Game-Changing Women's Initiatives at CPA Firms

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IMGCAP(1)]I have coached many CPA professionals over the course of my career, addressing pertinent topics that aid the professional development of my clients. It’s become obvious—especially in recent years—there’s value in providing programs geared toward women.

This is because there are significant differences in how genders communicate, lead and motivate their staff. These differences can be complementary and supportive of each other; unfortunately, they sometimes represent a detriment in the workplace. This has become an important issue as there are now slightly more women CPA professionals than men in the United States.

I have written previously about how smaller, regional firms used innovation to launch an effective women’s initiative within their firms, despite little or no resources (see The Truth about Women’s Initiatives in Today’s Accounting Profession). In this article, I will share how some women leaders have guided their larger (Top 100) CPA firms toward growing meaningful programs that have proven to be very successful in terms of developing leaders, attracting ideal clients, and hiring and developing top talent at their firms. What more could you want? Read on to learn how the “heavy hitters” have done it.

Empowering Women to Build an Effective Program
CohnReznick ranks as the country’s 11th largest accounting, tax and advisory firm, with offices in 30 cities and annual revenues of $604 million. The management team has learned that it takes empowering high-caliber female professionals to oversee a women’s initiative successfully. Risa Lavine is a principal at the firm and serves as chief of staff, spearheading leadership development, strategic partner level recruitment and innovative, people-centric practices. Her top-notch team includes Michelle Lifschitz, a strategic and experienced HR leader who is the manager of Women CAN, the Collaborative Advocacy Network at CohnReznick, and Tracy Fink, director of its Executive Women’s Forum. These two programs work hand-in-hand to address the empowerment of female professionals and support business development in a specialized way.

LeighAnn Costley serves as a tax partner at the CPA firm of Frazier & Deeter, ranked as the 56th largest firm in the country, with four offices and annual revenues of $67 million. In addition to focusing on planning and compliance services, she has risen as a leader within the firm for its women and diversity programs. When asked what made her firm launch its women’s initiative, LeighAnn replied, “I joined F&D in February 2012, when our women’s initiative was in its infancy. I have the help of audit partner Kris Spain, along with significant assistance from our marketing department. We wanted the participants—clients, prospects, community leaders—to recognize the importance of this program to the firm and having partner leadership of it illustrates that.”

Robin Bell is a tax partner at the Top 100 firm of Brown Smith Wallace, which has three offices and annual revenues of $40 million. Robin remembers her early days at the firm. “When I started out 20 years ago, we had about 50 people; today, we are at 270. Our managing partner at the time consistently spoke to me about continuing to move up in our organization and encouraged me to take on more responsibility. Unbeknownst to me, he was acting as my champion— and he inadvertently helped me to realize the women’s program we have today, called The Bridge. Our program is designed to connect women of all career stages because there’s a lot that women can learn from each other regardless of their age and professional experience.”

The Importance of Women-Only Events
Robin Bell explains the importance of having women only events. “We want to help our younger and mid-career women get out in public in non-threatening ways so they can learn how to network while feeling comfortable. When you can get so many women in one room from different professional levels, it’s very powerful and effective.”

CohnReznick understands the strategic importance of connecting women executives in the markets they serve. The firm’s Executive Women’s Forum was created as a business development initiative to provide meaningful events and experiences for women professionals and opportunities to build and deepen mutually beneficial relationships. Tracy Fink, director of the EWF, explains, “Bringing like-minded executive women together through a range of local events and industry-related activities enhances our offices’ strategic plans as well as our marketing dollars. What began as a pilot program in 2005 has grown into a nationwide movement—engaging our clients, employees, referral sources, industry associations, and members of the broader community. We’ve seen strong relationships develop that have led to new business but also friendships, and have provided our female professionals with speaking opportunities, invitations to board positions as well as a way to elevate the CohnReznick brand, especially using social media.”

EWF events are held several times a year in many of the firm’s offices around the country. They often take the form of fun, engaging social events or educational presentations. The EWF sponsors other women and industry-focused events and conferences as well.

“The programs that we have led for our LA Executive Women’s Forum have facilitated a comfortable environment for women executives to network with their peers, learn from other successful women and decompress from busy work and family schedules,” explains Margaret Shanley, a principal at CohnReznick. “We were thrilled to have Jan Fields, former president of McDonalds USA, as our keynote speaker for our February 2016 event, which created enormous buzz for the program. The EWF has given us nontraditional access to clients, prospects and referral sources, building relationships that really matter. Additionally, we invite our entire female professional staff to attend and have created strong internal bonds that enhance our culture.”

