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What accounting firm partners need to do every day to advance diverse talent

By Patricia Cummings, CPA .

As Seen In Thomson Reuters

One co-managing partner at a tax and advisory firm spoke about the influence she has in changing the culture of the firm to meet the demands in an industry fraught with disruptive forces.

Patricia (Pat) Cummings joined Citrin Cooperman about five years ago and after hitting the proverbial glass ceiling elsewhere, which is something that drives her commitment to talent and feeds her passion for her daughter.

“I would never want my daughter to follow in my footsteps, or anybody else, for that matter,” Cummings says. “I always felt like I had to work twice as hard compared to my male colleagues to even try to achieve the same recognition.”

Long road to partnership

Like the legal industry, the accounting industry has a long journey to partnership, typically anywhere from ten to 15 years. Cummings admits it is a tough profession with a lot of challenges for women and younger professionals, adding that “13 to 15 years is more realistic before you can finally get into the partnership.” Moreover, she highlights that promotion to partner is in some ways “starting your journey over, because you join the partnership on the lower end of the ranks and have to work your way up the ladder once again.”

One of the accounting industry’s challenges is how to remain flexible and stay current with the evolving needs of a multi-generational workforce. Having observed it first-hand, Cummings says she knows that at a certain point in their careers, women with ambition want to the enter the partnership struggle.

“Many women decide to take parental leave and return to the workforce at a say, 60% or 80% schedule,” she explains. “With less hours, they spend all of their time on client service and billable hours, without the bandwidth to invest time to master the other strategic skills that are going to propel them into the partnership, such as personal-brand building, confidence building, networking, and business development.”

Another barrier that concerns Cummings is the assumptions many firm leaders have about the ambition of their employees who are at the stage in their lives where they’re beginning families and coming from dual-career households. All too often, managers assume that once a person — especially women — have children, they are less ambitious when they return to the workforce and are no longer seeking promotion to executive ranks.

During this time, priorities of professionals with families may shift because they are now managing both their career and family obligations; however, that does not mean they don’t aspire to the C-suite. What it does mean is that they likely will have a career path that is more circuitous and meandering instead of one that is a straight path to the top.

Cummings sees this bias as an absolute structural barrier to change.

“The next generation of leadership is going to do things differently, and it’s okay,” she elaborates. “As partners, we need to adapt to what our people are demanding and to welcome all kinds of people here, whether it’s women or other professionals with different needs.”

Investing for future talent

Cummings also invests her time in influencing peers to create a welcoming culture and environment, especially for the firm’s diverse talent. “Diversity will improve our culture and foster more satisfied employees. Happy employees deliver superior client service,” she says. “This is critical for the firm’s success, because our product is selling our people and their skills.”

It is no secret that among the biggest accounting firms, there is an up-or-out culture. These firms hire thousands of individuals — early-career talent right out of college — who will work for them for two years before the majority move on to other careers. This phenomenon is a challenge for Citrin Cooperman because it is not an up-or-out culture. “The goal is to make our firm one of choice for people who want to be partners or people who want work-life balance, have more of a regular schedule, or a flexible schedule if they wish, but can still make a huge contribution,” Cummings notes.

“One of the accounting industry’s challenges is how to remain flexible and stay current with the evolving needs of a multi-generational workforce."

Citrin Cooperman is experimenting to expand role flexibility and is looking at what law firms are doing to distinguish between partner-track positions and more flexible roles. Cummings explains how a more flexible role at the firm might work. “Okay, we’re hiring you in this partner-track position if you choose it,” she says. “If you don’t want a partner track position, you could be a real, valuable employee and you can take this other track that may make it easier for you to meet other competing demands outside of work.”

To retain high-performing women that are young partners or very close to partner and have decided that they need to step out of the firm because they need to devote a few years to raising their children, Citrin Cooperman works to stay connected to them in several ways, Cummings says, including having them act as independent contractors and inviting them to the firm’s professional education seminars and informal gatherings.

“We are no longer living in a time of the ‘Stepford Wives’ where everyone is expected to assimilate,” she says, adding that she remains focused on creating a culture of belonging, to celebrate differences and ensure everyone feels comfortable bringing their authentic selves to work.

And part of the formula to achieve this goal is the “need to be cognizant that we set people up for success, and that we put people in the right spots to succeed” says Cummings.

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