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The Bottom Line: Irrelevancy Is Our Future If We Keep This A “Women’s Issue”

By Joey Havens

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Recently, I served on a panel discussing sponsorship and advocacy at the AICPA Women’s Global Leadership Summit.  In this blog, I will share some of what I shared with the women (and a few brave men) who attended this exciting, informative and motivating meeting. 

The bottom line, to which we accountants like to refer, is that without diverse leadership, we will not be relevant or be able to compete in the future.  We cannot continue to lead or be relevant while competing with less than half the talent leading our firms and teams.  We are not retaining nor advancing enough women leaders and we are not attracting, growing or retaining enough minority leaders. 

And this is not a “women’s issue.”

Instead, it is a huge issue for our profession and our individual firms.  Women leaders are central to many of the solutions for our problems, but it will take everyone understanding what a significant threat this is to our ability to compete going forward.

Everyone is always interested in the business case, and I appreciate that.  But the business case is easy: with the continued loss of women leaders, minority leaders and in general lots of talented people, we cannot continue to grow.  Sustainable growth is not possible with this severe people drain.  Exceptional client service will not be sustainable as we will not have the diverse ideas and creativity to compete with other organizations.  Succession, which is already at a crisis stage, is non-existent in many roles due to lack of women and minority leaders to help fill the gaps.  In addition, when our profession and firms do not mirror the demographics of where we live and who we serve, it becomes even more difficult to recruit the best people. 

If we take a windshield view, it’s easy to see how the generational changes in the workforce, personal values and how people want to work is under transformation.  How we manage teams and people in the future will be very different than it has been for the last 25 to 50 years.  Everything about how we work, live and communicate is demanding new skills or skills that we have not shown as past strengths.  I believe that our future success screams for many of the strengths so often found in women leaders. Collaboration, Connection, Creativity, Focus, Organization, Competence, and maybe most importantly HEART. We need more heart in our profession and in our firms. 

We know that surveys show over and over again that women and minorities have less information on how to advance. They have a lesser sense of belonging which leads to other choices for career options. They have less access to key decision makers and are less likely to have a sponsor or advocate who is promoting their career. They are less likely to feel empowered to ask for opportunities or to manage the integration of their career and life. They are not playing on an equitable playing field. 

And there’s something else. Unintentional bias, or as some refer to it as unconscious bias, is a cancer that continues to plague our profession and firms. I know from my own learning in bias educational sessions, group and individual meetings, as well as from experiences within our firm, this bias cancer is just as deadly and destructive as intentional bias. Perhaps more so. This bias too frequently leaves women and minorities without adequate information, access, connection or opportunities to be part of leadership.

I believe if we can become firms and a profession where sponsorship and advocacy is a way of life, intentional, purposeful and available to all team members, we will make a difference in our future and in many lives. Initially, sponsorship and advocacy will likely have to be very intentional with a vision for becoming who we are as one of our core values. Sponsorship is the intentional helping of team members with interventions, advocacy, knowledge, connection, access, caring and an equitable playing field. 

Josh Bersin recently wrote in his findings that although we have had many programs and initiatives over the last 20 years for promoting women and minorities, overall the needle remains largely unchanged.  Most of these programs and initiatives have not been effective. This could be related to the fact that it is not easy to do. As a program or initiative, it is too easily dismissed as something that will pass rather than this is who we are. Living sponsorship and advocacy is critical to our future success. It’s hard because it requires leaders to be very vulnerable and it stretches comfort zones.  It’s hard because it takes time and we are all busy. It’s hard to ignore that this activity also takes away from the traditional success factors that are always measured like chargeable time, utilization and realization. 

It’s a big challenge and hard work but it’s worth it. Sponsorship and advocacy makes everyone in the organization better. I served in our first pilot for sponsorships with a woman senior manager and she has grown me more than I care to share. She has made me a better person and a better leader. I have taken great joy in knowing her personally, understanding her fears, challenges and most of all, her dreams.  Everyone needs a sponsor or sponsors at different times during their career. 

I know from my own sponsorship experience as well as interacting with all of the women leaders at the AICPA Women’s Summit that our profession has some great women leaders ready to lead. They need more than a seat at the table; they need a voice that is heard. We have a pipeline of strong women that we need to prioritize with sponsorship, advocacy and challenge. And yes, I was scared to death on that stage, but a future with less than half the talented people on our team is even scarier. 

Our bottom line is irrelevancy if we are not compelled to put this on the right track.