Michele Meyer-Shipp: Women ARE Leaning In. Now We Need Allies to Lean In

Chris Gaetano
Published Date:
Jan 18, 2019

KPMG Chief Diversity Officer Michele Meyer-Shipp said that achieving diversity and inclusion in the workplace "is a marathon, not a sprint," noting that women, and men of color, have been leaning in for years, and now it is time for everyone else to lean in to meet them. 

"I say, as a woman of color, we lean in every day in the workforce. We have to figure out how to navigate the world and are often uncomfortable," she said, speaking in a conversation with NYSSCPA President Jan C. Herringer at the NYSSCPA's Women's Leadership Forum, held Jan. 18 in Manhattan. "Now it's time for the majority to lean in and understand and support and mentor and grow together." 

Meyer-Shipp said that while the accounting profession has made great strides in terms of diversity (which she defined as "dimensions of uniqueness and difference we all bring to the table") and inclusion (which she said is what we do with the power of that diversity when we bring everyone together), that progress has been at a "snail's pace." She noted, in particular, that while half of all accounting graduates, and 61 percent of working accountants overall, are women, only about 20 percent are partners. 

"And lets not even get started on statistics for women of color—they're dismal," she said. 

Despite these low figures, she said it is better that organizations spend the time to get this issue right the first time, noting that imposing hastily-assembled programs and initiatives will not work without a receptive culture. 

"While I get frustrated that we still have so much work to do, I know if we try to do this in a way that is not strategic and that's rushed and that's not authentic, then it won't be sustainable," she said. 

Some organizations, she said, will put out these "bold initiatives" about how they will, for example, increase female hires by a certain percent, and then follow this with a hiring spree with the express goal of "putting butts in seats," but if the environment is not ready to receive those people and put serious resources into supporting their professional development, "they leave, and we're right back where we started." While recruitment is certainly a major part of the issue, it cannot be done while completely ignoring retention and promotion. All three are things that organizations should be focused on if they want to address diversity and inclusion. 

In so doing, she stressed the importance of organizations setting realistic aspirational goals, instead of bold initiatives, in the realms of recruitment, retention and promotion—and moving with the intent of finding talent in traditionally underrepresented areas. Beyond intentions, though, it is also important to have a way to strategically and intentionally measure progress in all these areas, not just hiring, "because what often happens is people hire, hire, hire but people don't stay and grow." 

"Don't just tell me you want me to come here, but when I get here I'm not put on teams, I'm not taken to the best assignments. Don't do that," she said. 

These efforts should also be backed up with data, such as through employee opinion surveys, which she said are critical in understanding what workers are experiencing. She said she makes it a point to see all such surveys in KPMG. 

On the other hand, while mentorship is a critical part of career advancement, she has found that arrangements set up by formal in-house programs are sometimes less effective than ones developed through a more informal organic process. She said that people entering the profession are excited to have mentors, colleagues who "can talk to them and help navigate their career, who can show them the ropes of the politics of navigating the firm, who can help when they have a challenge and don't know how to manage it." But sometimes more formal programs don't always bear fruit. 

"Some organizations have formal mentorship programs that are firmwide, and some firms have informal mentoring programs. We have a blend of both. There's no magic bullet. With the formal programs sometimes you can force a match and it doesn't work. And in more informal programs, you might end up with a more successful organic relationship," she said. 

Not that formal programs have no value. One thing she said she has seen bearing good results has been "reverse mentoring" whereby junior professionals mentor senior ones in order to give the senior leaders "a line of sight into things they don't know they didn't know they're missing." She said she launched such a program at her previous firm, and while there was much skepticism at first, after a six-month pilot, leadership hailed it as a success. 

"When they came back to the table to debrief, they shared with us how much they learned from the experience, how much they figured out what they didn't know was going on in the middle of the organization, about issues that junior talent was having in the organization. By the time they finished talking about the experience, every member of the management committee wanted a mentor," she said. 

