Resilience lessons for women accountants

By Cheryl Meyer

Women made up 59.7% of all accountants and auditors and 52.6% of financial managers in the United States in 2020, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. This kind of trail blazing requires resilience.

Three accomplished women shared their experiences and trials in a recent webinar titled “Forging the Path: Women in the Accounting Profession,” which was sponsored by the AICPA Women’s Initiatives Executive Committee and the National Commission on Diversity and Inclusion. Moderated by Adrienne Davis, CPA, financial adviser at Northwestern Mutual, topics included mentors, continual learning, and dealing with challenges, among others.

Learn from setbacks and successes, and have fortitude

All professionals deal with ups and downs, and that was certainly the case for Tifphani White-King, principal and national tax practice leader at Mazars in New York City. One of her worst career moments, she recalled, was losing her first client. After debriefing her client and sharing that information with her team, her firm was able to "leverage some of those points to win some new work in the space," she said during the webinar.

In contrast, her brightest moment was one she had prepared for and craved: making partner. "I've had that goal from walking in the door day one," she noted. Her dad was her most ardent champion, telling her through the years to "remember the P,” she said.

Years ago, Pflugerville, Texas-based Selene Benavides, CFO at the Association of Latino Professionals for America (ALPFA Inc.), was at a crossroads in her career as to what to do next, but her transition to CFO for an organization she was passionate about ultimately emerged from that stressful decision-making time. "The one milestone that catapulted my career was probably taking a leap of faith from the corporate world," she said during the webinar. "That opportunity gave me the title and responsibilities to open more doors."

Meanwhile, Sandra Wiley, shareholder and president of Manhattan, Kan.-based Boomer Consulting Inc., which services public accounting firms, relayed her trepidation years ago when she was asked by the AICPA to speak about performance management to managing partners.

"I was not confident at all," Wiley said during the webinar. "The topic I was good with; the audience, not so much." But the audience, she concluded, responded favorably to her speech, and in the end, that built her confidence. Today she is a sought-after speaker at national conferences and a noted book author.

Wiley also prides herself on getting a college degree while working and being a single mom. She advises other women not to be self-limiting but to go after what they want. "For me it's about balance, and it's about fortitude and making yourself go forward," she said. "Work on that internal fortitude you have, and you'll be great."

Live by your words and principles

Fortitude is important for women in business, who often must juggle work and family. But Benavides also embraces discipline and tenacity. "Everything in front of me is considered an opportunity," she stated. She also subscribes to simplicity and keeping things straightforward. "Life is already too complicated, with too many variables that we can't control, so why make it more difficult?" Benavides said.

White-King said she lives by the creed to be "grateful and thankful,” and she exudes gratitude and indebtedness in her daily interactions with clients, her team, and anyone she encounters. Money and compensation, she noted, are not the be-all and end-all. "What really means the most to people, I believe, is feeling appreciated and really just saying the words, 'thank you,' and being grateful for your teams and for each other," she said.

Find a mentor, be a mentor, pay it forward

Gratitude and thankfulness come easy to White-King, especially when referring to Robert Stricoff, her longtime mentor. Stricoff, who recently retired, hired her as an intern at Arthur Andersen and later brought her with him to Deloitte. During the webinar, she noted that Stricoff pulled her into meetings to observe and learn, with clients' approval, and this experience helped her move up the ranks and gain knowledge on how to lead. "It was great, really, to have those whispers in my ear along the way," she said.

Wiley is similarly appreciative of her steadfast mentor Gary Boomer, shareholder and visionary strategist at Boomer Consulting. But she has also been aided by other people throughout the years, including her high school counselor; her first woman supervisor, who taught her to stay professional and keep emotions in check; and her coach, Shannon Waller, who helps keep her grounded.

"I have had people who have entered my life at exactly the right time," Wiley said. "And all of those people were intentional in my life, and I'm forever grateful for them." Today, Wiley enjoys helping others and paying it forward, but she offered this advice: "You can be that person for somebody else in your life, but it's got to be an intentional act."

Continue to learn

Learning also has to be intentional, "even if it's just reading an article or blog, or watching a TED talk,” Wiley said. She strives to learn something new every day and enjoys reading books by authors John C. Maxwell and Jim Collins, among others.

White-King, meanwhile, reads motivational books by Joel Osteen and most recently read Michelle Obama's Becoming with the Mazars book club. A new mom whose son has made appearances on Zoom calls, White-King also advises working mothers to read -— with their children — Vashti Harrison's books, which give short biographies of accomplished people in history.

Benavides's most recent favorite reads are Captivating, a book by John and Stasi Eldredge, and Daring Greatly, by Brené Brown. Captivating, she said, taught her "about being a woman and allowing myself to be vulnerable at times." Benavides also stressed the importance of staying relevant via reading, listening to podcasts, or getting a mentor.

"Dig deep, understand yourself, know yourself, and stay true to your core," she said.

For more resources to retain and advance women in the profession, visit aicpa.org/womenlead.

— Cheryl Meyer is a freelance writer based in California. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Sabine Vollmer, a JofA senior editor, at Sabine.Vollmer@aicpa-cima.com.

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