The best approaches to women's programs are becoming clearer every day - as are their value

CPA firms across the country are developing creative and diverse approaches to attract, retain and support women professionals. In doing so, they're also improving work and work/life balance for all employees.

The effect of this activity is slowly making its way through public accounting, according to the 2009 Annual Survey of the Role of Women in CPA Firms. The survey, conducted by the Illinois CPA Society, showed a slight increase in the number of women represented in firm/office management positions - to 12.4 percent from 10 percent last year. There has also been gradual improvement in the overall number of women in executive positions - from 10.6 percent in 2006, to 18.7 percent this year.

To learn what's happening in the field, I conducted in-depth interviews with representatives of firms with women's initiatives to share insights that might help other firms.

Participating in my electronic roundtable were: Carolyn D'Anna, human resources managing director and a partner at J.H. Cohn LLP, in Roseland, N.J.; Terri Herren, founder of The Herren Dimension, in Greenville, S.C.; Cheryl Leitschuh, Women's Initiative chair of the American Institute of CPAs, from Burnsville, Minn.; Lauren Malensek, chief human resources officer of Clifton Gunderson LLP, in Milwaukee; Todd Mitchell, past chairman of Elliott Davis, in Greenville, S.C.; and Deborah Sessions, a partner at Porter Keadle Moore, in Atlanta.

THE BIG PICTURE

Women's programs have evolved well beyond flexible schedules, according to Leitschuh. Clifton Gunderson's Malensek agreed: "It's not just reduced hours, it's more about workplace flexibility."

That means professionals working when and where they choose, maintaining performance standards, and not being judged solely by the hours they put in at the office or at client sites. That flexibility makes it possible for employees to attend to family duties - appointments, school and extracurricular activities. What's more, it attracts both men and women and encourages them to stay. Ultimately, the right program also stands to enhance a firm's viability, sustainability and long-term reputation, added Mitchell.

His former colleague, Terri Herren (recently with Elliott Davis) offered her view of why women's programs are gaining traction now, even though flexible schedules have been accepted on a limited basis for years in some firms. "In the past," she said, "the attitude was, 'We're going to limit these as much as we can, because why would we give someone the office, benefits and other trappings of employment if they're not going to be here full time?'"

But Generation Y has changed the landscape. Younger workers are more vocal about what they want, and men aren't afraid to expect family-related concessions. "It's not a female issue," Herren said. "It's a generational one." Sessions agreed, noting, "This new generation - 22-to-26-years-old - is helping change firms because their personal life is just as important as their work life."

On the other end of the generational spectrum are aging Boomers who want (or need) to continue to work, but who may want more flexibility and fewer hours.

Whatever the impetus behind women's programs, the need for top-level commitment is without question. Making the business case for a program is a primary element in that commitment. Herren estimated that she spent 600 hours developing Elliott Davis' program structure and content in the first year, which yielded a strong business case, one she used to gain buy-in from firm owners.

"If the managing shareholder gets the fever, then it's a huge advantage for the firm," Mitchell said. While he emphasized the moral reasons for advancing equal opportunity, he also advocates translating them into business benefits for stakeholders, including clients, shareholders, employees and recruits.

WHAT DOES IT TAKE?

A strong consensus among the professionals interviewed is that one size does not fit all when it comes to women's programs. The needs are too diverse, as are the program components. Among the elements commonly mentioned as most important to a successful initiative are:

* An educated and passionate champion. When Herren discovered that women were consistently leaving her former firm after achieving manager status, she started educating herself, including reading the AICPA publication Promoting Your Talents.

* Good people, good information. Some firms start with an all-female leadership team who then choose male or female members. Team leaders create a vision of the program - what it will look like and what it will achieve. They communicate this to all involved audiences. Good data is essential to structuring and benchmarking a strong program.

Malensek oversaw the execution of a firm-wide survey of all of Clifton Gunderson's 2,000 employees and partners. Its aim was to assess gender-focused initiatives, gather feedback, and identify areas of strength and opportunity. A high survey response foreshadowed active participation in the program.

