Art of Accounting: Work/life balance for real

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Public accounting is a family friendly profession that allows staff to have a sensible work/life balance.

The following is a 2011 interview I conducted with Withum’s first female part-time partner, Maureen M. DeCicco. Not only is everything Maureen said still relevant but she gave some insights into how to manage multiple priorities. This interview also discusses how work/life balance can be approached at any firm. You just need partners with a desire to retain the best staff.

In 2007, Maureen became Withum’s first “part-time” partner. The Partners’ Network Newsletter asked Maureen some questions about how she balances her home life with her professional responsibilities and what we can learn from her experiences.

When you decided you wanted to be home for your children, how did you approach it with your bosses here?

Well, my bosses were always very approachable so that wasn’t a problem. I discussed what I wanted to do with them, making it clear that my career was important to me and that I wanted to also be able to continually evolve and grow professionally. The biggest issue was how the clients’ needs would be met, and we seemed to come up with a workable plan.

Did you realize that you might be giving up an opportunity to one day become a partner, and how did you feel about it?

I never thought I was giving up that opportunity, just that I was slowing it up, and I made my feelings about this known. I was never one to stand still, and I also asked the partners to consider me for new assignments, new clients and challenging work that would make me grow. They had enough confidence in me to know that if I felt I couldn’t handle something, I would reach out to them. The opportunities kept coming, even more so since we were all on the same page about new work.

How did you find the transition from full-time to part-time at work?

I had to work harder at letting people know I was available and could be counted on. I returned all calls promptly and followed up more rigorously than I used to. I learned to delegate more and to trust staff under me to meet deadlines, which became more important for me to watch. I also found it hard to not do some things myself but developed a better support system in the office and feel I’ve become a much better manager because of my not being around as much.

Was there a difference in attitude in fellow staff, partners and clients, and how did it affect you?

I originally thought I would work three days a week, but ended up working five days, but shorter hours each day. I found shorter days were more manageable at home and at the office or when working from home. This way, I was always available to manage and assist work flow, staff and clients. I realized it was important for me to be accessible in order to keep growing professionally. Clients weren’t a problem at all. They knew I was not working full-time, but they also knew they could call me whenever they needed me, and I would get back to them right away. I believe this was key to not disrupt client service. I made and returned all calls even when I wasn’t in the office. Also, no deadlines were missed because of my new routine because they were set with better focus. Everyone seemed to adapt quite easily to my hours.

Professionally, how did your outlook change?

It made me realize that what I always thought was so urgent wasn’t. I was able to temper business urgency and pressure with my other responsibilities. I began to realize that not everything, at all times, would be the most important thing on my plate. Sometimes business was more important, and other times my home activities were more important. I began to take a much bigger picture look and got a better perspective on what I was doing. I also started putting less pressure on myself. I knew it would eventually all balance out. It made me a better person, more organized and happier.

Did anyone in particular mentor you, or did you have any role models or anyone to lean on?

My mentors were all three partners in my office — Bill Hagaman, John Mortenson and Jim Decker. They each helped me in different ways, and if they didn’t give me their support, it wouldn’t have worked. I speak to people at other firms, and the biggest reason they leave the profession is the lack of partner support — knowing how good it was for me, I try to help them and tell them they need to communicate better with their bosses about it.

How did your husband Ken support you, and as the children grew, was there any expressed awareness by them of your different type of situation?

Ken was fantastic, and his support was wholehearted. I also got support from my Mom and sisters. Ken is a police sergeant and works shifts and had, at times, two days off during the week. He spent his days off with the children, enabling me to work longer hours those days. We didn’t see much of each other, and there was a lot of juggling, but it worked. When we both had to work and my mom wasn’t available, the kids went to daycare. The problem with daycare is that kids get sick more often, and then one of us really needed to stay home. Sometimes Ken took vacation days when I couldn’t rearrange my schedule. We really worked as a team to make both of our goals achievable.

How were you able to supervise and manage staff as your role and work responsibilities grew?

I learned early on that if I made an investment in training, I would be better able to manage. People that supervise need to understand that the first time something is taught, it will take longer than if the job were just done. However, the benefits or payback come the second and third time on that job. That is where I tremendously benefited. Also, instilling a team mindset was so important. If my team couldn’t get to something and I needed it, I would step in and help get it done to stay on schedule — both my schedule and the client’s deadline. I have tremendous support from both staff and partners, it’s a give and take.

Were you surprised when you were told you would be made a partner, and how did you react?

I always had hoped I would become a partner someday but didn’t expect it when it happened. Bill was my mentor, and we had periodic lunches so when this lunch was scheduled, I didn’t think it was anything unusual. When I walked in, I saw Ivan [Brown] there and knew something was up. Then John came in, and I realized what was happening. However, they didn’t say anything right away, and they sort of let me hang until they told me I was going to become a partner. I was overwhelmed, very excited and extremely happy. All my efforts seemed to pay off. They brought me to where I wanted to be.

Are you involved in any initiatives to support people that want a dual role?

Internally, I am very proactive advocating that people can have a successful career and a satisfying home life working part-time or in flexible arrangements. Withum now has a Women’s Leadership Development Initiative that promotes work/life balance, which is something I have done all along. It has been great to be able to see this philosophy grow into an initiative. I am particularly very proud that we have four women professionals in the New Brunswick office that are now on part- or flex-time. Part of my focus is to continue to be a good role model and resource for them.

What advice can you give to younger staff who want to have a more balanced home and professional life?

It can be done. Be kind to yourself, and don’t over pressure yourself to be perfect. Work hard, but enjoy life. If you are happy, it will spill over at work. Both can be balanced very well. Don’t be afraid to lean on family and friends for help. For me, it’s been great — I’ve had the best of both worlds. My kids also saw mine and Ken’s work ethic, devotion and dedication to our family and professions and that there is a balance in life that we should be appreciative of and grateful for.

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Work-life balance Gender issues Practice structure Ed Mendlowitz WithumSmith+Brown