Overcoming Barriers


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It was 2001, and it was a three-person race to gain the top position at Schenck Technology Solutions.

The winner, Laurie McNicoll, beat out the two men vying for the position. She considers this not only her biggest business challenge, but also her biggest business accomplishment. "I rose above the competition. I never rubbed it in, but my competition wasn't happy with me in the position," says McNicoll, the firm's only female manager.

Both men have since left the firm although McNicoll says that being a woman has not been a major issue even though her firm's ownership is overwhelmingly male.

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"There will always be little 'boys clubs,' but being a woman has never been an obstacle, or an issue," she says.

Women in Leadership Roles

Michelle Scheffki was working her firm's booth at this summer's Midwest Business and Accounting show in Chicago when a male CPA approached and asked to talk to the person in charge.

Scheffki, a CPA and partner-in-charge of Clifton Gunderson's Technology Solutions Downstate Illinois Client Service Center, repeatedly tried to respond. But the man ignored her, turning instead to her male colleagues.

"When he wouldn't recognize I was the boss, my guys got nervous and kept stating that he had to speak with me. He wasn't even that old, in fact, he was middle-aged," she says. "This is always more surprising to me. With the older CPAs, I'm used to getting, 'What's a beautiful woman like you doing here?'"

Incidents like this are why she constantly works on getting women in leadership positions.

Scheffki's department employs nine women and 15 men. However, the firm at large has 182 male partners and 16 females. Scheffki has been working in the profession to get more women into leadership positions. But that can be difficult because women are more sensitive to balancing work and home issues.

"It's often hard to get them to commit their time. It's important to create specific initiatives," she says.

Scheffki has done just that by being a part of the Illinois CPA Society, which created two committees solely focused on women.

A former board member and society officer, she was involved in creating the Women's Executive Committee, formed in 1999, with the goal of enhancing the recruitment, volunteerism, retention, and leadership of women CPAs. In 2001, the Women's Initiative Task Force was formed to provide networking, social, and educational opportunities for women in the early stages of their careers. However, it's not all work. Activities have included boat rides, wine tasting, and gourmet cooking, as well as workshops on networking, career development, and general leadership training. All are important for networking.

"The committees are a great place for networking. Young professionals can find career guidance and possibly a mentor. In addition, the events let you know how others have been successful in their careers, not to mention it helps you know that you're not alone in your struggles," adds Scheffki.

The strengths McNicoll believes helped her land the position include the ability to resolve client issues, timely response to all constituents, communication with all levels within the firm, being visible, and the ability to build trust and loyalty.

"I'm open and honest. My team members can ask my opinion when needed, and I don't sugar coat issues that may arise. I communicate on a daily basis with my managers, and they know that they can come to me for advice and reassurance," she says.

When McNicoll took over the department, which handles Best, Microsoft, and Syspro applications, there were eight men and five women, including herself.

There are now 10 women and six men. But McNicoll says she didn't set out to shift the balance, "I don't really consider gender when hiring employees, only qualifications. In the last six months, I have hired two men," she says.

A graduate of Lakeland College with a degree in accounting and business, McNicoll has been with the technology group since 1997. Her unit is owned by Schenck Business Solutions located in Appleton, Wis., which has 56 shareholders, of which five are women.

During her tenure, McNicoll has made major changes to the department. She dropped product lines and changed the team.

"In fact, many people weren't onboard and I had to explain to them what they needed to do to be successful, and what steps were right for the firm," she says.

Secondly, she's focused her efforts for the next year on marketing and lead generation. Before she took over, the department did not have a formal marketing plan. She met with each product line manager, the marketing director, coordinators, and other resellers to find out their strategy. She created a marketing plan calendar that covers the technology group.

It's not easy breaking into accounting and technology, two fields dominated by men. So how do women become part of the upper echelon of their accounting or reselling firms? It takes many different skills to balance work and family, develop a practice, and network. Here are three aspects the majority of the women profiled agree on:

* It's hard to build a business and raise a family.

Michelle Scheffki, partner-in-charge for Clifton Gunderson Technology Solutions, and a self-proclaimed workaholic, never missed her son's baseball games. "You have to be flexible and determine what's important," she says. "I never missed a game. It often meant I left work at 3 p.m., went to the game, and went back to work at 6 p.m."

Leslie Capachietti, owner of Automated Financial Solutions, is always working to bring herself back to the middle. Most days are 17-hour workdays and what worked best for her was to get an office separate from her house. "I get up early in the morning before anyone in the house is up and check my email," says Capachietti.

* The "super" mom approach doesn't work.

McNicoll says that when her children were younger, the key was the support of her husband and organization. Scheffki agrees on the need for a supportive spouse. "You have to approach marriage like a partnership in order to make running a business and family work," she says.

* Take time out to have fun.

Sue Bennett, co-founder of reseller Bennett/Porter, takes two weeks in the summer, and heads to Alaska. "The strategy is to surround yourself with people who would do the same thing you would do if you were at the office, and empower them to make the same decisions you would," she says.

Learning to Lead

After 18 years in business, Lisa Kianoff, CITP, CPA, founder and president of L. Kianoff & Associates, knows a little about being a woman in the accounting technology arena.

However, when she started her Birmingham, Ala.-based company in 1986, it wasn't so easy. "There were no real guidelines for the technology industry or women starting businesses, as we were a definite minority at the time," she says.

That being said, being a woman has never been an issue. "I didn't see doors being closed to me. However, in the South people talk about the 'good old boys network' as being places where business takes place that normally women aren't," says Kianoff.

Those places include the golf course. Since Kianoff doesn't play golf, she made connections through community activities and CPA and general business groups. That exposure has paid off in the firm's ability to reach prospects.

When prospects are asked how they heard of Kianoff's firm, "They say they had heard me speak at a meeting several years before and had saved the information," she says.

The company, which employs 10 women and nine men, offers needs analysis, software sales, custom report writing, and system implementation services to clients in Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi.

Kianoff herself has assumed leadership roles in the accounting software and broader business community. She's been a President's Club reseller for Microsoft Great Plains and a President's Circle reseller for Best Software. She is also a member of the board of directors of the Information Technology Alliance as well as the National Association of Women Business Owners.

Some of her leadership skills were developed when she worked with a Great Plains Leadership Retreat two years ago.

"I learned about who and what I am and what my personality type is," she says. Her interest in leadership led her to work with a local business consultant who uses the Meyers Briggs Personality Inventory to help her employees better learn to communicate and problem solve.

Lisa Kianoff, president of L. Kianoff & Associates, takes a one-week vacation with just her husband, and not only is it time away from work, but renewal time for them.

Most of the women profiled here say that gender has not played a major role in their careers. What has been more important is developing the kinds of business skills needed to succeed regardless of sex. Still, you might notice that all employ a much higher percentage of women than is typical of accounting and value-added reselling firms.

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