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The Accounting Profession’s Leadership Story Must Change


The following is sponsored content by Joey Havens, the executive partner of Horne, LLP, an Accountingfly Firm Partner.

The world needs more leaders and the leadership gap is real. If we continue to believe as we have always believed, then we will continue to have narratives and stories like we always have. And, if we continue to have narratives and stories as we always have, then we will continue to create cultures that we have always created. And, if we continue to create the cultures that we have always created, we will continue to have gaps in our leadership succession and an unequitable playing field. To expect otherwise is insanity. Now, I know we are not all crazy, so our leadership story must change.

I want to challenge you to help us create a new narrative that actually challenges our old ways of thinking and will help us all grow leaders faster.

Chapter 1: Sponsorship & Advocacy

We must begin to change our legacy thinking that equitable opportunity already exists in our firms.

When we look across our profession, we see that our women and minority leaders have fewer sponsors. Unlike mentors and role models, sponsors are advocates who provide real career traction. We sometimes say a sponsor is someone who uses their political capital for someone else’s benefit.

As Sylvia Ann Hewlett says in her book, Forget a Mentor Find a Sponsor:

Everyone who has realized an amazing vision or exerts remarkable influence can and will point to a series of sponsors, powerful individuals who helped pull them up, or fund their ventures, or clear a path forward. There are no exceptions.

So, how do we make this inclusive of all team members? We have to interrupt the natural system. Left to our own natural tendencies, we will gravitate toward people we perceive to be like us—who went to our same school, have our same religious beliefs, or share our skin color or gender. Which brings me to the next chapter we must rewrite.

Chapter 2: Holistic Approaches to Deter Unintentional Bias

We all fight the human nature of affinity, comfort level and self-view. What has become clear from experiences with diversity initiatives is that when the initiatives exclude team members, they create other divisions and perceived reverse favoritism. When we combine this effect with our millennials’ mindset who reject the idea of being identified as any one dimension, especially if it is race or gender, we realize that we have got to take a more holistic approach. (Read this article to dive deeper into holistic approaches to diversity). We must rewrite the chapter, based on legacy thinking, that says this is “a women’s issue” or “a minority issue.” No, this is a leadership issue.

So how do we have conversations and move our firms to holistic experiences that integrate the entire firm into growing and supporting diverse leaders at a much faster rate? Only collaboration with candor, exploring together, intently listening to other’s insights can we begin to sort what is a strength and what is holding us back.

Chapter 3: Flexibility

We’ll define flexibility as when, where and how we work.

In public accounting, people do not believe our flexibility policies are for them or that they offer an equitable playing field. And in many cases, our leadership does not use flexibility. People do not believe our flex policies because they do not see their leaders using them. Seeing is believing.

For those that do flex, they often have the curse of the “special deal” or missing opportunities due to out of sight out of mind. Even where flex is working, many systems still create unequitable playing fields by how or when things are scheduled. It is so easy to reward those in sight rather than taking deliberate actions to spread the wealth or opportunities and risk.

The legacy thinking of “flexibility by permission” and “special deals” won’t grow our firms or leaders fast enough. Our challenge is learning how to work in a way that provides an equitable playing field to all team members, doesn’t create special deals and is demonstrated by successful leaders.

We might find that the first three chapters, even if re-written, leave us lost and confused if we do not understand the relevance of the last chapter.

Final Chapter: Inclusion and Sense of Belonging

Diversity is simply a measurement, it does not drive inclusion. Our cultures must evolve to promote a sense of belonging and equitable playing field for all team members.

People contribute and give their best when they feel valued, empowered and respected. Instinctively we know this. We want to believe our firms are living this. Yet we lose key leaders every year due to inconsistent experiences and lack of inclusion.

We must let go of our legacy thinking that inclusion just happens, and we must become intentional about creating a sense of belonging for all team members.

All four of these re-written chapters help us set and enhance our vision for diverse leadership in our profession and for our firms. Although we have seen progress, we know we are not where we need to be. We do not have the urgency or awareness in our leadership teams to impact real change. Maybe you’re ready to have some hard conversations with your leadership team? This is your opportunity to shine a bright light into our leadership void and to help change the story, for your firms and for our profession. Let’s work together to make our new story on leadership and culture a best seller.

Joey Havens, CPA, is the executive partner at HORNE LLP, where he passionately lives out his life’s calling to help others see and reach their full potential. Joey challenges leaders to bold transparency, calling on leaders to show their heart while working to connect everyone to the “why,” or the purpose, of the organization. He is a husband, father, grandfather, avid outdoorsman, and college sports fanatic.