Women’s initiatives: A step-by-step plan

A 3-year pilot program developed by the AICPA Women’s Initiatives Executive Committee highlights successful firm strategies for empowering women.
By Yasmine El-Ramly, CPA/CITP, CGMA, and Anita Dennis

Image by shopplaywood/iStock

What's the best approach to a significant practice management challenge? On any journey, having a road map from the outset can help keep your firm on course and make it easier to reach your goal.

The AICPA Women's Initiatives Executive Committee (WIEC) has developed a step-by-step implementation plan that firms can adapt to jump-start or refresh existing initiatives. In addition, WIEC established a three-year CPA Firm Pilot Program to test the road map and to share lessons learned and successes achieved along the way.

Why is this road map so important today?

As we all know, one common strategic goal for CPA firms is finding and keeping talent at all levels, from promising recruits to seasoned professionals who are prepared to take on leadership responsibilities. While talent is a firm's most important asset, there is a shortage of qualified professionals that is only expected to grow. The ongoing retirement of the Baby Boom generation coupled with a shortage of talent in the marketplace may leave many firms scrambling to replace their leadership, if they are not doing so already. These trends may also lead to a succession crisis in many firms, as owners struggle to craft a smooth transition to new leadership. As a result, firms must revisit the way they are operating now to best align with younger professionals' needs and aspirations.

Taken together, these factors point to a need to leverage the entire talent pool, including women, who have traditionally been underrepresented in firm leadership positions.

THE PILOT PROGRAM IN ACTION

WIEC's CPA Firm Pilot Program monitored participating firms' progress and provided them with the tools necessary to implement successful initiatives. The framework that the three participating firms followed can be used by other firms for a variety of staffing or other initiatives. This article introduces the framework and how it works, and highlights the pilot firms' challenges, lessons learned, and successes as they worked through the road map.

The program was structured as follows:

  • WIEC interviewed candidate firms and picked three. The idea was to follow their journeys as they created or refreshed their women's and staffing initiatives. The three firms selected were small enough to make it easy to track progress and large enough to be able to make significant changes and advancements.
  • In an initial CPA firm boot camp attended by representatives of all participating firms, the firms were introduced to the business case for women's advancement in compelling detail. To ensure management buy-in, the CPA Firm Pilot Program required members in the highest level of leadership to attend the live meetings.
  • Firms were given a wealth of tools, including a road map in the form of the Enhancing CPA Firm Success Through Gender Diversity checklist that is meant to lead them through the process over the remainder of the pilot program (the checklist is available at aicpa.org.
  • Firms checked in with WIEC members and AICPA staff in quarterly phone calls with one or more firm representatives to report progress and discuss challenges.
  • After the first year, WIEC members met with firm representatives to discuss their experiences in detail, craft solutions, and make plans for the pilot program's second year.

WHAT'S ON THE ROAD MAP?

Here's a brief explanation of the thinking behind the steps, with numbered recommendations that correspond to steps in the road map. The steps can be adapted for a variety of other firm initiatives.

1. Introduce the business case

What's in it for the firm? Statistics show that women and men have been entering the profession in equal numbers for decades, but only about one-quarter of partners are women. As a result, firms often miss out on the contributions of half the available talent pool. A comprehensive women's initiative would address many of the critical staffing issues firms are facing, including recruitment, retention, and succession. The underlying premise is that women's advancement is not just a good idea, it is good for business.

To determine their own business case, firms must be prepared to articulate the benefits or opportunities any initiative will provide and any threats or challenges it can address. This may take time and will be finalized later in the process, but it's important to begin with this consideration in mind.

How it worked with the three pilot firms: All three firms started the program with this goal in mind. Articulating and demonstrating the business case for a gender initiative within the firm was a critical goal for year 1. The effort demonstrated return on investment for the firm and helped justify the allocation of sufficient time and resources to achieve the program goals.

2. Back it up with statistics

Quantify the advantages and disadvantages using data from your own firm, the profession as a whole, or whatever applies.

How it worked with the three pilot firms: Each firm came to our kickoff meeting prepared with all the demographic and pipeline information WIEC requested. This allowed them to compare their firm's information with statistics on the profession and to identify their own gaps and areas of opportunity. It also fostered realistic goal setting to measure progress for this potential new initiative.