She drew a distinction between mentorship and sponsorship, which she said can be "a little more dicey." Sponsors do not counsel, and some young professionals may not even know they have a sponsor, but sponsors watch what new talent can do and decide themselves ("you don't pick a sponsor, they pick you") whether they want to promote a young professional's efforts to other members of the leadership team. She said that, when she worked in finance, she herself didn't even know she had a sponsor until she was called in by the CEO, who told her that two people had been watching her and were very impressed, and then asked if she wanted to be chief diversity officer. While she said that some organizations have formal programs to match people with a sponsor, she has generally been more skeptical of them, compared to formal mentorship programs. 

"You can try to assign a sponsor, but I don't know if that works, though, because leaders naturally and organically work with an encounter and see people do things you can't necessarily plan. Getting this role at Prudential, I didn't ask for this role, I didn't apply for it, I joined all the firm resource groups and was leading efforts as an employment lawyer. ... What I didn't know was someone was watching me," she said. "That's how it happens. No one could have assigned randomly two people to me."

But several times during her conversation, she also stressed the importance of taking ownership of one's own career, exhorting people to ask for what they want, to raise their hand and let people know what they're interested in and indicate that they're eager to make forward progress, as many people may make assumptions about them otherwise. She noted that, when she was in a succession planning meeting as CDO in Prudential, all the leaders were sitting around a table thinking of who should fill a vacant position. Someone raised the possibility of one woman, and that person's boss said the candidate had just had a baby and he didn't want to burden her with the new position. Meyer-Shipp knew that shouldn't really be a barrier, and waited to see if someone else brought up the matter. When no one did, she spoke up, and asked whether anyone had thought to ask the person being considered what she wanted.

"Because I can tell you something, as a mom of three kids, I was ready to stay home after the first one, but after the next two, send me on a trip! I said [it in those terms] to lighten it a little and not be so harsh, and one of the other leaders said 'good point,' and [the woman] got the job," she said. "We have to let people know what we want and we have to ask so there's no misunderstanding or assumptions. We've got to own our own careers," she said. 

Sometimes, she conceded, this involves making hard choices. Drawing from her own life, she said she worked at a large law firm for years, but as her family grew, she was finding it difficult to maintain the long hours her job at the time demanded. She went to one of the partners and candidly explained her situation, to which he replied with similar candor that success in the firm meant being there all the time, so it sounded like she had a hard decision to make. "It was painful to hear that," Meyer-Shipp said, "but I was glad I was told." She began networking and eventually found her way to a medium-sized firm that had a much better work-life balance. Yet, as the years passed, that same firm wanted her to be partner, which was not what she wanted. She said she had a conversation where it was made clear that "it was either partner or out, and I said, "OK, it's time to go." She stressed the importance of candor, though, because sometimes it turns out there is a solution to one's problems that do not involve leaving the organization. 

"One thing to do, don't ever leave an organization until you really are candid and transparent with your leader on what's going on with you," she said. "I have had so many leaders at KPMG say to me, 'If only this person would have come to be before they left to tell me they needed more flexibility or that they needed a different account assignment, but they don't even tell me.' ...  You have to tell your leader to give them a chance to help you solution it."

On the other hand, she also emphasized the importance of training leaders to understand the problem and what needs to be done, particularly through formal training sessions. She said this sometimes can involve some intensely uncomfortable conversations with senior people, not all of which go well. She said that she had a 90-minute call the previous night with the firm's chief learning officer, for example, on inclusive leadership and what it looks like. She said that leaders tend to want to engage on this topic but don't always know what they need to do. She realized early on that she can't assume that senior leaders understand, so "we have to teach them, give them tools, give them tips, and we're working on it in our firm." Part of this, she said, is also convincing them that they need to exit their own comfort zone. 

This also means convincing leaders to reassess their opinions on what constitutes a good professional. She noted that one thing she has found is different in the accounting profession is how utterly nonstop it is, saying she has been living out of a suitcase for months. She said leaders need to figure out how to work smarter, not harder, because this current model of long hours is simply not sustainable in the long term. Work-life balance needs to be taken seriously for the sake of everyone, both men and women. 

"I had a man say to me, 'I love this firm and this work, but I don't know if this is sustainable for me; my wife and I want to start a family, and I want to be a part of that, and I don't know if I can do that as an accountant, assigned to clients and moving from one place to another,'" she said. "Work-life integration is a huge issue impacting not just women but men, people who not only have kids but those trying to care for other personal needs, for other family members."

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