[IMGCAP(1)][IMGCAP(2)]Any group, whether it’s a management team, stakeholders or a corporate board — typically achieves better results when there is a wide variety of voices around the table. The benefits of tackling issues armed with a diversity of perspectives are why expanding the definition of diversity is becoming increasingly important in the accounting profession.

Organizations often perform better when they bring diverse people together. For most organizations, that means connecting people who have a different skin color or gender. However, looking past race and gender to take into account additional factors that broaden inclusion is not only the right thing to do, it may improve outcomes, including financial returns.

To make real progress in the area of diversity, the accounting profession needs to focus on the less observable characteristics that shape thinking and bring distinctive points of view to discussions. These characteristics may include:

  • Beliefs: acceptance that something is true or exists, without necessarily having the substantiation that proves it to be a fact.
  • Values: beliefs considered important or beneficial.
  • Social norms: what others do (not necessarily what should be done).
  • Constraints: limitations or restrictions that are perceived to exist in a given situation.
  • Standards: expectations that are used to achieve a certain level of quality and to compare one thing to another.
  • Customs and traditions: long-established patterns of behavior that are common among individuals belonging to a particular group or place.
  • Rewards: what is received in recognition of, or positive reinforcement for, efforts or achievements.
  • Experiences: doing and seeing things and having things happen to you.

Race, gender, education and even religion also may predispose individuals to possess a particular set of beliefs, values, social norms, customs and other characteristics that are prevalent in the group or groups they identify with. People’s thought processes and opinions are shaped by the combination of all of these inputs.
Julie Wood, chief people officer at Top 10 Firm Crowe Horwath LLP, put it this way: “In the accounting profession, achieving diversity is one of our main goals,” she said. “By expanding the definition of diversity to include perspectives as well as race and gender, we can help drive optimal results for our people and our clients.”

With this in mind, consider these questions about different perspectives:

  • Do two male accountants of different races or religions who were brought up in the same area of the country, were educated at the same university and have worked in public accounting for more than 20 years think alike professionally — that is, do they approach issues in the same way, have the same opinions and make the same judgments?
  • Do a male and a female partner, both the first college-educated individuals in their families and specialists in taxation, who joined the same firm directly from college, think alike professionally?
  • Do two female executives of the same race and religion who have similar socioeconomic backgrounds, college degrees in different disciplines from different institutions, and jobs in different industries and geographies, think alike professionally?

When thinking about what makes people have their particular perspectives, it becomes clear that limiting the perception of diversity to observable characteristics alone will not allow accounting professionals to fully achieve the diversity of thought and perspective that drives organizational success. Yet accounting professionals easily can find themselves being leaders in their firm alongside only those who are like them. And, over time, their perspectives are more likely to become even more similar.
Longevity in public accounting firms and other accounting firms often is rewarded with ownership, and frequently the partners have educational backgrounds (accounting firms tend to recruit from the alma maters of current personnel), experiences and professional roles that are similar to those of their colleagues. These tendencies work to reinforce common perspectives and, therefore, lend themselves to groupthink — the antithesis of a diversity of perspectives.

The accounting profession is not unique in this regard. The executive suites and boards of public companies often follow similar patterns. They recruit specialists in their industries with the belief that only those who have experienced the nuances and norms of that industry will truly understand a company’s issues and be able to meet the challenges. As in accounting, because these specialists have much the same professional background and because of the industry’s patterns of recruiting and advancement, they are unlikely to offer diverse perspectives.

As a profession, accounting values conformity to standards more than creative thinking. To achieve a diversity of perspectives, and thereby enrich discussions and debates and reach the better decisions that result from the consideration of different points of view, accounting professionals must challenge existing paradigms. It will not be enough for firms to attract and retain people who meet the traditional definition of diversity. The industry must engage those who will challenge the constraints of the prevailing perspectives of their firms — and be open to new thought processes and opinions. The ability of a firm to change with the times and cultivate innovation could depend on it.

Imagine the differences the profession can achieve for itself and its clients by going beyond standard concepts of diversity and embracing a diversity of perspectives.

Yvonne Scott is chief information officer for Crowe Horwath and board chair for the Information Technology Alliance. Chelsea Stoner is a general partner with Battery Ventures and a board member at Avalara Inc.

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