Frazier & Deeter also supports connecting with women business leaders in the community and wanted to provide them with a forum to learn from each other and showcase their female CPA professionals as thought leaders around women’s issues. LeighAnn Costley says, “We have received strong accolades in each of our marketplaces (Atlanta, Nashville, Tampa) for our women’s initiative programs. It has allowed us to partner with like-minded organizations (law firms, banks, other professional groups) for the promotion of women owned and led businesses. Many CPA firms’ women’s programs stay internally focused but we are committed to being externally focused in our approach.” She continues, “I have personally benefitted from this initiative in winning certain clients, who appreciated the opportunity to develop a relationship with a firm that places such a high value on women owned and led businesses.”

Frazier & Deeter’s women’s leadership events offer ample time for networking in addition to a thought leadership component, a specific topic or a panel discussion.

“Many firms with women’s initiatives have integrated internal and external programs to maximize the benefits for firm employees while providing a service to the local community. The Brown Smith Wallace program exemplifies this,” explains Robin Bell. “The Bridge was started by 4 women partners a little over two years ago and has really enhanced our firm’s reputation in the St. Louis region. With at least several hundred women attending each event, the response we receive is a testament to the work that we’re doing.”

Brown Smith Wallace doesn’t charge a fee for The Bridge events, an aspect that sets it apart from other programs in the region. Attendees hear from thought leaders on career and lifestyle topics like negotiating skills, networking and confidence-building techniques—all while enjoying a full breakfast. There’s also time for networking before the program starts. All this takes place before most begin their work day at 9 AM. The Bridge events average over 300 attendees, consisting of invited clients, prospects, referral sources and anyone who reaches out via their website.

Women’s Programs Attract and Retain Talent
When asked if their women’s program gave their firms a cutting edge over competing firms when it came to recruiting, LeighAnn H. Costley said, “From a recruiting standpoint, it certainly makes a difference. Millennials tend to be all about experience; a career in public accounting isn’t that glamorous of an experience, but being part of something bigger than numbers is.”

One thing these firms have in common is they are creating new paths toward leadership within their organization, allowing female professionals to find ways to grow and promote themselves that didn’t exist before. Sharon Sullivan, a director at CohnReznick, says, “Being a member and liaison in WomenCAN has empowered me to seek out leadership opportunities and push myself to create the changes necessary to build an opportunity.”

Robin Bell adds, “Internally, we hold quarterly meetings with our women management team members, which represents 56 percent of our managerial level staff. We are trying to get more women into leadership roles. These meetings incorporate some kind of learning experience, and we also ask for two volunteers to present on a topic they determine to be useful and pertinent.” Robin noted that the firm appointed 10 new partners in the last two years, and four of them were women, which showed an improvement over the last few years. Robin added, “In order to succeed in public accounting and this man’s world, everybody needs a champion.”

Game-Changers, Read This!
CohnReznick, thanks to the efforts of Michelle Lifschitz, now offers its employees a Back-Up Care program, through an affiliation with a national company offering back-up care for children, elders and even pets! Michelle says, “This program is just a part of our model here at CohnReznick which is holistic in terms of pay, benefits and processes.” The program gives them the support they needed while the firm maintained productivity.

Frazier & Deeter has two game-changing women programs. Its Women Business Leadership Program, celebrating its sixth year, gets women business owners in front of each other to foster a peer connection, grow relationships and remain inspired. The program spotlights female entrepreneurship through panel discussions of business and leadership topics and encourages women to be thought leaders while supporting other women business owners.

Launchpad2X is one of the country’s first woman-only business incubators designed to assist early-stage women entrepreneurs with strategies to help fund their business ventures and dreams. LeighAnn Costley adds, “Statistics for the past six years of women who are launching businesses are growing. The more those women succeed in their companies, the better off we all are as far as the economy is concerned. At Frazier & Deeter, we are committed to helping those entrepreneurs in a meaningful way.”

Brown Smith Wallace’s The Bridge program is of interest to a diverse audience of women leaders. The programming offers conflict resolution strategies for women and education about the key differences between generations in today’s workforce, while promoting effective networking and building confidence. An offshoot of this program is The Bridge Bootique—an event designed to provide local, women-owned, brick and mortar businesses an opportunity to showcase and sell their products. There’s a charitable aspect to the event as well. A portion of the vendor registration proceeds benefit a local charity. Robin Bell reports, “In three hours, 800 women came out to support and shop at the 50 vendors featured in our first annual The Bridge Bootique event.”

The success of women’s initiatives like the ones featured here are just the beginning of what promises to be a longstanding trend among professional service organizations—especially in accounting.

Lisa Tierney, CLSC, is a marketing strategist, author, certified life coach and president of Tierney Coaching & Consulting, Inc., which provides an effective combination of strategic marketing advice and coaching to female CPA professionals. Lisa’s commitment to accounting professionals is demonstrated by the organizations she supports, such as the Association for Accounting Marketing, the CPA Leadership Institute, International Coach Federation, and the National Association of Women Business Owners for which she serves as Marketing Chair. Her book for professional women services providers, Women Empowerment at Work: Create Your Own Success, is available through Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Visit Tierney Coaching & Consulting’s website at or call (267) 468-7115.

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