How Accounting Firms Can Diversify Their Leadership

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When I was growing up, I had a plaque hanging over my bed that read, “don’t tell your daughter to marry a doctor or a lawyer – tell her to be one”. These words of encouragement have guided me throughout my career, leading me to CPA firm partnership, the establishment of my own firm and success in various other business endeavors. Many women, like myself, have to work much harder for the same career progression as men. While women account for about half of employees at CPA firms, just under 20 percent hold firm leadership positions.

As we learned at Xerocon San Francisco, this small percentage has increased over the past couple of years, however, we still have a long way to go. At our Women in Business Breakfast, I headed up an all-female panel of accounting and finance industry leaders where we discussed how well accounting firms are doing in terms of advancing women and what they can do to improve.

Here are a number of areas in which firms can remove barriers to the career progression of women in order to diversify their leadership.

Benefits For Work-Life Integration
At the Women in Business Breakfast I was joined by Joanne Cleaver, president of communications firm, Wilson-Taylor Associates. Her firm heads the Accounting MOVE project, which is the accounting industry’s only annual benchmarking and advocacy project for firm diversity. This year’s survey underlined the need for firms to provide benefits - that both men and women can take advantage of - in order to encourage firm leadership diversity.

One of the participants in the Accounting MOVE project, Frazier & Deeter, offers complete reimbursement of daycare expenses at licensed daycare facilities for their employees in Georgia. Some firms have even established on-site child care centers. Dependent care does not end with children. Elder care is another consideration for firms looking to retain and grow diverse talent. For firms looking for help with dependent care packages, organizations like Bright Horizons can offer specialized expertise in this area.

For firms that want to encourage diversity in their leadership positions, they should consider ditching the timesheet in order to give employees more time with their loved ones. Accounting firm HPC has a project-based work model and uses a project management tool that ensures performance transparency, enabling them to operate a fully virtual firm. They have also taken an unconventional approach to PTO, implementing a DTO (Discretionary Time Off) policy. One employee was able to take advantage of this policy and took a month off with his family in Japan, while still doing 30-minute check-ins every morning to help keep the cogs moving back in the office.

Business Development Training
Too often partners and senior associates are thrown in the deep end when it comes being tasked with business development. They’re asked to help grow the business without having any training. Offering this learning from as early as possible is crucial. I’ve found that employees that receive extensive sales training are positioned for success. As an example, a mentorship program can be established where an employee who has shown measured success in sales can shadow a mentee on a sales call and provide development opportunities. Another approach could entail a method of self-assessment where sales calls are recorded and the trainee listens back and critiques themselves based on areas where they think they can improve. That being said, developing an in-house training program is not necessary. There are a variety of national training programs out there.

Ensuring every employee at every level knows the firm’s “elevator pitch” is a simple yet effective way of providing the foundation to sales training. By communicating the value that the firm is sold on, they can ensure that every employee is a salesperson.

Pay Equity Surveys
Pay equity is a topic that has been brought to the forefront across many professions over the past year or so. This year’s Accounting MOVE survey results highlighted tech industry giants Salesforce and Intel as advocates for salary transparency after they conducted pay equity surveys and spent millions to rectify the inexplicable gaps they found. Accounting MOVE named accounting firm Baker Tilly as a champion for pay equity as they consistently ensure market pay aligns with part-time work schedules and alternative career tracks.

Maintaining this proactive auditing process will ensure that when employees come asking for salary data the numbers are ready, and show they will be paid equally once they reach those leadership positions.

By putting in place benefits that help foster work-life integration, offering business development training for employees of all levels and maintaining transparent salary data, firms can foster diversity within their leadership positions.

Amy Vetter is the global vice president of education and head of accounting, USA, for Xero.

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