There’s encouraging news for firms interested in pursuing strategies to retain and promote women: You don’t have to re-invent the wheel.In fact, the timing couldn’t be better, as dozens of top programs are under way at firms across the country. We talked with leaders at three of those firms who were eager to share what they’ve learned.
First introduced by the Big Four firms, successful women’s initiatives are moving down-market to the Top 100 and beyond. The value of expanding opportunities for women to staff and lead CPA firms is clear, as more than half the nation’s 10.5 million companies are now owned by women.
What’s more, such programs can drive incremental revenue as the presence of women boosts a firm’s visibility and competitive advantage. But the reality on the ground reveals that although almost 60 percent of accounting graduates are women, only about 15 percent achieve partner status.
Cultural assessments conducted by my team and others show that firms typically enter the realm of women’s initiatives through one of three portals: by improving the firm environment in ways that encourage and retain women, by shoring up women’s leadership and business development skills, and by appealing to the community of women buyers.
The firms profiled here underscore that there is no single strategy that guarantees success. Putting one’s oar in the water at any point, provided the support and infrastructure are in place, is what it takes.
FOCUS ON SKILLS
Headquartered in Greenville, S.C., Elliott Davis LLC is a midsized regional accounting firm with 10 offices across the Southeast. Human resources director Terri Herren came from an engineering background, where the staff was primarily men. “When I saw how many women we had, I thought, ‘This is great, there’s so much diversity.’” However, she realized that the women were present, but were not necessarily progressing.
Herren started educating herself. Within Elliott Davis, she learned that business development and leadership were top needs. Unsure how her intent to actively pursue these goals would be met, she was delighted when managing partner Todd Mitchell personally took up the mantle. The result was a series of forums that offered continuing professional education for the firm’s professional women.
“Under the category of career development, we held two highly successful women’s forums on leadership and branding oneself,” Herren explained. With confidence born of success, she planned additional sessions on business development techniques and women helping women.
Energized, Mitchell spearheaded the creation of a dual-gender committee to help envision and manage women’s initiatives. “The first meeting was a profound experience,” Herren recalled. “We had women from different offices saying to one another, ‘You mean you have this issue, too?’”
Today the firm is considering partnering with a regional law firm and bank to create a women’s leadership resource for the business community. A survey conducted in early 2006 and followed up recently revealed an impressive evolution in awareness. The changes can be seen, as well as felt. When Elliott Davis launched a new flex-time policy, a male shareholder was the first to participate, and two women on reduced work schedules were elected shareholders this past summer.
J.H. Cohn is the largest independent firm in the Northeast and is headquartered in Roseland, N.J. Like others, it recognized that recruiting women is the easy part; promotion and retention are the challenge.
Partner Lynn Lagomarsino explained that J.H. Cohn is no newcomer to women’s initiatives. Focus groups revealed that many people in the firm were unaware of offerings. “So we prepared case studies about the use of part- and flex-time in our newsletter,” she said.
That was just the beginning of a renewed push to retain and promote women. Lagomarsino said that each J.H. Cohn office now has a women’s liaison. These volunteers lead efforts ranging from planning networking events to organizing online book clubs. The firm also offers mentoring and buddy programs, as well as workshops and a professional women’s newsletter.
Though quite young (the program started in late 2005), the J.H. Cohn Professional Women’s Program is already a success and continues to grow. This year, more than 200 J.H. Cohn professionals attended the third annual Professional Women’s Program Conference. The event, which features a guest speaker, provides professional women the opportunity to network and receive valuable tips on topics such as communication skills, which was the focus of this year’s conference.
With more than 2,300 personnel, Crowe Chizek is one of the leading accounting and consulting firms in the U.S. Crowe’s parent company, Crowe Group, is one of the top ten accounting firms in the country. Crowe Group partner Mary Bennett explains that the firm, like many others in the industry, faced the challenge of retaining women and advancing them to higher levels. Thus, a new initiative, Women into Leadership, was launched in 2002.
“Our business case was about the retention and development of high-potential, high-performing women moving into positions of leadership and impact,” said Bennett. “We focused less on changing the partnership numbers and more on making sure women are influential in the organization and are advancing.”
The program sought nominations, which initially yielded 30 female leaders across the firm. Today, the list of WIL participants has grown to 155. Members participate in local networking groups intended to reduce isolation and “flight risk.” They also team up with sponsors, a process similar to mentorship that includes career advocacy and career/life integration. Women professionals engage in special projects and networking opportunities.
According to Bennett, Women into Leadership is having a positive ripple effect beyond the leadership ranks. “We have more women role models, mentors and coaches who share career/life solutions and approaches with a large and diverse population.” She believes that all professionals will continue to learn from one another.
Today, Crowe representatives sit on the Women’s Initiatives Executive Committee of the American Institute of CPAs, and the firm is sharing its knowledge with others.
The efforts described by these firms are impressive for their creativity and scope. They reflect two essential elements for a women’s initiative to succeed: solid management commitment and resourceful champions with a clear vision of success.
Gale Crosley, CPA, is founder and principal of Crosley + Co. (www.crosleycompany.com), providing revenue growth consulting and coaching to CPA firms. Reach her at email@example.com
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