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The promise of change is no longer necessary—it’s here.

Today, women in the accountancy profession are energized by the change they are creating and the world they are redefining. The American Institute of CPAs (AICPA) Women’s Leadership Summit in Boston on November 2-4 reflected the confidence of their success. The Gateway team was there to interview the speakers and capture the main ideas.

“I feel that there is so much will to advance, and to change,” said Safra Catz, CEO of Oracle Corporation and keynote speaker. “This is a group that just doesn’t sit back and let change happen to them. They actually grab it!”

The attendees ranged from women accountants working in large firms and small- and medium-sized practices as well as management accountants, entrepreneurs, and other financial professionals. They represented multiple generations in the workplace—Baby Boomers to recent college graduates. They were all united by an eagerness to learn from each other and share ideas about how to advance the profession in an age of new technologies and rapidly emerging business opportunities.

A Women’s Brand of Leadership

Many of the attendees and presenters emphasized that there never is or was a preordained path to leadership. The corporate leaders and consultants we spoke to noted that their careers were full of pivots and turns, some anticipated and some not. “There were a number of different decision points in my career,” said Kimberly Ellison-Taylor, AICPA Chair and Global Accounting Strategy Director for the Financial and Professional Services Industries at Oracle. “A willingness to learn new things, and attitude of always being open and engaging, an attitude of willing to be uncomfortable and putting myself in new environments, certainly that has helped me so many times over and over again."

Diversity is another key topic at the conference and with those we spoke with. Some attendees stressed that diversity isn’t necessarily an obstacle but rather an experience that can temper unique leadership qualities. “The path to leadership has never been clearly defined,” said Jina Etienne, President and CEO, National Association of Black Accountants. “If you’re a minority, you already have this sense of having to overcome some type of barrier—real or imagined—and sometimes knowing or thinking that there is an obstacle to overcome, it steals you, and it gets you to think ‘I need to do a little bit more and try and little bit harder.’”

Emerging Talent and Workplace Design

The consensus among many speakers and attendees was that attracting young women into the accountancy profession and creating the right kind of corporate environment for them is critical. There is considerable focus on millennials and recent college graduates, at the conference and in workplaces. These younger generations have distinct attributes that the accountancy profession and workplaces need to consider. “I think that [younger generations] know themselves through the perception of others,” said Jennifer Shirkani, Executive Coach and author of Ego vs EQ. Shirkani adds that millennials need to identify what motivates them and learn how to be more effective in delaying gratification toward career goals. They also need to improve their ability to receive criticism and negative feedback.

In addition to using their technical skills, women also need to build the interpersonal skills necessary for sales and business development. “It’s really important to understand how to sell and how to deliver a really good sales process, and, actually, women have the advantage in this because it’s all about personal relationships,” said Amy Vetter, Global Vice President, Education and Head of Accounting, Xero.

What does this mean for firms and businesses trying to build corporate cultures and office environments conducive to women’s success? According to keynote speaker and management consultant Lucy Close of Redwood Consulting, this depends on the way women conduct themselves in the workplace. Everything from office politics to the language people use in the board rooms and in meetings are important and resonate. “Transformational leadership needs female skills and diverse skills,” said Close. “There’s a lot of research that says the more diverse an organization is the more profitable it is.” But she added that women must be careful about the roles they take and to avoid “organizational dusting,” that is, taking on diminutive roles.

Do-it-Yourself Entrepreneurship

From the solo practitioner to the small business owner, the Summit also offered a great deal of guidance for women entrepreneurs. Many of these challenges can stem from lack of self-confidence. “One obstacle I’ve found that a number of women entrepreneurs face is having the confidence to understand that they can start a business from scratch—from the ground up,” said Melody Fenik of Feniks & Co, an accounting firm in Fairbanks Alaska. “When they go to buy a business, a lot of times women are conservative financially so they tend to look to buy a business that is affordable but sometimes it is not the best business to be buying. So instead of starting at ground zero they are sometimes starting below ground zero.”

The spirit of entrepreneurship was emphasized not only for business owners but also women who are part of organizational teams. “Take one minute and say, how can I do things really differently that can impact my team, myself, and my business and do it: take the crazy risk,” said Catz. She stressed that women must be persistent in communicating new ideas to higher level management. They must lead change and be able to show others what the real benefits are.

High Performance and Life Balance

Finally, the Summit offered a refreshing approach to how women can more effectively manage their personal lives in the midst of busy careers. Some of the key elements of life balance include: mindfulness, diet, and maintaining a healthy personal outlook. These things clearly counterbalance, if not energize, the other half of the fast-paced, high-stress professional life of accountants. “Mindfulness defined is paying attention on purpose in a particular way, non-reactively, non-judgmentally, and as open-heartedly as possible,” said Dr. Barbara Walker of the Center of Human Performance. She added that everything from not eating right to not sleeping enough will only generate more stress and exhaustion.

There is also the threat of information overload in our daily lives. “All of the way that information is flooding into our respective lives—what it is causing is a lot of distraction and fragmentation of attention,” said Tracy Parks, Director, CPES. She explained that reducing the amount of information that comes our way every day can mean using a process of dialing down our exposure to many different electronic devices and selectively using them in more proactive ways. These include e-mails, texts, and other media.

An Already Transformed Profession

From powerful leaders in Fortune 500 companies to highly successful accountancy professionals, we experienced more than just a well-organized program at the AICPA Women’s Leadership Summit. We witnessed the unscripted convergence of voices on the incredible opportunities for women accountants today. The accountancy profession has already been transformed by them. They have changed the way we lead, the way we manage resources, and the way we innovate. The diversity they have brought to the table will continue to yield more benefits for accounting firms and businesses in the years to come. We cannot forget that although there is still much progress to be made, much of it will be built upon the pioneers we have right before us today. 

Bhumi Jariwala

Bhumi Jariwala was previously the editor of the IFAC Knowledge Gateway. Ms. Jariwala has experience in communications, market research, and information technology.