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Women’s Leadership Forum Focuses on Workplace Transformation

Chris Gaetano and Ruth Singleton
Published Date:
Mar 1, 2019


KPMG LLP Chief Diversity Officer Michele C. 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, during a public conversation with NYSSCPA President Jan C. Herringer at the Society’s Women’s Leadership Forum, held on Jan. 18 in Manhattan. “Now it’s time for the majority to lean in to understand, support, mentor and grow together.”

The NYSSCPA hosted the Forum, its first ever, as part of its effort to promote diversity and inclusion within the profession and effect change for future generations. With a focus on transforming workplace culture, the forum fostered frank and illuminating discussion on challenging issues, offered invaluable tools and insights for creating a more welcoming environment for women to thrive in, and provided networking opportunities. The brainchild of Herringer, the forum included such sessions as “The Path to the C-Suite: Achieving Success for Yourself and Others” and a keynote address by equal-pay activist Lilly Ledbetter: “Transforming Workplace Culture: My Story." The Society’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee played an integral role in recruiting the speakers and bringing the forum to fruition.

During her conversation with Herringer, Meyer-Shipp said that while the accounting profession has made some strides in terms of diversity (which she defined as “dimensions of uniqueness and difference that 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), progress has been moving 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 let’s not even get started on statistics for women of color—they’re dismal,” she said.

Despite these low figures, Meyer-Shipp 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 “bold initiatives” about how they will, for example, increase female hires by a certain percent, and then go on 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, she added that it cannot be done while completely ignoring retention and promotion. All three are activities that organizations should be focused on if they want to address diversity and inclusion.

Meyer-Shipp 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, she said that it is also important to have a way to strategically and intentionally measure progress in all these areas, not just by 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 at KPMG.

While mentorship is a critical part of career advancement, Meyer-Shipp 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 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 whether they want to promote a young professional’s efforts to other members of the leadership team. “You don’t pick a sponsor—they pick you,” she said. 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.

Several times during her conversation, however, she also stressed the importance of taking ownership of one’s own career, exhorting the attendees to ask for what they want, to raise their hands and let people know what they’re interested in, and indicate that they’re eager to make forward progress, since many people may make assumptions about them otherwise.

“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 me 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 solve 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 can sometimes involve some intensely uncomfortable conversations with senior people, not all of which go well. 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 about what constitutes a good professional. Meyer-Shipp noted that one thing she has found that 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 that 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 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.”

Other conference sessions included the following

“Making Your Case: How to Get the Pay and Recognition You Deserve”

In a discussion moderated by Nadia-Maria C. Matthie, a partner at WithumSmith + Brown, PC, panelists discussed the skills needed when entering a pay negotiation. As the panelists offered their suggestions, and attendees made their own contributions, Matthie wrote down on a poster board a list of “nuggets”—considerations to bring to the table when engaging in a pay negotiation. At the top of the list were “ask for what you want” and  “what is your brand?” meaning understanding and articulating one’s value. Matthie observed that when a candidate is seeking a new job, she is “selling the brand”; when an employee is seeking a raise or promotion, she is “reinforcing the brand.” These two negotiations require different tactics. Other nuggets discussed included making a list of one’s contributions and having it on hand; being prepared; knowing the top of one’s salary range; being calm, collected and confident; and doing compensation research.

On the panel were Patricia Goodwin-Peters, senior vice president–human resources, at Atlas Air, Inc.; Meredith Hauptman, senior human resources manager at Marks Paneth LLP; and Lilly Ledbetter, the plaintiff in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., for whom the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act is named.

“The Difficult, Rewarding Search for Work-Life Integration”

In a session moderated by Rumbi Bwerinofa-Petrozzello, chair of the Society’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee, panelists discussed the need for professionals to take care of their own well-being, while remaining high performers. Panelist Cecilia Tse, a director at PricewaterhouseCoopers, began the session by asking attendees to join in a relaxation breathing exercise. Bwerinofa-Petrozzello then asked the attendees how many had given up exercise, family time or sleep for work. Arguing that there is a “business benefit from work-life integration,” she said, “Unless we’re running our own shop, we have to convince the people who employ us that what is good for us is good for them.” Panelist Sara Appleyard Adams, senior director–communications and marketing at CECP: The CEO Force for Good, said that at her firm, employees aim for “work-life fit,” as balance might not happen. The goal, she said, should be to “start with the idea of a high-performing organization” and then ask employees, “What do you need to stay high-performing?” For everybody, it’s going to be different, she said. “We set guardrails; we didn’t rewrite the employee handbook.”

Tse said that her current role at PwC is helping the firm embark on a firmwide cultural transformation prioritizing well-being. Innovations include adding two daily well-being habits, such as steps goals or putting smartphones away for 30 minutes before bedtime, along with activities like team book clubs. She said that partners and clients can tell the difference when teams engage in these activities. “It isn’t earth-shattering, but they’re basic human fundamentals,” she said.

Networking Lunch with W. Brad Johnson

W. Brad Johnson, a professor of psychology in the Department of Leadership, Ethics, and Law at the U.S. Naval Academy, and a co-author of Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women, spoke about why senior men need to step up to mentor younger women. “If men are not stepping up here, a lot of junior women are not getting mentored.  ... It’s just because guys happen to be in those senior positions.” In companies where males are involved in gender-diversity programs, he reported, 96 percent of women said the company is making progress. When they are not engaged, that number is only 30 percent. Johnson also noted that men often  learn useful information from the junior women they mentor. He then advised that men should not shy away from mentoring women because of the Me Too movement: “If you’re not a predator, you have very little to worry about.  …  Men can be aware of attraction and still have good judgment.” He concluded by saying, “Men need to see diversity and inclusion as part of their leadership brand.”

“Making Mentoring Work”

Thalia S. Smith, a partner at Deloitte, served as the moderator for this panel, which included Johnson along with Jennifer Allyn, diversity strategy leader, gender and LGBT initiatives, at PricewaterhouseCoopers U.S., and Phillip Austin, national assurance managing partner—auditing, at BDO USA LLP. Smith began by saying that research from Harvard Business School revealed that “when women are mentored, they make more money, they receive more promotions, and they find greater satisfaction in the careers that they have.” The panel then discussed what makes a great mentor relationship. Johnson said that in an ideal world, it should have a friendship component, as well as a component focused on the mentee’s career in which the mentor throws down challenges.

Austin said that the mentoring relationship should have “accountable honesty and discipline.” Allyn advised that because there are still few senior women in prominent positions, young women who want mentoring from senior women must be respectful of the time of senior women. Smith summed up some of the advice that the panelists offered: Women should seek out mentors, there doesn’t need to be a limit on the number of mentors, there must be give-and-take relationship, and mentees need to be able to take feedback.

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