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April 30, 2008

The growing role of women

The growing role of women

Three decades ago, Grant Thornton US chief operating officer Shelley Stein* was one of a handful of women to enter the profession. Now an industry leader, she shares the lessons she has learned and reveals her optimism about the rise of female professionals.

There weren’t many women in my accounting classes at the University of Minnesota, and there certainly weren’t many women in the boardroom either. However, I wanted a career in public accounting, and I knew it was up to me to take the initiative and pursue my own path to achieve my career goals.

I’d like to share some lessons that have proven very valuable to me. I learned from those around me to remain open-minded and take advantage of opportunities as they presented themselves. Early on, as a client services audit partner, I learned how to serve both public and privately held clients. I learned to convey that level of attention even while, at times, delivering tough messages.

As managing partner of an office, and later, a region, I learned the value of empowerment and accountability. As Grant Thornton US managing partner of client services, I directed the activities of the firm’s national managing partners engaged in assurance and advisory, tax and international services, as well as the firm’s industry groups, all focused on enhancing existing services, implementing new services, driving strategy, achieving revenue growth and maximising profitability.

Building consensus I’ve also faced challenges. After years of serving clients, the firm asked me to take an international liaison leadership role – to be someone without ultimate authority, but charged with realising specific goals. Through this new experience, I gained confidence in my ability to lead by building consensus. The ability to build consensus has been particularly valuable to me as we’ve tried to improve the professional experience our people have within Grant Thornton’s culture.

A few years ago, our leadership team began thinking creatively about how to focus more effectively on our people. I knew that we couldn’t grow the firm without growing our people, and that we couldn’t provide outstanding client service without developing outstanding people. We wanted to model for each employee the personalised attention that we expect our professionals to give each client. I learned that consensus management among office managing partners is the key to developing our own professionals.

Coming up with a better way to accomplish this goal fell to me as chief operating officer. The interrelated business imperatives of retention and delivering quality client service were the challenges I faced. Here, I learned to ask people what they wanted, to listen and to demonstrate with action that I was listening – that leadership was listening. So, to begin, we established a baseline by asking our people what we were doing right and what we could do better. Then we involved our people and communicated what we were doing in response to their feedback.

Striking a balance

While our employee satisfaction was on par with other firms we saw we could improve in specific areas, such as: retention of women and senior associates, work/life integration and career development. A key consideration was creating an environment in which our employees could achieve a balance between their personal and professional lives.

A key challenge for us was effective retention of client-serving women. Through the Women @ Grant Thornton initiative, we focused on the retention issue and what we could do about it. We also knew that companies with the best records of promoting women typically post higher profits and larger return on investment. So we knew we needed to do a better job of filling the leadership pipeline with greater diversity, including women.

Through innovative problem-solving and challenging individuals to own improvement in each area, we gained real traction for all four initiatives – which together we call ‘the Grant Thornton Experience for our people’. Already we’ve seen improvement in retention and promotion of women and we now have an increasing number of women in decision-making capacities. We’ve also received external validation of our efforts.   I’ve also noticed an accelerating national dialogue about women in leadership roles in the public accounting profession. I’ve personally had an increasing number of speaking invitations to address issues such as mentoring, gender differences in communication and work styles, and the progress of women in the workplace. Every time I speak about the communication and work-style differences between men and women, I see heads nodding. Women approach me afterwards to say: “I thought I was the only one who felt that way.” Such exchanges have reinforced my conviction that talking about the issues of women in our profession by sharing personal stories is effective mentoring.

Opportunities for women in senior leadership positions in accounting are at an all-time high. Today women have a greater opportunity to shape their careers, their firms and the profession. Women in the accounting profession should focus on excellence and demand what they and their firms need to be successful. As long as women are willing to take ownership, learn from experience and be accountable for their progression, the opportunities and potential for success are limitless.

*Shelley Stein is the chief operating officer of Grant Thornton US. She is responsible for operational and strategic priorities critical to the firm’s success, including public policy and external affairs, human resources, the office of strategy management, strategic learning, and marketing and sales.

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