Last year, I had the pleasure of speaking at the first AICPA Women’s Global Leadership Summit, a sold-out conference that offered women the chance to enhance their skills and network with other current and aspiring leaders in the profession. Among the participants was Melody Schneider, a CPA practitioner from a small firm in Fairbanks, Alaska, who is a member of the PCPS Executive Committee and a passionate spokeswoman for the profession. This edition of Small Firm Solutions will feature excerpts from an ongoing dialogue we’ve had since the Summit on women in the profession.
This is a critical concern for firms because the business case for addressing these issues is so strong. Since roughly 50% of those entering the profession are women, firms can’t afford to miss out on making the best use of half the talent pool. If they do, they may not be able to create the kinds of sustainable growth and succession planning models that are the foundation of viable exit strategies. Also, as competition for talent heats up, firms must be able to attract a diverse group of professionals who look like the marketplace and have the skills and perspective to meet client needs in a fast-changing business environment. In addition, an entrepreneurial spirit is an asset for all professionals, whether they are venturing into their own firms or spearheading projects as a member of a practice.
Jim: At the Summit last year, I used my speaking opportunity to discuss ways to articulate your value as a CPA and to be confident about the value that you bring to your clients. Why do you think this is a challenge for CPAs and women in particular?
Melody: During the Summit, I met many women with drive, entrepreneurial spirit and great vision. Women should be aware that they possess inherent talents that make them very strong leaders, especially when it comes to financial matters. Women have been running households forever, however it was somewhat behind the scenes. For example, in my family, my grandfather made the income, but my grandmother balanced the checkbook and paid all the bills. Because my grandmother managed the finances and household budget, my grandfather was lost when it came to their daily financial matters. Women continue to be key financial leaders in their own families and they should recognize and embrace their skills, strengths and talents. This is especially true in today’s world as more and more females are substantially contributing to the family’s income.
Jim: How can women begin to think about articulating their value?
Melody: Women should recognize the importance of the skills that they bring to the table. Most accountants like and understand numbers, but there are so many emotional factors associated with financial matters and this is a great opportunity for women to meet clients on a more emotional level and create a lasting bond. When I started out in the profession, many people actually considered communication on an emotional level with clients as frivolous. Especially as a younger staff member, if you spent time talking to clients and trying to understand their financial pain points, that was seen as a waste of time, not an opportunity to strengthen the client relationship. Even today, firms often put the majority of their energies into developing strong technicians and provide little guidance on communication and relationship building techniques. Then firms later wonder why no one is ready or prepared to take on a leadership position. So, one key first step would be for both women and firms to acknowledge the many attributes that are required to be a successful leader.
Jim: What about women and entrepreneurship?
Melody: My own firm is undergoing a partnership transition and I’ll be a sole proprietor by the end of the year. That’s a big change, but I’ve decided that if I’m true to my business beliefs and ensure that my clients and employees understand my value, I’ll continue to thrive. Today, I see many young CPAs with tremendous entrepreneurial potential and they simply need to clearly set their goals and expectations and reach toward leadership roles within their small firms. I think that women have proven themselves to be well suited to run a business—whether it’s a household or within a practice. They should not be reluctant to take on that role and to actively seek out leadership opportunities.
Jim: You mention staying true to your beliefs. I think that understanding and expressing our business beliefs is very important. As author Leo Pusateri notes in his book, You Are the Value: Define Your Worth, Differentiate Your CPA Firm, Own Your Market, one’s business beliefs express where we’ve been, where we’re headed, what we’ve learned and the unexpected events that have affected us. They can help us and our current and prospective clients understand what we stand for and what we have to offer. What have you concluded about your own business beliefs?
Melody: My number one belief is that I’m valuable and can provide value to clients. I want to connect with clients, do great work for them and eliminate the stress that can be created by financial issues.
Jim: What about the importance of mentoring?
Melody: I was fortunate when I started into the profession to have a mentor see my potential and to continue as a mentor throughout my career. In fact, I’ve had both male and female mentors and role models throughout my entire career, but I didn’t always recognize them as such and I didn’t understand the benefit they could bring to my career. Even today, I find myself consistently looking to them for assistance, support, to share ideas or to ask questions. I wish I had recognized the potential benefit of those relationships when I first graduated college. Instead, I thought that relying on other people might make me seem weak and I wanted people to know I could pull my own weight. I would urge young professionals who are first entering the profession to recognize how valuable it is to build those resources, within and outside their firms. Luckily for me, other people knew I could use mentoring and jumped in to provide it. However, sometimes young women aren’t sure whom to ask or how to ask for mentorship, but I urge them to keep seeking and keep asking because finding a connection with a good mentor is certainly worth it.
Jim: How would you sum up your advice to women CPAs in small firms?
Melody: Whatever challenge you’re facing, recognize your strengths as both a woman and a leader and have confidence in your ability to help clients achieve success.
James C. Metzler, CPA.CITP, CGMA, is AICPA vice president, small firm interests. Have questions for Jim? Contact him at email@example.com or 212/596-6039. Also find tools, tips and resources on this topic at the Women in the Profession section on the AICPA website.