Fans of The Office know that Angela Noelle Martin is the head of the accounting department at Dunder Mifflin, a fictitious paper company in Scranton, Pa., extension 128.

Her colleague Michael Scott doesn't have Angela's technical proficiency, her attention to detail, or the ability to complete an expense form blindfolded.

So why is Michael her boss?

His Wikipedia entry explains it this way, "Before he was promoted to regional manager, he was a great salesman, able to relate well with clients and using his personable attitude to his advantage."

And that, my friends, may help explain "The Dip," the phenomenon by which woman have parity with men in entry-level jobs, but fall off in large numbers as both genders gain experience, as the accompanying chart from the 2010 MOVE Project Executive Report, "Count Them In: Where and Why Women Leave Public Accounting and How to Reverse the Trend," demonstrates.

No, Dunder Mifflin is not a public accounting firm. And no, Michael Scott would never survive an election for managing partner. But for those of you willing to ride with me on the rest of this metaphorical journey, it may enrich your perspective and your firms.

WHEN THINGS CHANGE

In the early part of their public accounting careers, both men and women learn the importance of technical competence. "Get your work papers done on time and accurately!" If you learn this trick and do it enough times, you start to get noticed. You get tapped for more engagements. You gain experience and get exposure to partners.

Within a couple of years, you're asked to become a manager - a leader of other paper jockeys. Several years after that, if you're still turning in good work papers and getting the same from your underlings - like Angela Martin does with Oscar and Kevin - you become a senior manager.

And at this point, the rules change - drastically. While on your path to senior manager, you are rewarded for your technical acumen. But going forward, the path of promotion is reserved for those who have strong technical skills - and are well-liked or well-connected.

LESS BALANCE, MORE SKILLS

Until recently, many people - both women and men - believed that the reason women didn't make it to partner was because being a partner and fulfilling personal goals (like being a great parent) are mutually exclusive.

The MOVE report and advice from leading consultants indicate that this is a false assumption.

Mary L. Bennett, of MLBennett Consulting in Atlanta, a consultant on women's initiatives, put it this way: "Work-life is the easiest issue to talk about, but at many firms, this is not the most critical issue. In my experience, there are two other issues that are even more important - access to career advocacy and development, and access to female role models."

The MOVE report elaborates it a bit more: "Early in their careers, women typically immerse in the complexity of accounting, eager to stake their reputations on polished work. By taking this conservative approach to success, however, many women overlook opportunities to build relationships in the firm and in the business community. Later in their careers, when it's time to shift gears and focus on gaining clients, it's often men at the same level who are poised to smoothly shift gears from doing the work to leveraging their networks to sell work more easily."

In other words, Angela Martin doesn't have Michael Scott's job because she hasn't developed the same interpersonal skills. Women need these skills to advance in their public accounting careers. That's why women's initiatives like the Professional Women's Program at J.H. Cohn focused for the first five years on developing "enabling skills" among their participants, helping women develop the ability to assert themselves, ask for leadership positions, and develop relationships inside and outside the firm.

Even though the program directly benefits women - and the increase in retention rates validates this - the program has huge implications for the firm overall.

Carolyn D'Anna, CPA, a partner at J.H. Cohn and co-director of the firm's Professional Women's Program, explained, "The most critical question to ask is, 'What value does your women's program bring, not just for women, but for the entire firm?' We looked at this question from all levels, and realized it was good for diversity, good for growth, and good for retention. If you can position your program in this way, you'll be more likely to get buy-in from the management team, and this will help the program be more successful."

WIN-WIN-WOMEN

Consultancies McKinsey and Catalyst have both proven that organizations with three or more women on their boards outperform their peers. So it makes good sense to develop women who can sell to other women, and lead our firms to financial performance.

Then, there's the "cool" factor.

Rick Goldenson, a partner at mega-regional firm Clifton Gunderson and the co-chair of his firm's WIN@CG program, admitted, "I was attracted to the program because it helps establish us as a firm of choice for both males and females looking for an innovative/progressive CPA firm."

Rebecca Ryan is a consultant who helps CPA firms grow and keep their top talent. Reach her at (888) 922-9596 ext. 702 or rr@nextgenerationconsulting.com.

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