[IMGCAP(1)]As a professional coach for CPAs, I have noticed a distinct difference between my male and female clients.

These differences run the gamut of levels of self-confidence, communication and leadership styles, core values and belief systems. The disparity between the genders’ behaviors and the fact that women are now tipping the scales over men in the accounting profession (54 percent) makes for a very interesting mix. No wonder firms have started to launch women’s initiatives.

There can be enormous benefits to recognizing and embracing the different nuances of how women communicate and conduct business. The accounting firms that have provided support and resources to launch such an initiative claim a multitude of benefits on behalf of their female professionals and their female-owned clientele (more on that in a follow-up article, coming soon). But not many firms offer appropriate resources to their female professionals to qualify as an actual Women’s Program. This article investigates the values of having a women-focused program and provides innovative ideas on how you can support your female professionals without breaking the budget.

Why Women Only?
Just like on Thanksgiving, when women naturally take to one room while men go to another, so does the energy change around certain business practices, some of which seem to fare better when purposely segregated.

“We recognize that women network differently than men and have found ways to support our women, to enhance their business development activities and leadership skills”, says Kristen Clark, a long-time partner with The Bonadio Group, an Accounting Today Top 40 CPA firm with 10 offices located in the northeast part of the U.S. “We have initiated several women’s networking events with various groups (female colleagues in law firms, for example). We have also hosted ‘women-only’ client appreciation events.”

Elaine Pantel, CPA, CGA, a principal with the Toronto-based CPA firm of Shimmerman Penn LLP, is one of six owners. She explains, “When I was just starting out in the profession, I joined a women’s business networking group and attended monthly breakfast meetings. It was there that I learned how to network and craft my message and style as a professional. I came to an understanding of what my competitors were doing which enabled me to discover how to compellingly market myself and land new business.”

When asked about the importance of segregating women from men, Elaine added, “Why just women? There has been a cultural shift among our younger team members toward a need for more openness and collaboration. I feel it is important for women to get involved with other women, to engage in confident communication, develop leadership styles and confirm their core values and beliefs—and to have the ability to open up, explore and express ourselves in a safe, supportive environment, which makes a huge difference.”

When I began to write this article, I was intrigued by how many accounting firms claim some sort of women’s initiative (i.e., Women’s Group, Women’s Forum, lots of other acronyms, etc.). The trend toward marketing to female accountants remains strong, due to an increase of females rising in the profession. However, upon further investigation, I discovered that, for a good number of these firms, the commitment to their female professionals is no more than a page on their website. For some firms, there is little or no substance behind their claim to foster and support their female staff— there is no leader, no foundation, no programming, no budget, no nothing.

If you would like to know how you can positively impact and empower your female professionals, read on.

Some firms have figured out a unique and effective approach to addressing the needs of their female professionals despite expending little to no resources.

The Bonadio Group admits having no women’s initiative in a traditional sense (nothing on their website, no logo, etc.) and has struggled to launch a formal firm-wide women-focused program. Kristen Clark explains how they overcame this hurdle. “For over 20 years, we have recognized the need for flexibility, particularly among our women colleagues, in order to recruit and retain our best people. While we have, over the years, started a formal ‘initiative’ a couple of times, we found that our limited resources (time, budgets, etc.) were better spent working with specific individuals and creating customized models for others to follow.”

Elaine Pantel explains, “Shimmerman Penn is a boutique firm and we strategically allocate our resources. We are committed to investing in the development of our future leaders.” However, since Elaine and her partners strongly value the power of working with other women to develop leadership, communication, networking and business development skills, they decided to leverage their membership in PrimeGlobal, one of the top five largest associations of independent accounting firms in the world, to empower their female professionals. “When we first joined the association, the very first event I attended was the annual Women’s Leadership Conference. I knew I wanted to become more involved in developing this initiative and have been ever since. Our firm now sends our managers to the conference and we actively use the resources for our internal leadership development program.”

Elaine is the first female CPA professional to serve on the North American Board of Directors of PrimeGlobal.

Great ideas and programs to support and empower women can benefit (and apply) to everyone at the firm. Heidi LaMarca is the CEO and president of Windham Brannon, a Top 25 CPA firm in Atlanta. Women represent 42 percent of its shareholder group (five out of 12) and 50 percent of the entire leadership team. Heidi explains, “While there is no ‘official’ women’s initiative at the firm, we created our own leadership development program.” The firm’s Leadership Academy is for both women and men. Candidates are identified by the partner group. “The program educates partner candidates on all aspects of running a CPA firm, including key performance metrics, business development, personal development and personal branding,” says Heidi.

Suzanne Lozano, CPA, CVA, a principal with Yeo & Yeo CPAs & Business Consultants, describes the evolution of her firm’s Career Advocacy Team. “Our Career Advocacy Team (known as ‘CAT’) was born nearly four years ago out of suggestions culled from a survey of the firm’s female professionals. CAT’s focus was to tackle concerns faced by female professionals. What the team discovered as they dove deeper, the issues were relevant to all professionals, regardless of gender.” Through CAT, the members find what is not working for professionals in the organization and follow it up by implementing new policies, procedures and effective training, education and programs for both women and men.

Although some of the perks and programs were designed to motivate and accommodate both genders, female professionals are using them more. Kristen Clark notes, “Being able to adapt to the changes our people go through in their lives allows us to provide the best people with a flexible career path that makes them more committed to the firm and our clients as well. We currently have 49 (out of our total 524 client service professionals) on customized part-time schedules. Three of these happen to be men, but the vast majority is women.”

Empowering Female Professionals for the Future through Coaching
One thing these CPA firms all have in common is the value of an individual coaching relationship as a means of empowering their female professionals.

“Every employee at the firm has his or her own personal Windham Brannon coach to help in developing their individualized career path,” says Heidi LaMarca.

Kristen Clark says, “Being able to develop high-performing professionals who can maintain their desired level of balance has contributed directly to the significant growth our firm has achieved. I have personally benefited in that many of the people on my team would potentially have left if we hadn’t been able to work with them to customize a structure for a long-term career at our firm.”

Suzanne Lozano adds, “Currently, women comprise 26 percent of our partner group and nearly 70 percent of our senior management group. The numbers continue to rise. We offer varying career paths based on an individual’s strengths, passion, performance, leadership attributes, personal situations and more. Our career paths are individualized, not a one-size-fits-all approach.”

It looks as though the landscape in the accounting profession is quickly growing and becoming more diverse. “Toronto is the fourth largest city in North America and one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world,” says Elaine Pantel. “Five out of our six managers and directors are women. The business climate worldwide is changing and I believe that emerging leaders will be more mixed in gender and cultural background.”

Understanding and embracing a new mindset of a diverse and evolving workforce dynamic can most likely give your CPA firm a competitive edge.

Lisa Tierney 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, entitled "Women Empowerment at Work: Create Your Own Success" is available through Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

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