Krista McMasters has completed an inspirational rise from
college recruit to become the first female chief executive in the
US to lead a top 25 firm. Nicholas Moody speaks to
the new chief executive of Clifton Gunderson about her role and the
importance of developing more senior female leaders.

Krista McMasters’ ascension to the head of Clifton Gunderson is
a victory for the slow and steady approach. McMasters joined
Clifton Gunderson as an associate accountant in 1978 straight from
the University of Illinois and has worked for the firm ever since.
She progressed through the ranks, becoming a partner in 1985 and
most recently served as chief practice officer. She is also a
member of the Financial Accounting Standards Advisory Council and
the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants

McMasters began the transition into her new role this month but
officially takes the helm of the firm on 1 June 2009. Clifton
Gunderson, a member of HLB International, has 2,000 staff and a
projected fee income of $250 million for the financial year end 31
May 2008.

Solid support

McMasters admits when she started out she never envisioned becoming
chief executive but credits Clifton Gunderson for encouraging her
development. “Clifton Gunderson is a forward-looking progressive
firm that has allowed me to progress into this position,” she says.
“I am looking forward to the opportunity and anything it says about
females and the ability for them to lead public accounting firms in
the future.”

McMasters succeeds Carl George who is retiring after 16 years as
chief executive. George says McMasters has played an instrumental
role in key business initiatives at Clifton Gunderson – from
ensuring the firm provides a good quality service to its clients,
to providing strategic oversight to human resource and business
development areas.

“The appointment of Krista as chief executive is an exciting and
significant step forward for our firm and we are excited about the
passion and commitment Krista brings to her new role,” he

Clifton Gunderson board chairman Bill Oliver says that McMasters
possesses a passion for the firm, vision for continuous improvement
and an ability to execute on that vision.

McMasters says the firm pushed her to be its representative on a
number of national committees that also allowed her to be mentored
and developed by people outside the firm. “This is a firm that is
all about developing people. We recognised early on that the only
way for us to be successful is to provide our people with lots of
different development opportunities,” she says.

McMasters is excited about the position and hopes it will encourage
other firms to put more talented women into senior positions.

“I would say in the last five to ten years public accounting firms
have seen the business case for  being more flexible to allow
women to progress to leadership positions,” she says.

Gender shift

This shift in thinking has been brought on by the predominance of
female graduates and the importance of their development. McMasters
says 60 percent of Clifton Gunderson’s new recruits are

“If we do not allow women to progress to partner we are not going
to be able to develop as a firm. I think many public accounting
firms have recognised that and started to put a lot of programmes
in place that allow women the flexibility to develop because it is
difficult if that isn’t available to them,” she says.

McMasters says the engagement of women in the accounting profession
is a continuing challenge.

“We still do not have enough females at the partner level, the
business case is there – it is more and more difficult to recruit
people in public accounting, there are less people available today
and will be in the future, and it is really important that we do
anything we can do to achieve parity to allow females to progress
in the same way that males progress. That may [involve] having to
provide more flexibility at certain stages of someone’s career [to
do that],” she says.

AICPA president and chief executive Barry Melancon says McMasters’
achievement is an important signal that old barriers are begingin
to fall.

“Today, women make up more than half of new accounting graduates
and account for 20 percent of firm partners nationwide. The CPA
profession and accounting firms have long been leaders in flexible
work schedules and balancing different life demands, regardless of
gender,” he says.

Clifton Gunderson is also set to formally launch a women’s
initiative that aims to get a higher percentage of female leaders
in the firm. Currently only 14 percent of Clifton Gunderson’s
partners are female. McMasters says the new initiative was
something that the firm planned and determined was necessary prior
to her appointment. Clifton Gunderson currently has a flex-work
arrangement programme where female employees have the ability to
individually determine what their flexible work needs are, she

“We have brought some key leaders across the firm together to take
it one step above, they are now developing an action plan on how we
can work at taking our women’s initiative onwards with a goal of
getting more and more female senior managers, partners and board
members,” McMaster adds.

The new chief executive expects the programme will launch within
the next three months. The future for female CPAs looks bright.