Starting a CPA Firm

Starting my CPA firm was one of the best and scariest things I have done. As a numbers person I kept running the numbers over and over again in many different ways, but of course the fear was still there. A lot of business owners tell you that they had no idea what they were getting into when they started their companies, but as CPAs (especially if you have had a firm management role), you know exactly what you are getting into. That is what makes is scarier. It is very likely going to be working harder for less money for a while. But at some point, I just had to do it. Of course there are good days and bad days, and sometimes is it hour by hour rollercoaster ride. At the end of the day, I am so happy that I did it; I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

Danielle Supkis Cheek, D. Supkis Cheek, PLLC (founded 2013)

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Starting a women’s initiative at your firm

Focused support can help retain valuable female employees.

by Sarah Elliott, CPA

According to AICPA statistics, women have represented about 50% of new accounting bachelor’s and master’s graduates hired by CPA firms since 2000. But women account for only 19% of partners in CPA firms nationwide. As evidence continues to grow for the business imperative of women’s progress within the profession, many firms are embracing the idea of a women’s initiative. Women’s initiatives are programs intended to help women attain leadership positions through strategies such as mentoring, networking, training, and development.

If you’re interested in launching a women’s program at your firm, but aren’t sure where to start, take inspiration and ideas from a firm that recently launched its own.

Holtzman Partners, one of my coaching clients, is an audit, tax, and advisory firm in Austin, Texas, with approximately 50 employees. Managing partner Chris Perkins felt that the firm needed a women’s program given that it has a high-performing group of women managers and senior managers, but only male partners.

“I wanted to make sure this talented group of folks had just as much chance to make partner as any man,” he said. “If there were issues we, as men, didn’t know existed, we wanted access to any gating factors so that we could knock them down.”

The Holtzman Partners Women’s Initiative (HPWI)’s mission is to support women’s professional development and communicate the potential for upward mobility for all women throughout the firm. As the HPWI rounds out its inaugural year, its programming has included four key components: (1) firm-sponsored quarterly events; (2) a monthly book club; (3) encouraged attendance at local women’s networking events; and (4) monthly circulation of articles that focus on matters of interest for professional women.

The quarterly events have ranged from internal women’s events featuring external experts speaking on topics such as work/life balance, business development, and networking as a woman, to larger, external events, such as a social mixer with women in leadership roles within the local business community.

The monthly book club, currently open to all women and partners of the firm, features discussion of a book, at a manageable pace of one chapter per month, over breakfast, lunch, or coffee. As they wrap up the first book, Nice Girls Still Don’t Get the Corner Office, by Lois P. Frankel, Ph.D., HPWI members are looking forward to opening up the monthly book club to all members of the office, including seeking their input on its next book choice.

Women at Holtzman Partners report that the HPWI is helping them reach their personal and career goals. When asked about the most valuable aspect of the program to her, audit senior manager Jillian Bergman, CPA, responded, “In public accounting, it’s really easy to focus on everyone else—your clients, the people you are mentoring—instead of yourself. When you’re so focused on adding value for everyone else, sometimes you forget to take a step back and think, ‘What do I really want from my career?’”

Audit senior manager Gretchen Leifeste, CPA, committee chair of the HPWI, says her biggest takeaway from the program is “knowing that we have a support system. All of the women in the firm are working towards a common goal.”

If you are looking to start a women’s initiative at your firm, consider the following suggestions:

  • Create a core purpose and objectives for the program tailored to your firm’s needs, using input from leadership and a cross-section of women throughout the organization. Address women’s specific challenges, and create an end-goal of increased retention and promotion statistics for women within the firm.
  • Allocate budget dollars to spend on educational programming, including the engagement of external experts. Educational programming ideas include skill-building specifically tailored for women and education for all employees to generate awareness regarding unconscious gender biases and encourage more effective cross-gender communication.
  • Solicit support from firm leadership. Educate firm leadership on the business case for promoting women’s issues in the workplace. Firm leaders need to champion the mission and benefits of the program in words and deeds, publicly and privately. According to Bergman, having both partner and budget support is critical to the HPWI’s success. “Chris
    [Perkins] has attended all of our book club meetings, even when he is the only male there. He is our biggest supporter,” she said.
  • Give men a role. Communicate the purpose and objectives of the women’s program firmwide. Leifeste further advises that, while programming should focus on women and women’s issues, men should still be invited when appropriate. “If you have a women’s initiative that is only focused on educating women, it won’t work,” she said. “You need to educate men on what we bring to the table, how we work differently, and how our lives are different.”
  • Provide opportunities for aspiring women leaders to forge mentoring relationships with other women of the firm and also look for career advocates among the firm’s male leaders.
  • Meet consistently to maintain momentum and encourage relationship-building within the group, even during peak busy seasons. The support could be essential during demanding periods.
  • Use teamwork. “It takes a team” for a women’s initiative to work, Bergman said.
  • Start small. If your plans for the program seem too overwhelming or time-consuming, it’ll be difficult to get employees to buy in.

Sarah Elliott, CPA, is a professional coach and the founder of Ellivate Advisors, an advisory firm offering strategic implementation services to CPA firms nationwide.

 

© 2015 AICPA Inc. All Rights Reserved.

 

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