One firm went a step further by gathering data from local business organizations and universities about the percentage of women in leadership positions, to get a sense of the situation in its own market. This helped the firm define and identify its competitive advantage and how to best stand out and keep top talent.

3. Get management buy-in

This is the most important step in the process because success depends on the credibility — and financial and other support — that leadership acceptance can offer.

How it worked with the three pilot firms: After developing a business case, each firm presented it to its partner/leadership group. All presentations were well-received and resulted in program approval.

4. Designate champions

Depending on the initiative and the firm, a person or group should be accountable for championing the effort, keeping it moving, and achieving results. Firm leaders must be involved if the effort is to succeed.

How it worked with the three pilot firms: Firms created a steering committee comprising partners and initiative champions from various levels of the organization. The steering committee reported directly to the executive committee as part of a conscious effort to maintain leadership access and buy-in throughout the initiative.

5. Link it to key goals

Your case for taking on an initiative — and taking it seriously — will be strengthened if you can tie it to the firm's mission, vision, and strategic plan.

How it worked with the three pilot firms: The firms encouraged input from all firm members, both male and female, to deepen understanding of how best to forge the link between the firm's mission, vision, and strategic plan and the initiative.

6. Communicate

Let everyone know about your plans. Encourage excitement and acceptance by highlighting how the program will benefit the entire practice, not just one segment or group, and share as many details about those benefits as possible. In a women's initiative, for example, outreach might include a description of how it will help retain talent, alleviate succession issues, and attract clients who value gender diversity, all of which will contribute to firm profitability and success.

How it worked with the three pilot firms: Each firm communicated program goals to better define what the initiative was about. Examples of goals included:

  • Clear the roadblocks to women's advancement in the firm.
  • Create a culture that makes it easier for all firm members to achieve their professional goals.
  • Improve recruitment and retention of people from the entire talent pool.
  • Strengthen the firm by enhancing the diversity of insights and perspectives at all levels.
  • Better reflect the talent pool and the people leading our clients' businesses.

7. Gather opinions

When you conduct a survey, firm members can provide unexpected and valuable perspectives. They also feel that their opinions are welcome and important to the practice.

How it worked with the three pilot firms: Each firm conducted a firmwide baseline survey, which provided valuable information on retention and advancement as well as on the different perceptions of men and women. Survey results showed that individuals were optimistic about the effort, but they also identified a perception gap between genders. This reinforced the business case for an initiative to help close the gap and better engage women within the firm.

The baseline survey also revealed that many people were not aware of the effort or how it was helping, which identified an added opportunity for the firm to raise awareness about the existing initiative.

8 and 9. Figure out where you're going

After assigning a team to be in charge, gathering data and opinions, and announcing your intentions, it's time to determine what specific approaches will help you meet your goals and what success will look like. Create an action plan that assigns goals and responsible parties.

How it worked with the three pilot firms: Among the firms' key action items were a women's networking group, unconscious bias training, sponsorship programs, and modified work arrangements.

10. Monitor progress and adjust as needed

Good intentions only go so far, which is why it's important to revisit your plans to see if they're on track or need tweaking, and to map out further progress.

How it worked with the three pilot firms: The steering committees have been tasked with monitoring progress for this initiative.

11. Crow about what you've done

Consider ways to promote your efforts within and outside the firm to engage staff and raise awareness of your achievements in the marketplace.

How it worked with the three pilot firms: Actions they have taken include:

  • Discussed the program and its progress at firm meetings and featured it on the firm intranet. This has helped generate questions about the program from employees and demonstrated shareholder support.
  • Highlighted the program on the firm website as part of an overall goal of establishing that the firm is a great place to work.
  • Invited women entrepreneurs to a panel discussion on their experiences to raise awareness of and interest in women's initiatives.

A chance for women to step up: Squire & Company

Jonyce Bullock, CPA, CGMA, the only woman among 16 partners, became managing partner of the 110-person firm in Orem, Utah, in 2018. While her promotion was not a result of the pilot program, "I think the pilot and my promotion helped female employees feel more comfortable saying, 'I want to be a partner,'" she said.

The firm's successes include: The women's initiative has helped to engage the firm's entire talent pool, which has minimized turnover and spotlighted unintentional steps that might have hindered women's advancement. In the past, Bullock said, male leaders might have gotten together with younger male professionals outside of work to play golf, for example, but may not have initiated similar activities with women. Those leaders "now are going out of their way to get to know potential female leaders," she said. They've also begun rethinking their suppositions about women's goals. That includes being "less likely to assume that a promising woman wouldn't want to be on the partner track because she recently had a baby," she said.

