Newsmaker: First Female Partner at Mazars Weighs in on Diversity Strategy, Tax Changes

By:
Chris Gaetano
Published Date:
Feb 27, 2020

Lisa Osofsky
Lisa Osofsky



Lisa Osofsky, a tax specialist, was Mazars USA’s first female partner and the first female member of its executive board. Having recently spoken at the NYSSCPA’s Women’s Leadership Forum, she is a staunch advocate for diversity and inclusion in the accounting profession. Osofsky took the time, a few days after the forum, to speak with 
The Trusted Professional about the challenges facing women in accounting, as well as her take on the current tax landscape. The Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

What got you interested in the accounting profession? What appealed to you about it?

I was really planning to go into commercial art, but then I took an accounting class, and it just clicked. I loved the content, and I was good at math, so I said, ‘“I think I’ll be an accounting major.” When I first entered the profession, it was more about the numbers, but I never anticipated all the great relationships I would build. I learned over time that it’s actually about the people, and that is what’s kept me interested all of these years.  

You were the first female partner at Mazars. What was it like being the only woman for a while?

It was interesting. When I was elected as a partner in 1996, it was a time when many senior partners in the firm were getting older and ready to retire. I think there was a change in the mindset, not only within our firm but, generally, of women being elevated into leadership positions. So it was a good time to come in, even as the only female partner, because the tides were changing. I would say that, as a result, I always felt comfortable being in a room full of men for business, because that’s what I was used to doing, and I always felt comfortable sharing my opinion, asking questions, participating and engaging in the discussion.  

You are currently the only female member of the firm’s executive board. How is this experience similar to, or different from, the time when you were the only female partner?”

It’s not that different in the sense that, again, I think the culture of the firm was shifting over time. It’s a very collaborative environment, and, as before, I don’t really have any hesitance about being at the table, participating and contributing, because it feels very natural for me. I feel diversity of thought is welcomed on our board, so I feel empowered to share my thoughts and engage with the tough questions and challenges as much as anyone else in the room. 

Many women have been in the similar position of being the only female member of a high-ranking group, whether it be the board or the C-suite or just a management team. What “survival tips” would you have for them?

The experience may be different for everyone, depending on the type of organization and its culture. That being said, having confidence in sharing your opinion, asking questions and challenging things that don’t sound right is important. A lot of women coming up through the ranks think, “If I work hard and put my head down, I’ll get recognized and progress,” but I think you have to occasionally advocate for yourself and the strengths and skills that you bring. You’ve earned that career progression through your skill set and experience and ability to execute. That is why you are there. So be proud of that, be passionate about it and be yourself. 

You are deeply involved with the Women@ Mazars program, which aims to support and educate female leaders at your firm. Many CPA firms have similar groups, initiatives and programs. When deciding how to structure and run your own, what did you want to do differently? 

The difference is in how we think about it. We refer to this as a strategy, not an initiative, because we think it’s important for this to be a long-term part of the core culture we want to build and the principles we value. We structure our approach in a committee format, addressing different aspects of executing the strategy. We have a communications committee, a visibility committee, a champions committee (which is based on geography), a sponsorship committee and a career-life integration committee. Our focus includes an education and awareness series that we hold in our offices, and for remote employees, to raise awareness on critical topics in building gender equity and an inclusive culture. We also want to provide visibility of, and access to, role models, to help retain, develop and elevate qualified women, building diverse teams to enhance the growth of our professionals, as well as the firm. 

During the Women’s Leadership Forum, you mentioned the importance of supporting working mothers in their careers, particularly by ensuring flexibility and encouraging work-life balance. To what degree do you think that the challenges encountered by working mothers can be addressed via firm policies and public policies, and to what degree must they be addressed via culture, by pushing back against negative attitudes and assumptions regarding working mothers?

I think you’re right, in that there is a distinction between individual firm policies, public policies and culture. I believe all those things impact us. When it comes to culture, we work hard at combatting unconscious biases, with respect to working mothers. For example, if a woman just came back from maternity leave, a male partner might not even ask if she wants to be assigned to an out-of-town engagement for Client X because the partner may innocently assume that she doesn’t want to travel, having just had a baby. Maybe she would say no because of that, but maybe she’d love to get away for a week and would be very interested in the engagement and the opportunity it may present for her growth. I think culture is a big part of that. When I look at younger women coming up through our partner ranks today, I think there has been a lot of improvement since I was first a partner. There’s more flexibility and more openness for both women and men. You’ll find that there are a lot of men today who leave early to attend their child’s soccer game or go to a school play. So, culturally, I think that attitudes are starting to shift. There’s more work to do, because many women still struggle with the assumption that even if they’re working, they’re still responsible for taking care of everything at home, too, but there’s definitely been progress, and many more men are sharing in those responsibilities.  

