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How Accounting Firms Can Develop Top Female Talent

As featured in Money for Lunch

Your firm is profitable and clients are pleased with your work. You have some women in leadership. Why make a concerted effort to bring that percentage higher?

For starters, diverse groups are more effective. They approach problems from different angles, represent alternative perspectives, and increase creative thinking. Since there are few female-majority CPA partnerships, this challenge lies with those who need to add women to their leadership ranks, beyond the token 10-20%.

If recruiting is a major concern for you, look at your female-leadership numbers. When new recruits—half of whom are female—come in, they are more likely to find your culture appealing if they see others “like them” in leadership positions.

Your firm’s culture can play crucial part in your recruiting efforts. Staff will observe leadership’s lifestyle and if they like what they see, you’ll score big points. If they sense that women were unable to balance career and family, they may seek a different job or get out of public accounting altogether.

Here are some ideas on how to help your firm and the profession retain and promote top female talent.

1. Commit. You manage what you measure. Firms that are more involved in measuring progress towards the level of diversity they value are more likely to succeed in these goals.

Consider: What are the percentages of women, and other diverse groups, at different levels. What would you like to change? Set a goal, share it, measure it and watch your diversity shift for the better.

2. Sponsor. All of your top talent needs a mentor, and they also need a sponsor who believes in them. These sponsors will put their benefactors’ names in the ring for advanced projects and development opportunities. Your top talent may need help pairing up with a sponsor, so:

Consider: Who in top leadership has the skills and interest in sponsoring an up-and-coming employee? Does someone at your firm have the skills of match-making: connecting rising professional stars with existing leadership? (Hint, this may be a woman).

3. EducateThe MOVE Project shows that most women leave just before the partner level. One major reason they cited was feeling ill-equipped to take on the business development responsibilities connected to partnership opportunities. It’s amazing that someone can get to be a senior manager and skilled in so many ways but lacks skills (or confidence) to net new clients!

Consider: How are you helping your staff, of any gender, develop their networking and rainmaking skills? Are you doing any of this early on? Are you waiting until they need to be doing it to teach them how? Try role models, shadowing, formal training, and reading, the list of ways to improve these skills is endless of ways. Starting early is essential.

4. Adapt. Priorities shift for women (and men for that matter) as they move from being a new college grad to adding a spouse, children, elder-care responsibilities and other interests outside the office. Show top female talent how their current goals are possible at your organization.

Consider:  How can you keep this talented person and give her the best of both worlds – one where she’s committed to you and her family? What are her other options (and if you think there are none, think again), and how can you position your firm as the best place for her?

CPA firms that want to have a strong future need to pay attention to their efforts to retain top women at their firm. Acting sooner rather than later will give firms a competitive edge over peers who choose to “wait and see.”