Challenges include: Because the initiative is intended to benefit all firm members, the input and participation of both men and women are considered critical. However, if the entire male leadership of the firm attended steering committee or women's programming meetings, they might unintentionally dominate the meetings. As a result, "we invite one or two male partners to a meeting and ask them to serve as supportive mentors," Bullock said.

Lessons learned include: Bullock advised against suspending women's initiatives during busy season, a step her firm considered and ultimately rejected. "I think of busy season as opportunity season, so it's a real chance for women to step up and work on their business development," she said. That opportunity is lost if the program is put on the back burner for half the year.

Maintaining a commitment to the process is also important, she said. "We bring our entire steering committee to the AICPA Women's Global Leadership Summit every year," she said. "We are able to share ideas and then apply what we've learned. It's definitely an investment, but it has paid off for us."


Embracing change: Thomas Howell Ferguson PA, CPAs

The firm Thomas Howell Ferguson PA, CPAs sought balance as it participated in the trial program.

"We wanted to offer a balance that would allow our people to be fully developed team members, not just hour-producing machines," said Winston Howell, CPA, CGMA, managing shareholder of the 82-person, Florida-based firm.

The firm's successes include: A new flexible-hours program allows firm members to start their day anytime between 7 and 10 a.m. and end anytime between 4 and 7 p.m., as long as they are there between 10 and 4. This program was a result of discussions related to the women's initiative, but it is open to all. "It provides a softer start and ending to the day but doesn't change our expectations for an employee's work," Howell said. He reported that it has been very well-received, and it is expected to become permanent. The firm had addressed requests for flexible work arrangements on an ad hoc basis in the past, but "the pilot program challenged us to revisit and formalize our approach," he said.

The firm is also rolling out quarterly networking dinners for female employees. "We've taken an informal approach in the past," said shareholder Allison Harrell, CPA, but the firm wanted a more structured way to enable communication and relationship building among women in the firm.

Challenges include: "Any time you have change, it will be disruptive to some people, if not the entire organization," Howell said. "But one reason we were excited to participate was because we wanted to be challenged culturally. Given what we're seeing in technology, in new approaches to work and client service, as well as in the increasing demands on our team members' time," the firm was ready for change.

Lessons learned include: "Be open to try new things and receptive to new ideas," Howell said. "You may have pushback, but you can approach it in the spirit of cooperation and with the understanding that you're not going to do things the same way. If you're not willing to be creative and innovative, you will be challenged to maintain your team and your clients."


Paving the way to partnership: Gross Mendelsohn & Associates

Gross Mendelsohn, a 120-person firm with offices in Maryland and Virginia, emerged from the pilot program as a better firm, according to managing partner David Goldner, CPA.

"It gave us some new approaches and a foundation to move our leadership development program forward," he said.

The firm's successes include: The firm has created a sponsorship program that will identify promising professionals and match them with senior leaders who will become their advocates. A new set of FAQs and a standardized application will take some of the mystery out of how advancement in the firm works.

The firm does have a partner development tool that identifies and discusses five key attributes of partners, and the new effort actively seeks to provide a clearer path for potential leaders. "It will formalize what we already have and clarify what's required to become a partner," Goldner said. While the partner sponsorship program is not only for women, it was a direct result of the firm's participation in the pilot program. The firm has also added more structure to its flexible work arrangements program. "We've organized and acknowledged our interest in creating workable general guidelines," Goldner said.

Challenges include: The firm has worked hard to address concerns that the program might discriminate against men. The best solution, Goldner believes, is to open new programs to women and men, as the firm has done with its sponsorship efforts, and to be sensitive to any possible perceptions that the overall initiative may be leaving anyone out.

Lessons learned include: Goldner noted the importance of avoiding roadblocks by not getting bogged down in details. In his firm, there was initial excitement about the initiative, but the steering committee spent a long time on its governance document and it experienced some frustration over its progress. "We've gotten to a good place where we are getting specific tasks accomplished, but the effort took some time to develop and materialize," he said.


About the authors

Yasmine El-Ramly, CPA/CITP, CGMA, is senior technical manager—Firm Services & Global Alliances for the AICPA in Durham, N.C. Anita Dennis is a freelance writer based near New York City.


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