Advocating for gender diversity in the workplace can sometimes lead to difficult conversations with people who either can’t or won’t “get it,” for lack of a better term. Can you share a story of how you were able to convince a colleague of this issue’s importance? And, generally, what advice would you give to someone with a similar colleague?

In my experience, results are the best argument. Some of our more seasoned partners might be used to the old days and the old ways, and are concerned that addressing these issues could hurt the firm’s success. For example, providing maternity leave and flex scheduling for working moms may generate a fear of not getting all the work done. But when you have talented women who take three months off for maternity leave, for example, and then choose to return on a flexible schedule or a part-time schedule—continuing to be an asset to the firm—you demonstrate positive experiences that help to counter those fears. We’ve been able to help our more experienced partners “get it” and understand that it’s not just about seeing someone at their desk late into the night that equates to work getting done. And more professionals are working remotely, making it easier for men and women to stay engaged, whether in the office or at home. 

You’re the leader of the firm’s Private Client Services practice, which concentrates on business solutions and wealth planning for high-net-worth individuals, closely held business owners and their families. How are client engagements in this area different from the typical tax planning, personal financial planning engagement? I imagine these clients must have unique issues and some strong personalities, as well.

It’s certainly different, in the sense that it’s a high-touch, more responsive type of business. We built our practice on being there for clients and acting as their trusted adviser, and they have an expectation of us being super-responsive. 

While a lot of our clients are business owners, we deal more with the individual and family side of things, which is a little different from a typical planning engagement because you’re more ingrained in the family dynamics and all the nonfinancial and nontax aspects that influence their decisions. A big issue, for instance, is addressing the question, “When is it a good idea to talk to your adult children about money, and educate them on just how much money you have and what it means?” 

The children may recognize affluence, but they don’t know the details. And often, financial planning with clients involves having multiple goals—maybe they’re taking care of an elderly parent while they’re also putting several kids through college—and limited resources to achieve them. This can be a challenge, even for affluent families. 

How has the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) changed tax strategy and financial planning in your practice area? What parts of it have impacted your clients the most and why?

One aspect that has influenced our clients in the New York area is the state and local tax deduction cap. 

Many clients weren’t getting the deduction anyway, due to the old alternative minimum tax rules, but there were still plenty of affluent high-net-worth individuals, like executives, with ordinary income who could deduct their state taxes in full, so the $10,000 cap has had a big impact, and has led to some clients moving out of New York and New Jersey to Florida or Texas, where there’s a lower tax rate or even no income tax. 

One thing I find interesting about the TCJA is that it’s the first time, in a long time, where if you specialize in the individual tax area, you need to know a decent amount about the business tax area as well. In the past, there was more separation between the business and individual tax side of things. Obviously, you wanted to be well rounded and understand the big picture, but I think the interaction between the business and individual side is even greater than it used to be. 

Look at the 20 percent pass-through deduction on qualified business income (QBI). Some of our wealthy clients use S corps, and others might be law partners or consultants. How do the QBI rules apply to them individually, based on their business dealings? That connectivity is much greater today.  

Tax accounting, like all the other classic accounting fields, is seeing technology take on more and more routine tasks, freeing people up for larger analytical work—in this case, tax strategy and planning. Do you think that, as time goes on, the stereotypical “I fill in tax returns all day long” aspect of tax practice will be gone completely, in the same way that sending auditors to a warehouse to pull receipts is largely a thing of the past? Or will there always be a place for this area of tax practice?

I think there will always be a place for compliance work, but it’s shrinking. We’re introducing new technologies this year that, even more so than in prior years, autofills data into the returns, so you don’t need lower-level staff keypunching the data. That staff can now be a little more planning- and advisory-oriented, and can be trained in that direction earlier, as opposed to before, where the focus was on compliance first. I think high-net-worth clients will never fill out a postcard for their tax returns, so they will always need advisers, but the focus will be more on how we bring value to the planning side. 

Even today, when looking at where I spend most of my time with clients, it’s not on compliance, but rather, on areas like gift and estate planning, buying and selling property, retirement planning, and those types of services that are more focused on value-add than compliance-oriented. But the compliance will always be a component because we want to reduce their taxes and know how to maneuver through the system. The actual time spent on that, however, will be reduced because of technology. 

How have these technological advances changed what sort of candidates you look for when bringing on new staff? In general, there’s a higher demand for tech savvy and data analytics skills for entry-level candidates. How much is this the case in tax, in particular?

We talk a lot in the industry about hiring more than just accountants. We look at math majors and computer majors, people like that, and I think you’ll continue to see that going forward. The industry may even hire people who don’t have a finance-oriented degree—maybe they studied history or psychology, and so you teach them on the job about the business side of things. But I go back to accounting as a solid foundation because the balance sheet is still very relevant. Despite changes in technology and the evolution of our business, we still make T-accounts and talk debits and credits when trying to solve a problem. I think there will be more and more nonaccounting majors joining our industry over the long term, but the core, in my opinion, will be accounting majors for the foreseeable future. 

 

 

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