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Women as Relationship-Builders: Access Their Influence

Posted on 01-31-2013
Women as Relationship-Builders: Access Their Influence

By Karen Love

As accounting firms aim for stronger relationships with existing and prospective clients, they are relying more on women’s participation at all levels. Companies have learned that supporting the careers of women is good strategy – one that can help them win and retain more clients.

Great strides have been made by women in many of our client companies, so they expect to see women in leadership positions at their accounting firm. Clients want to know their CPA firm is looking out for them, with connections and resources that add value to the relationship. Women provide a unique perspective on client pursuits and engagements.

When your firm is in a competitive situation, you’ll have an advantage if your community outreach efforts include women from all levels of your firm. Their visibility helps your clients and prospective clients get to know your company and form a favorable opinion of your brand.

Public accounting is all about relationships, says Monica Zumo, CPA, managing partner at Hannis T. Bourgeois, LLP in Baton Rouge, LA. “Many women are very good at relationship-building, which makes them adept at developing new clients and retaining existing clients for their firms.” Women now make up half of the workforce at HTB, and six of its 17 partners are women. Zumo says the 50:50 ratio of women to men is fairly standard in the industry now, and represents a major shift since she began her career in 1979.

The value of my own relationship-building in the community came into play just recently. A client I had worked with side-by-side in an organization for women executives went to bat for us when her company nearly switched accounting firms. Because the female executive saw tremendous value in our relationship—beyond the services of our CPA firm—she influenced her company’s decision and we kept the account.

“Stereotypically, women are better known for their relationship skills and collaborative nature,” agrees Sheri Roberts-Updike. As vice president and general manager for Tyco Valves and Controls, she runs an $850M global P&L. “As one moves up in the organization, the skills required are human capital- and relationship-based, more than technically-based. Having a deep pool of female candidates in succession for senior roles can aid in better decisions, collaboration and high performance.”

Women account for $7 trillion in consumer and business spending (source: GirlPowerMarketing.com). It makes sense for professional service firms to mirror this immense buying power within their corporate structure.

Women Prove Their Value

Solid evidence supports the value of women on the team. Catalyst research published in March 2011 contends that companies that achieve diversity and manage it well attain better financial results than other companies. The report measured return on sales (ROS), return on invested capital and return on equity. Previous studies in the Catalyst series also made a connection between gender diversity on corporate boards and financial performance. Companies with the most women board directors outperform those with the least on ROS by 16 percent.

“It’s good for business, as the statistics show – it is not just a social issue anymore,” says Suzan Deison, founder and president of the Greater Houston Women’s Chamber of Commerce. “The key point is not that women are better than men, it’s that women bring a different perspective to the table.”

The Chamber is one of many organizations supporting the national 2020 Women on Boards campaign to increase the percentage of women directors on U.S. public company boards to 20 percent or greater by 2020. The campaign presents an excellent opportunity for women in accounting firms—especially CPAs—because both for-profit and non-profit boards are seeking to fill leadership positions with qualified women. Serving on a non-profit board can be a bridge to a corporate board role, because those roles are most frequently filled through relationships.

Overcoming Old Thought Patterns

Women in the accounting field still have some barriers to overcome. We have to move beyond the archaic concept that women are enemies of one another. Women may be pitted against one another in popular TV show plots, but that doesn’t reflect the majority of women in the business world.

In the words of Gloria Vanderbilt, “I’ve always believed that one woman’s success can only help another woman’s success.” So I encourage women in the accounting profession to seek one another out and ask how they can help one another be more successful. They’ll realize that they can be stronger professionally and personally when they support one another and work together for the same cause.

“When women—especially younger professionals—find a good mentor or role model to help them along the way, that relationship can help them progress faster in their careers,” says Zumo. “The mentor need not be within their own firm.”

Define a Strategy for Women Companywide

It’s not enough to hire women and pay them well. Accounting firms need to be strategic about supporting the careers of women from entry level to partner level.

It’s important for firms to support women as they build a professional network beyond the office. Strategic community service is a powerful route to career development that is particularly relevant to women, reports the 2012 Accounting MOVE Project Building Careers and Communities: How Strategic Community Service Advances Women in Public Accounting. The report found that community service reaps the best results when integrated with strategic firm goals, and that it can amplify talent development through collaboration with nonprofit leadership programs.

What does that look like in practice? First, we help every team member assess their strengths using The Birkman Method® personality testing and other tools. Then we look at needs in the community that match those strengths.

To make this work in your firm, pay attention to the interests and strengths of the women in your midst, then look for “touch points” in your community where they can make a difference. For example, Sonia Freeman, CPA, Audit practice leader for PKF Texas, served a term as president of the Women’s Finance Exchange of Houston. Though there were competitors in the group, Sonia earned the respect of the membership, and multiple referrals came as a result of being an engaged leader. To replicate this kind of success, Sonia’s team members turn to the Practice Growth group when they need assistance finding roles on boards or using their skills in women-focused events.

Positioning women in community service roles fits our company’s philosophy of using our people’s strengths—inherent and learned—to help them advance personally and professionally. “What we work toward every day is reinventing ourselves,” says PKF Texas President Kenneth Guidry. “We want to demonstrate competence, regardless of gender, because that’s what our clients expect. We encourage every member of the firm, from entry level to partner level, to remain essential and relevant to the firm by using all of their talents and skills.”

Maximize Women’s Influence

  • Hire to fit the culture.
  • Mentor for positions of greater responsibility and leadership.
  • Devise career path all the way up to partner.
  • Incorporate local outreach/volunteer leadership into job descriptions.
  • Include accountability and budget responsibility.
  • Report and celebrate “wins” and success stories organization-wide.
  • Be bold.

Karen Love is director of Practice Growth for PKF Texas Contact her at 713.860-1400 or klove@pkftexas.com.