursue their own leadership plan from as many angles as possible to get there.
"The bottom line is this is a challenging profession for anyone, male or female, but meeting with these women leaders showed me it can be done – you just need to find your own path to do it", Sturtevant said.
To view a video and learn more about the WIL initiative, visit Plante Moran's website.