Innovative Howard program gives young African-American accounting associates career skills to help them advance

Malik, a first-year African-American associate assigned to a major accounting firm's California office, frets that he has blown his one chance to make a good first impression: "In my culture we were raised to avoid looking elders in the eye. But at work they thought I was being dishonest because I didn't make eye contact."

Angelique, a Caribbean-born first-year at another major accounting firm in New York, wonders how to respond when managers ask her to make copies, and when her work constantly comes back for revisions. Is it this way for everyone, or just new employees? Or is she experiencing prejudice?

In an innovative program supported by the Big Four firms and other major accounting organizations, a select group of African-American first-years gather each year to explore such sensitive issues and to get guidance from the profession's leaders on how to develop the "soft" job skills like communication and networking that are so critical to success.

Helping more African-Americans achieve success in accounting is so central to this annual program, created and run by the Howard University School of Business Center for Accounting Education, that it is named "We're About Success." The program is a key element of the CAE's comprehensive partnership with the profession to advance African-Americans in accounting at all levels, from college student to candidates for senior management.

"This program has grown significantly since its inception and is strongly endorsed by the leading accounting firms in the nation," said Howard University School of Business Dean Barron H. Harvey, who is also a CPA.

"Every accounting firm wants its young African-American associates to succeed and stay," said CAE director Frank K. Ross, retired head of KPMG's Washington, D.C., office. "These young people have the technical skills to achieve, but still face some unique challenges. This program provides them the opportunity to collectively discuss these challenges, as well as the choices and issues they may encounter along the way. In addition they, like so many other young accountants, need encouragement to take and pass the CPA Exam early in their professional career."

Now five years old, "We're About Success" filled about 100 first-year professionals from across the nation with four days of invaluable information and advice at its 2009 program last month in suburban Washington, D.C. Educators and practitioners teamed up to deliver a rich curriculum designed to enhance the participants' non-technical skill sets, and to drive home the importance of facing the CPA Exam early in their careers. With sessions such as "Getting Off to the Right Start," "Working in Teams" and "Building Support & Alliances," the young accountants heard industry veterans share lessons learned over a lifetime. They also received a distilled CPA Exam preview and prep session to lower their anxiety levels by familiarizing them with the test's features.

Judging by participant response, and the takeaways they plan to implement upon returning to work, the program is already changing the paths of lives and careers. "Before, I viewed my career as one day at a time," said first-year audit associate Shevonne Ferguson, of the Rochester, N.Y., office of Big Four firm Deloitte. "The message of my being selected for this program was your firm would not have invested in sending you here if they did not see value. They believe in me, so why not believe in them?"

"You are responsible for your own career, and this program gives you the tools," added Jerome Barnes, an associate at Ernst & Young in Detroit.

SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE

After four days of enrichment, each student seemed ready to leave with a different takeaway from the multitude of strategies and tips offered. Some learned for the first time that they needed to bone up on their social skills; others, that they were erring by deferring taking the CPA Exam.

"I had identified a couple of possible mentors but I hadn't approached them," said Jamelle Nelson, of KPMG's Los Angeles office. "Now I'm going to reach out to them."

For Orlando Miller of PricewaterhouseCoopers' McLean, Va., office, it was "a step back to look at myself, and take in people's perception of me. Do they see me as the person who does the hard work? You think you are doing a good job, but ask your manager how you are doing."

Not all participants come from the Big Four firms. Several hailed from other firms, such as Grant Thornton, and large minority-owned firms, such as Williams, Adley & Co.

The National Association of Black Accountants Division of Firms is also a major stakeholder in "We're About Success." NABA president Walter Smith, who delivered a keynote speech to the group, said, "'We're About Success' arms our professional members with tools that are very hard to come by."

As the profession's concern with maintaining a diverse work force continues, the tools provided at "We're About Success" can help African-Americans stay the course and advance to partner and beyond.

For more information about the program, contact the CAE at (202) 806-1643.

Ned Steele has worked with a number of diversity initiative partnerships between business and higher education, including The PhD Project and the Consortium for Graduate Study in Management, and on recruiting and human resources initiatives for KPMG.

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

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