Rising to the top on a reduced schedule

It’s possible to work fewer hours and still achieve career advancement in the accounting profession. The keys to success are focus and flexibility.
By Yasmine El-Ramly, CPA/CITP, CGMA, and Anita Dennis

Debbie Smith, CPA, left, and Erica O'Malley, CPA, built a thriving employee benefit plan audit practice at Grant Thornton while embracing a flexible work model that encouraged professional advancement.
Debbie Smith, CPA, left, and Erica O'Malley, CPA, built a thriving employee benefit plan audit practice at Grant Thornton while embracing a flexible work model that encouraged professional advancement. (Photo by Charles Cherney/AP Images)

Flexible work arrangements (FWAs) can help talented professionals remain on the job while devoting at least some of their time to family or other personal endeavors. Many firm leaders and professionals have doubts, though, about whether professionals can advance their careers while working less than full time. Erica O'Malley, CPA, a trailblazer when it comes to FWAs, has shown that top-level achievement is possible with reduced or flexible schedules.

O'Malley worked a schedule based on reaching 70% of partner goals when she first joined Grant Thornton as a partner, and within just a few years she and her colleague Debbie Smith, CPA, had tripled the employee benefit plan audit practice that they had created at the firm, all while raising large families. Their experiences show that an alternative work arrangement need not be a roadblock for the professionals who use one or the firms they work for.

Here's a look at some of the lessons that O'Malley and her team learned from their experiences.

LESSON 1: A FLEXIBLE WORK ARRANGEMENT CAN PAVE THE WAY

It often is assumed that an FWA is an option suited only for professionals who want to slow down at least temporarily and get off the career advancement track while they juggle the conflicting demands of work and family life. O'Malley and Smith demonstrated, however, that it is possible to further careers and expand practices on an FWA.

The pair met while working at Arthur Andersen, where they ran the firm's employee benefit audit practice while both were on a reduced schedule. When that firm closed in 2002, the two sought to transfer their practice to another firm. They received a number of offers but chose to join Grant Thornton as partners because they could use the existing client base they brought with them to launch a niche that would be new to the firm.

"They hired our practice," O'Malley said. "They said, 'You've been successful, now do the same for us.' " O'Malley and Smith were attracted by the chance to chart their own path at a new organization.

Although their new firm didn't offer alternative schedules at the partner level at that time, O'Malley and Smith, who also became the first female partners in the firm's Chicago office, negotiated a deal that preserved their 70% schedules because they were confident they could achieve the same success they had at their former firm. O'Malley started out receiving 70% of the compensation of a full-time partner with goals of 70% of a typical partner's workload. Each of them moved to 80% as their kids grew, and they finally went to 100% when their children became more independent. Between their arrival in 2002 and 2007, the two partners tripled the revenues of the practice they brought with them. "Since we were very successful, my bonus rating was high, and any additional compensation came through the bonus," O'Malley said. The partners also received more units in the partnership as their experience and workload percentage grew.

LESSON 2: A FOUNDATION BUILT ON TEAMWORK AND TRUST

O'Malley took on more of the operations leadership while Smith generally oversaw the technical leadership, but their work together depended on their ability to share all responsibilities and fill in where needed. "We had experience supporting each other," O'Malley said. They also were used to sharing ownership of clients based on their work together at Andersen. "Our practice would grow, and we'd sell work, all divided by two. We were a team in all aspects. Over the years, we had built up a high level of trust in each other," she said.

They also shared a common joy in family. O'Malley has five children, and Smith has four. "We're both driven women," O'Malley said. They share a belief that satisfying family and work lives are not mutually exclusive. They started out convinced that they could work hard and achieve their most important goals—on personal and professional levels—despite the challenges. "We never thought twice about having big families," O'Malley said. Their confidence and determination certainly played a key role in their success.

Another key factor was trust, which O'Malley described as being fundamental to any alternative work arrangement. The employer must be able to trust that the schedule won't interfere with workflow, productivity, or profitability. Within a group like O'Malley's, trust also mattered because team members had to rely on one another to adapt to an unorthodox work environment and be ready to pitch in when one person was unavailable.

O'Malley and Smith put together a group of 10 people, many of whom came with them from Arthur Andersen. They were all women, and nine were on reduced work schedules. The group's hallmark was their team approach to both clients and work, which made it possible for colleagues to fill in for one another. While each partner had her own client base, they would typically work together on major proposals. "In those cases, we'd split the sales between us," O'Malley said. "But one of us always took the lead as the engagement partner." The shared approach was a hallmark of the practice. "We were a very high-functioning team," she said. "Everyone thought of the team first, not of themselves." This made it natural for colleagues to jump in and support one another. "If someone was busy, the workload was shifted to help that person," O'Malley said.

As children have grown and family time demands loosened, the group has since moved away from that model, "but it was one of the most supportive times of my career," O'Malley said. To this day, when members of that original group are facing challenges, "we find a way to have some time together" because of the value of the bonds they formed, she said.

LESSON 3: FOCUS ON RESULTS

While they were breaking ground at Grant Thornton, O'Malley's team earned the trust of the firm's leadership by keeping all the promises the new partners made about the new employee benefit plan practice they were building.

The team's success was a product of a results-based approach. With everyone shifting hours and schedules as necessary, "we never knew where people were, we just measured chargeable hours," O'Malley said. "As long as the clients were happy and people were supervised, we were happy. People would come to me and ask if they could move their day off from Tuesday to Wednesday, and I didn't care."

