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Gender parity

7 methods to advance & retain women in professional services firms: EisnerAmper’s Lisë Stewart

Lisë Stewart, Principal-in-Charge for Family Business Excellence at EisnerAmper, has seen many talent trends over her 30-plus year career as an organizational psychologist, an adviser to dozens of family-owned business, and more recently, a principal in a large accounting firm.

As a recent guest of AccountingToday’s podcast, Stewart discussed how to clear the path to partnership for women in professional services. We wanted to follow-up and get her first-hand recommendations for increasing the advancement of women and the next generation workforce.

Stewart came to EisnerAmper through the acquisition of her business. The larger accounting firm saw Stewarts’s operation as a competitive edge to expand its advisory services offerings, especially around the smaller market where Stewart was focused. Eventually, EisnerAmper wanted to apply those principles to the mid-size market of family-owned businesses.

As a woman CEO who craved community with other business-owning women, Stewart also launched a leadership development program called Cirque du Sophia, which has evolved to include helping women to move into the partner track across professional services firms, including law and accounting firms.

Lisë Stewart, Principal-in-Charge for Family Business Excellence at EisnerAmper

Stewart has an interesting take on structural barriers from her work with many family-owned businesses across industries ranging from manufacturing to professional services. These barriers “become less structural once they come into people’s awareness,” she says. “A trap is only a trap if you don’t know about it — once you know about it, it’s a challenge.”

7 challenges & solutions 

Stewart elaborates on some of these challenges and provides her thoughts on solutions:

  1. Let go of rigid work practices — One of the biggest challenges for women and for younger workers is the ongoing rigidity of the workplace, she says. “Women and younger workers tend to do better in environments where there is some flexibility, to allow them to achieve more balance in life.” Often these inflexible work schedules or rigid work practices hamper efforts to retain female talent. Both women and younger workers report that a flexible work environment is seen as a desirable benefit, allowing for both professional development and the ability to meet life demands.
  2. Outline well-defined performance expectations — According to Stewart, one of the biggest structural challenges is a lack of well-defined performance expectations. “More businesses need to focus on what constitutes excellence in the workplace and outline both the technical skills and behaviors,” explains Stewart, adding that businesses can “then invest in real organizational executive coaching to help people to develop those skills.”
  3. Liberate single-minded views of business development — Stewart believes that executive leaders of professional services firms need to expand their views of how networking and business development is achieved. “I am seeing a big shift now in the marketplace among employers putting more emphasis on taking time out of the workday for bringing clients into the workplace, going out to visit clients, and holding more smaller events that have greater emphasis on learning and skill acquisition for our clients,” she says. This approach has the added benefit to parents, who are often not available to be able to work or network outside of normal work hours.
  4. Invest in training managers to lead virtual teams — According to Stewart, there is still a lot of resistance in professional firms to working virtually. “It goes back to people not understanding what constitutes excellent performance,” she says, adding that instead of monitoring performance against goals being met, performance often is monitored based on face time. “It takes an investment in training of your leaders because most leaders don’t know how to bring a virtual group of people together to solve problems and to work in this collaborative fashion,” explains Stewart.
  5. Set up women’s initiatives for success — Many companies are creating internal women’s organizations within larger firms, but Stewart underscores the need to be intentional “about making sure they are focusing on skill-building for women — identifying mentors, setting up clear mentor/protégé programs, and leveraging them for institutional professional skill and talent development goals and strategies.”
  6. Leverage women to drive culture change — Professional firms are struggling to stay on pace with dynamic business environments, and Stewart advises employers to embrace women’s leadership to meet that goal. “Women bring a unique set of skills to an organization,” she notes, adding that it enriches the organization when women lead strategic change in culture and business. “Women are more likely to be paying attention to culture and do a better job of articulating what it is that they would like to see in the workplace.”
  7. Nurture internal entrepreneurship — According to Stewart, more organizations need to cultivate internal entrepreneurialism. Personally, she is excited about the future because so many young people are tapping into their entrepreneurial roots on their own, and employers should embrace it, she says. “What we’re seeing is this new generation of people saying, ‘Of course I’m not going to work the way my parents did,’ and ‘I’m not going to do this in the same way.’”

To address the naysayers, Stewart advises that when owners think ‘Oh, I don’t want to train them too much because they’ll walk away and move to our competitors or start their own businesses,’ they instead should look at this as an opportunity to nurture that entrepreneurial spirit while they are working in the business.

“And there are different ways to keep people from walking,” she adds, “and part of it is walking with them to explore new opportunities for the business.”

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