There have been times when I would have felt fortunate to be the only man in the room. This wasn’t one of those times.
Last October I was privileged to attend the AICPA Women’s Global Leadership Summit. I had gotten word from one of my partners who attended the previous year that I would be in the minority. He wasn’t kidding. With close to a thousand women from all over the country, there were five male attendees. Actually, there were more male speakers than male attendees.
If you haven’t had the opportunity to attend (and if you’re a male, I am betting you haven’t) the conference is designed to address the obstacles women face and build skills that will help overcome those obstacles. Applicable to women? Sure, but the brochure definitely said that men in leadership positions should attend, and actually attending the conference convinced me that was true.
At HORNE, like most CPA firms, we hire about equal numbers of men and women graduates each year. Everyone has an “equal” shot – but if that is really true, why do men hold the lion’s share of leadership positions in CPA firms?
Traditional thinking has attributed the problem to things like starting a family, excessive travel, and long hours, to name a few. But if those were really the reasons, we should have solved the problem long ago. In fact, these are only the tip of the iceberg. The real reasons are much harder for leadership to see and require solutions that are very difficult to implement.
We don’t actively put up barriers to advancement for women and minorities – but we don’t have to, because the playing field is already far from level. The barriers are already there and have been for decades. It is a self-perpetuating problem – for male leadership it is really hard to see the issues and the solutions aren’t attempted or don’t stick - which creates more male leadership. The conference I attended was a great venue not only for women to learn how to advance in a “man’s world” but to help male leaders contribute to a real solution.
So why was HORNE only one of five firms with a male leader attending the conference?
Several years ago we started conducting a series of surveys and team meetings to help us understand how we could tweak our culture to enhance our work experience. It turned out we needed more than a “tweak.” We found that many people did not feel a true sense of belonging at HORNE. Others encountered barriers that held them back. We had a lack of diversity and our culture didn’t match what Millennials wanted.
Firm leadership took this news very seriously, and we knew that we had lots of work ahead or risk an erosion at the core of our firm. Most firms would realize the same thing and act on the need for change. But HORNE added two components that many firms don’t – commitment and persistence.
Commitment that started with our executive partner who kept at it until the partner group understood the problems and were also committed to change. We committed substantial time and resources that ultimately convinced all of us that we were serious about making big strides to address the issues we knew we had. Persistence meant never slowing down – pushing for solutions constantly, even during the busiest of times.
We began down an intentional pathway with clear goals and leaders who are held accountable to the results. Belonging at HORNE, our beBetter teams, unrivaled work flexibility, and the creation of focused resources and relationships for women and minorities have committed our firm to becoming what we call the Wise Firm. A firm where we have a strong sense of belonging and values, where our team members have the flexibility to progress in untraditional ways and where we take active, innovative steps to diversify and increase the success of women and minorities in leadership roles.
We will never get to perfection – but we must be persistent and committed to making progress every day. That is why I attended the Women’s Global Leadership Summit and it’s why HORNE leadership has attended every year since its inception. If our male leaders aren’t as committed to having women in leadership positions as women are, we will never make the strides that we must make. So I ask, where are all the men?
Next month, HORNE’s Executive Partner Joey Havens and Healthcare Partner Kathy Watts will serve on a panel at the same conference that Robert attended in 2014. Four additional team members also will be attending, two of which are men. Learn more about the 2015 Women’s Global Leadership Summit here.
About the Author
Robert Alexander serves HORNE on the board of directors. He returned from the 2014 Women’s Global Leadership Summit and bravely shared his experience. HORNE continues to send both men and women to this annual meeting, even with so few men in the room.