Team member Wendy Garrett, CPA, spent 10 years on an FWA, and during that time she moved up and down from a 60% schedule to an 80% schedule based on a variety of factors. Garrett moved to Grant Thornton with O'Malley in 2002 as a manager and immediately went on an FWA shortly after giving birth to her second child. Her professional advancement continued at the right pace for her because of her team leaders' commitment to their staff. "Erica advocated to make sure her people had the right clients and the right development," said Garrett, who is now a managing director in the professional standards group at the firm. "She talked to me about where I stood in comparison with my peers and how to be ready for the next level," and then ensured Garrett had the assignments she needed to move ahead, Garrett said.

Team members also maintained their visibility. While they filled in for one another as needed, "clients were specific to you," said Julie Figueras, CPA, who was a manager, pregnant with her third child and on a 70% schedule when she moved to Grant Thornton with O'Malley. She now has five children and is an audit partner. While some clients may not have known about their contact person's FWA, they did know that another manager or partner always would be available to speak to them. Clients who offered flexible schedules to their own people were happy to be working with a firm that did the same, Figueras said. Grant Thornton has been recognized numerous times as a top company for executive women and for work/life balance.

LESSON 4: WITH FLEXIBILITY COMES RESPONSIBILITY

A flex schedule can mean reduced hours, but it does not lessen the responsibility to get the work done. "Even though there were days that I was out of the office, I was still responsible for my work," Garrett said. This often led to working at home. If you are rigid about working only in the office, the arrangement won't work, she said. She advised those seeking an FWA to have realistic expectations and be ready to accept overlaps between their work and off-duty schedules.

Figueras also recommended keeping an open mind. "It's not going to be easy," she said, adding that it took her a couple of years to feel truly comfortable working with an FWA. The solutions in her case included focusing on improving her time management skills and on communication with both her supervisor and her family. Supervisors can be very supportive if you discuss your challenges and find ways to address them, she said. And talking to her husband and her kids about her work helped them feel a greater connection to that part of her life and understand why she was not always available to them.

LESSON 5: TIME MANAGEMENT AND ORGANIZATIONAL SKILLS STAND OUT

O'Malley noted that while flexible schedules are touted as a way to retain people, they can also help identify those who are highly motivated and have strong organizational and time management skills. She pointed out that juggling a shifting schedule and responsibilities can be far more challenging than working a predictable five-day week. "I was on a reduced schedule for 15 years, and when I went back to a regular schedule, planning got much easier," she said. Organizations can benefit from the management and organizational skills that professionals build while taking an alternative path.

"We were constantly experiencing maternity leave," Garrett said, but the group was determined to adapt to changes in work volume and staffing, again, adjusting their schedules to cover for one another as needed. "We were so collaborative because we had similar goals," she said. The original group of 10 women now has 28 children.

In the end, the arrangement proved beneficial for all. "If you work for an organization that embraces working mothers and you're highly motivated, they will do everything for you," Figueras said. In return, "I worked even harder because of my loyalty to Erica, my team, and my firm."

LESSON 6: PLAN TO BE FLEXIBLE

What advice does O'Malley offer to CPAs interested in pursuing a flexible career path that balances their career and personal goals? "I would advise people to have a plan," she said. "I knew what I wanted in life. I didn't want to sacrifice my personal goals for my job." She also was prepared to do what it took to push her career forward in the direction she desired. Faith in her abilities gave her confidence that she could pursue alternative career paths if her current one couldn't accommodate her family responsibilities. "I knew I worked hard and my career would flourish at another organization if that became necessary," she said.

As it turned out, O'Malley needed 15 years to become a partner, an accomplishment achieved despite taking five maternity leaves. "I may have been sidelined, but I didn't mind because I always gave as much as I was willing to give," she said. "If you try to give one ounce more, you start to think about leaving."

CONCLUSION

Today, Grant Thornton's specialty practice still exists, but O'Malley leads the firm's Human Capital Management practice and is an elected member of the firm's partnership board. Smith is a partner in the national practice standards group, specializing in employee benefit plan audit services. O'Malley notes that FWAs are temporary and that her experiences demonstrate that, if firms can retain valuable professionals during times when they need FWAs, those professionals can go on to have long careers with the practice.

O'Malley moved on from her flexible schedule once her family obligations no longer required one. An active mentor, she counsels those who are testing the waters of a new career path to have patience. "When a young mother has her first child, she might feel that balancing career and family isn't going to work," she said. "I tell them to be patient and give it three years. Somewhere between three and five years, they finally get the confidence they need to be successful long term."


About the authors

Yasmine El-Ramly (yelramly@aicpa.org) is senior technical manager—Firm Services & Global Alliances for the AICPA in Durham, N.C. Anita Dennis (anita@dennisink.com) is a freelance writer based near New York City.

To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Jeff Drew, senior editor, at jdrew@aicpa.org or 919-402-4056.


AICPA resources

Article

"Crafting a Career That Fits the Life You Want to Lead," Oct. 2016

Publication

The Overachiever's Guide to Getting Unstuck: Replan, Reprioritize, Reaffirm (#PGN1301P, paperback; #PGN1301E, ebook)

Online resources

  • Online Mentoring Program, aicpa.org/mentoring
  • PCPS Firm inMotion Staff Development & Culture webpage, aicpa.org
  • PCPS Networking Groups, including the new Women's Group, aicpa.org
  • Retaining and Developing Women Leaders: Organizational Strategies Toolkit, aicpa.org

Conference

Practitioners Symposium and Tech+ Conference at Engage, June 12—15, Las Vegas

For more information or to make a purchase or register, go to aicpastore.com or call the Institute at 888-777-7077.

Private Companies Practice Section

The Private Companies Practice Section (PCPS) is a voluntary firm membership section for CPAs that provides member firms with targeted practice management tools and resources, including the Succession Planning Resource Center, as well as a strong, collective voice within the CPA profession. Visit the PCPS Firm Practice Center at aicpa.org/PCPS. The PCPS Succession Planning Resource Center is available at aicpa.org/PCPS/succession.

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