* A roadmap. There are many options to creating an action blueprint, but the AICPA Women's Initiative Workshop can be most helpful. It recommends a start-up plan, effective governance, action steps, communication plans, visibility of female leaders, career advocacy and career-life integration support.

Leitschuh emphasized the need for solid information: "You need a process of discovery and a bucket of options tied to your strategic plan to get the biggest bang for your buck."

* HR partnership. Your firm's human resources professionals bring essential skills to the start-up and maintenance of your program. In Leitschuh's experience, HR helps set policies, implement the plan and educate senior leaders.

At Porter Keadle Moore, HR professionals were integral to driving the process, including making sure that polices and procedures were in place, according to Sessions. "When you scale back from full- to part-time, you need to have written expectations of what the firm will provide - for example, in-home DSL, benefits at 30 hours, etc. - as well as what the firm expects from its part-time employees." Make sure that policies are followed by action, she stressed.

* Ongoing communication. D'Anna reported that at J.H. Cohn, their chief executive is actively involved in communications around the initiative: "Together, we visit each office semi-annually to get direct feedback on the program." And they've organized panels and luncheons featuring women partners across the firm. A yearly conference on the status of the women's program is attended by the CEO, chief operating officer, management team and guest speakers.

RESULTS

Impressive results across the board suggest that women's programs are meeting their mark. "The initiatives quickly cut our turnover in half and gave us high visibility within the profession," Malensek said. For her, as for others who have put their heart and soul into these efforts, there are personal rewards too, like a high degree of engagement, respected expertise and recognition.

At J.H. Cohn, turnover has been significantly reduced since the women's program was launched three-and-a-half years ago. Even partners now enjoy flexible work schedules. D'Anna said that Phase One of the program focused on recruiting, retention and advancement. Now in Phase Two, the emphasis is on meeting the needs of each office.

"Little victories" were celebrated early on at Elliott Davis and, as Herren recalled, they formed the building blocks for larger achievements. Since 2007, the firm has added four female shareholders and has achieved a higher percentage of women on firm committees. The Web site reflects the commitment to women leaders and there's been a change in the firm's operating agreement regarding expected hours.

"We developed, approved and communicated policies around flexwork, parental leave and non-traditional shareholder agreements," Herren said. "And the firm actively (and financially) supported telecommuting and flex-work arrangements." A coaching program, annual women's forums and networking events are other solid achievements.

WORDS FROM THE WISER

The firms I consulted for this article are confident in their efforts, but mindful that change is a process over time. Along the way these individuals have collected wisdom and share the following best practices:

* Get men engaged in the process early.

* Be aware that already-successful women may be naysayers because they don't want women singled out. After all, the thinking goes, they made it on their own.

* Get partners personally involved. Give them a platform to communicate their efforts to integrate their work and non-work lives.

* In striving to implement systematic changes, don't forget about tactical matters, like family conflicts with early-morning meetings or evening social events.

* Measure progress in a systematic way over time.

* Ensure that advancement by anyone at your firm is earned, not given.

* Be willing to make changes along the way. No program is born fully formed.

* Make sure your program reflects the different ways men and women think. "For example, women believe that hard work and effort will always be recognized," Leitschuh said, "but they may not be as good at the politics - making sure the right people are made aware of their accomplishments."

'LET'S FIND SOLUTIONS'

At the end of the day, according to Herren, women's leadership initiatives open up the conversation in a positive way, encouraging a shift from, "Look how bad everything is" to "Let's find valuable solutions." It may sound like a simple change, but it represents a tectonic shift in attitude.

Gale Crosley, CPA, is founder and principal of Crosley + Co. (www.crosley.company.com) in Atlanta, providing revenue growth consulting and coaching to CPA firms. She is the author of At the Crossroads: The Remarkable CPA Firm that Nearly Crashed, Then Soared. For more information, reach her at gcrosley crosleycompany.com.

(c) 2009 Accounting Today and SourceMedia, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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