Organizational Strategies for Improving Diversity and Inclusion 
Part 1 of a 2 Part Series

By: Mary L Bennett, CEC, CIA, MBA

The accounting profession, and other financial services organizations, have  been working on diversity and inclusion (D&I) challenges and opportunities for decades.  Many organizations led the way beginning with a focus on improving gender diversity. Increasingly organizations have moved or are moving to a broader definition of diversity and inclusion defined by gender, ethnicity, age, generation, religion, sexual orientation and many more aspects of our differences and similarities as human beings.  The business focus on inclusion is driven by the perfect storm of increased demand for professionals which is outpacing the supply. Some reasons for the perfect storm gap in the supply of accountants and other professionals:

1-Unprecedented retirement numbers of baby boomers
2-Changing demographics in the US not mirrored in the profession ( for example increasingly minority and women owned businesses are dominating the new business ranks but not keeping pace in the accounting profession)
3-Unsustainable turnover rates (among accountants over 25%)
4-Ambiguity or outright lack of attractiveness of traditional long term career paths in the profession 

What are the firms of the future doing to prepare for this storm through their diversity and inclusion strategies?

1- Effective firms deeply understand, document and communicate their firm's customized business case for investing resources in the attraction, retention and advancement of those who bring elements of diversity to the firm. All levels of the firm should be considered especially the leadership ranks. A more inclusive culture includes diversity of thought at the leadership level in order to accomplish an effective return on investment. in D&I 

2-Successful firms use their customized business case as a starting point to accurately diagnose their firm and its evolution toward building a more diverse and inclusive organization. Diversity is a reflection of the actual ranks of the organization along the dimensions of diversity such as gender, ethnicity, age, etc. Inclusiveness is the degree to which the organization successfully maximizes the benefits of the diversity.  Understanding where the organization is in terms of maturity, and therefore readiness for strategy implementation, is essential to avoid common pitfalls.  A common example of such a pitfall is implementation of programming before the business case and strategic context is solidly in place.  In this situation it is very difficult to obtain buy in from the leadership level and down through the entire organization.

3-Firms effective in building greater diversity and inclusion have a defined and targeted set of strategies that align with the evolutionary readiness of their organization.   These always begin with effective business case formation, communication plans and tangible diagnostic preparedness.  

Stay tuned for part 2 of this article series to learn more about specific strategies organizations use 

Jill is an African American woman with ten years of experience in
public accounting. She is certified and versatile in the areas of practice in
which she might contribute now and in the future.  She has deep community roots in the major metropolitan area in which she works and she has shown great promise in promoting the Firm in the market.  She has demonstrated ability to target in on very valid and significant business development opportunities. 
She is liked by her peers and develops the people on her teams.  She also plans to leave the Firm and possibly public accounting altogether. 
What is wrong with this picture?

Jill feels as if she works tirelessly to stay connected in the
Firm and to expand her network. She has been successful in this regard and is
networked and capable of tapping into opportunities.  She feels she has to prove herself every day when she walks through the door and again if she is working toward a significant opportunity in the Firm or the market. She feels when she speaks she must work much harder to be heard and to be taken seriously.   She feels that her superiors are not connected to her and that she is not on their radar screen.  She has observed the favoritism or advocacy circles that drive the
assignment of opportunities, promotions and pay increases.  She has managed to tap into these organizational circles from time to time, but also notes that she has to assimilate in order to stay connected. She is uncomfortable with the degree of assimilation required.  She understands that this assimilation also limits the value she may bring to the Firm. She has come to the conclusion that the energy she is pouring into trying to fit into the organization could be better applied to her work if she was in a more inclusive environment.  Her
exploration of the Public Accounting marketplace has turned up few options upon
deep research.  She knows she has many career options.  She cannot
envision herself on the outside trying to gain access daily for the undefined
and long term future.   This is a very difficult career path without taking into account the need to break into circles of influence that others do not have to work at to gain access.
The sustainability of our Firms is dependent upon attracting,
retaining and developing the best talent. 
A significant portion of this talent is represented by individuals who
represent something different then our current partner ranks. 
Our ability to develop and bring new solutions to new markets is
dependent on our success in creating an inclusive culture that supports a very broad level of diversity.  Diversity in thought, lifestyle, ethnicity, gender, education, socioeconomic experience and much more. 
Creating an inclusive culture can be accomplished with targeted
effort.  How do we attract, retain
and develop the individuals who represent the change we need for the future
while we continue to work on our culture?  

