Having It All Isn’t Just a Women’s Initiative

I have the privilege of speaking at women’s conferences and working with firms whose leadership teams are committed to further the opportunities for women in the profession. Being a woman, I appreciate the ideas, programs and empathy for women professionals as we balance fulfilling on both personal commitments and professional aspirations. However, I’d like to expand the exploration of the issues that are traditionally associated as “women’s issues” to be more inclusive, because I view them as broader business challenges facing firms today.

Those firms that are addressing these issues for all professionals in their firm differentiate themselves, which results in engaging and retaining their top performers.  It goes without saying, that retaining your best and your brightest develops a path for the future leaders and sustainability for your firm, too.

So, let’s take a page from women’s initiatives and explore four strategies we can employ more broadly to create a culture in our firms that allows everyone to benefit, and ultimately “have it all” – which is what we’re all striving for anyway!

1) Flexibility Programs – Flexibility continues to be a hot button for firms and primarily because every individual defines flexibility differently. I value flexibility and, for me, it is more having the flexibility to attend my son’s Valentine’s party or take my mom to a doctor’s appointment, knowing I will also complete my projects and serve my clients by agreed upon dates.  I work full-time (more than!), so it’s not about “less hours” for me.  For some, though, flexibility is about working a set number of hours or specific days of the week. Firms that are mastering flexible options for their people understand that it’s a one-size-fits-one definition for each team member and an evaluation about whether the program works for the firm, clients and other team members. Review and evaluate how you can embrace these flexibility options by reading my partner Jennifer Wilson’s blog How Flexible Is Your Firm?   Doing so can provide all team members the ability to build meaningful careers while also pursuing other commitments they have, whether it’s to kids, aging parents, sports or other interests.

2) Results Oriented Success Measures – For flexibility programs to be effective, as a profession we have to move away from measuring success based on face time, hours and tenure.  Instead, we must begin to measure performance on predefined goals and the delivery of specific results. Because I commit to a specific result for a client or a fellow team member, with an agreed upon by-when date and defined deliverable, I then have the freedom to manage my schedule to ensure that I fulfill on that commitment.  We have guided many firms  in eliminating mandatory Saturdays during busy season and found that they get all the work done (often sooner than expected).  And, they deliver great client service because firm leaders define the specific expectations for work product, client assignments, and any extenuating circumstances that might require a Saturday or two planned in advance.  Your top performers want to be measured on the results they deliver and not on whether they are doing the work in the office on a Thursday night or are logging in from home Thursday night after they’ve played a game of softball or had dinner with their children.

3) Technology Enablers – As you can see, these issues are a ball of twine and as you start pulling on one string, it unravels another.  Technology enablers need to be in place so your people can be flexible and produce the results for which they committed. It might seem obvious, but we still encounter firms who have not deployed full paperless systems or true remote access for team members.  Some say that they have, but when we poll the managers and staff, they aren’t using remote access because they can’t access all the programs or information needed to do the job or it takes twice as long (or more) to do the work due to system performance issues. When this is the case, your team members don’t feel fully supported to engage in your flexibility programs because they don’t have the tools to efficiently do so. Your young up-and-comers expect to have access to technology that allows them to communicate and work differently than many of us are accustomed to.  If technology is a roadblock to working remotely or “anytime/anywhere,” you’ll not only disengage women, but you’ll run the risk of being perceived as old school by your rising stars who are the future of your firm.

4) Career Path Clarity – Your best and brightest expect to be part of a winning team.  A winning team has a vision for where it is headed and the role of each team member to fulfill on that vision. Foresight is required to be able to look out over the next several years and identify the skill sets, experience, and levels needed in your organization. Future planning is also required to understand what each team member envisions for their career and their role in your firm so that you can then map their goals to the firm’s vision.  This envisioning also includes succession planning for retiring partners or managers, the potential for working parents to slow down their career progression during child rearing years and also the potential to fast track a young up-and-comer beyond more senior members of your team because he or she has special capabilities.  When you assign career advisors who have dedicated time to learn about your people and develop one-size-fits-one career pathing, you will have more success in realizing your firm’s vision.

Assessing how your firm is doing in these four areas is critical to your firm’s surviving the talent shortage just starting to emerge across the country.  We predict (and have been predicting) that we are about to enter one of the toughest recruiting and retention challenges we’ve experienced since 2007.  Women are not progressing as they should in the profession with a significant gap that accounts for over 50% of women in the accounting profession and yet only 21% women CPA firm partners/shareholders according to the AICPA’s Women’s Initiatives Executive Committee. Our Millennials are exploring other options that provide them the flexibility, results-oriented work, access to technology and clear career paths they are looking for. 

Pick one of these strategies to implement (and, yes, you’ll likely find that you’ll make strides in the other three, too, because they are integrated). Start by gaining input from your team (specifically your women and young professionals) through an Employee Advisory Board or an employee survey.  Enroll these same people in developing your plan and executing it!

How are you implementing these strategies to make a difference in your firm? What else does your firm do to help your team members in their quest to have it all? Please post your ideas so we can all benefit – we’d love to hear from you!