What can an organization do now to retain and develop top talent
like Jill?  One of the most important strategies that an organization can employ is targeted advocacy.  In our profession advocacy
relationships drive talent development and career navigation. 
These relationships are a natural part of our organizations and have been
so for decades.  Advocates not only understand how to navigate through an organization to access key opportunities and networks at the most appropriate junctures of a career but they also use political capital to facilitate these moves for their protégés.  Advocates also help the protégés to become visible in ways that individuals cannot do for themselves.  These relationships exist and drive our
  profession.  These relationships are essential for election to owner which is one of the ultimate career destinations in our profession.   

It is critical to note that for individuals who represent
  something different from the norm, the advocacy relationships do not form as
  naturally as they do for the majority group. Human beings are drawn to individuals who remind us of ourselves, those we can identify with. 
This is especially true of advocacy relationships that may form naturally
in public accounting Firms.  This is significant and an important element in Jill’s story.  How can a person like Jill reach the conclusion that the price to pay for
success in public accounting is too high?   As an experienced partner in a public
accounting Firm, I would be the first person to acknowledge the road is long and
challenging.  We expect to work hard to attain this goal. What is
lost on those of us who may represent the majority is that the path is not the
same for those who are diverse, those who may represent our future. 
The path is much harder every day. 
When we hear that these individuals do not want to do what it takes to
succeed we must understand that in significant ways we are asking them to do
more then we have had to do.  This is true in many Firms for women, minorities, those with different educational or socioeconomic experiences, those with different lifestyles, or those that represent any significant difference that currently requires the individual to suppress in order to assimilate and be accepted. If you are a member of the majority and dominant group, the need to suppress fundamental elements of who you are to succeed may sound like fiction. Those who represent diversity in the ranks of your Firm would assure you that the energy it takes to try to be a fully accepted and engaged member of the Firm is

Advocacy relationships must be in place for all of our top talent.  If left to chance, the relationships will most likely not be in place for the individuals who
represent a critical part of our future because they represent something
different.  Targeted Advocacy Programs are not difficult to implement. 
The ripple effect benefit of these programs is immense. 
One method of shifting culture is to work closely with those individuals
who represent the future.  Bias is generally unconscious.  Bias begins
to break down as we gain personal experience interacting with individuals. Both the advocate and the protégé learn from these relationships.   

Given the unavoidable retirement of the baby boomers -why is there such a resistance to effective succession planning? Because it touches us as human beings in ways we prefer not to think about.
Fear of the unknown
Fear of becoming irrelevant
Fear of retirement and beyond
Fear that someone will actually replace us

That our current role and responsibility must change
That we need to give emerging leaders the opportunity to lead
That we have neglected building a plan for the next phase of our lives

Significant amounts of compassion, counseling and coaching are essential in effective succession planning programs.  Beginning the process with validation and gratitude for the contributions of the current leaders is a good place to start. Dealing with the human element of succession is not a side element of the planning process but the central element that will speed and improve the entire endeavor.  The commitment, passion and engagement that have contributed to the organization's success will also hold it back if we do not actively and compassionately recognize it and deal with it creating dignity and appreciation.
If we manufacture widgets we use materials, work in process and machines that combine with people power to create a product.  If we are in the knowledge business we harness and combine the talents of our people to create the services we sell.  We use equipment such as computers to support the service development and delivery and we may have a quasi tangible product such as financial statements or tax returns. 

It is difficult to deny, however, that the primary input to the delivery of the services we offer is our people.  The raw knowledge of our teams combined with their capability to create value with that knowledge is our "product".  Why is it then that in so many Firms we still see more time and effort spent on the upkeep of our IT equipment then we do on the upkeep of our people and their talents. This is not in any way to suggest that we should not invest in our IT equipment but that we consider the technological contributions along side the human contributions. 

Our people are our business. If we understand that our people are THE essential asset of our organization we also understand that we must invest in them to maintain and increase the contribution they make.  If you are not getting the contribution you need from your people you might ask yourself if you treat them as important organizational assets.  Consider some basic tips below:

-We certainly should invest in a regular review of the performance and development of our people- just as we engage in regular review and update of our software and hardware.
-We track our physical business assets but at any given point do we know where are people assets are? Might a competitor be working on pulling these assets out the door ?  What does it cost us to replace that talent in time and dollars? How do our clients feel about a revolving service team?
-Unlike machines our people have needs, desires and dreams. Do we know what these are? Do we attempt to provide what they need?
-We continually scan trends in the marketplace to ensure that we are investing in updated and/or new equipment to take our firms into the future.  Do we actively evaluate the competencies we will need for the future and follow through in recruiting and development of these new competencies? Do we prepare our culture for these new competencies?  Where would we be if we attempted to run our 2012 computers in the technological environment we used in 2000 or earlier? Are we not in some cases attempting to meet the needs of 2012 with the competencies of the past? Or we recognize the need for new competencies but ask them to thrive in the traditional environment of our past?

Our people are our business, does our investment in them reflect this fact?