insight magazine

Firm Journey

Calling All (Emerging) Leaders: What Got Us Here Won’t Get Us There

Diversity and inclusion are victims of the CPA profession’s legacy business model. Will you work to make change?
Tim Jipping, CPA, CGMA Owner, Journey Advisors & CPAs


For the better part of two decades, the spotlight on the striking absence of meaningful diversity and inclusion in the CPA profession has been growing brighter. But despite increasing awareness and not-so-subtle public shaming, perhaps not even Detective Holmes could uncover evidence of progress over that time. We continually see firms boast of modest gains or distort their dismal results by emphasizing levels of effort. But I’m not impressed.

If you’re offended, well, good. Maybe you should be. As a profession, we’ve been content with simply creating a perception of diversity and inclusion and touting our input over output (which happens to be our trademark). Certainly, having a program, task force, or mandatory annual training dedicated to the sensitive and important issues surrounding diversity and inclusion aren’t bad ideas, but when only 22 percent of CPA firm partners are women and only 6 percent of partners at the Top 10 accounting firms — which arguably have the most resources and “initiatives” — are Black, Asian, and minority ethnic, how effective are these efforts?

I’d go so far as to argue that aside from aiding marketing and recruiting campaigns and contributing to being named to “Top Firms for [insert buzzword here]” lists, most of these initiatives are effectively dead on arrival. The problem is not with the programs themselves or even the intentions behind them; rather, the problem is with our firms and, more specifically, the legacy business model of the CPA profession. It’s not even that the model’s essence is good or bad — heck, it positioned us as some of the most trusted business advisors — but it’s simply not suited for the future of our profession, or the future of our society.

Here’s how I see the traditional CPA firm model harming our diversity and inclusion initiatives:

Scarcity mentality – We tend to incentivize and reward “more” over better. This creates competition and insecurity, which drive greed, resulting in a race to the bottom. And when we devalue our or someone else’s worth/work and compound it with greed, we spur overload. If you’ve read the INSIGHT Special Feature, “The Culture Conflicts,” you know what happens next — not at all appealing to the audience of talent we’re hoping to attract.

Survival of the fittest – Translation: If you aren’t beaten down and burned out to the point of submission, you haven’t been sufficiently hazed in preparation for the big leagues — i.e., the partner or C-suite levels. And if you want more balance, you’re considered weak, uncommitted, or undriven. No one desires to be perceived as weak in their personal or professional lives. And if we’re honest, our society has traditionally emphasized and bid up the value of toughness exhibited by men, not women. Hence the retention and succession issues we so commonly suffer from and complain about.

Cannibalism – The ones who can affect the most change now believe they have to set aside their own self-interests to do so. And since so many current firm partners and leaders are afflicted with the same legacy disease passed down from generation to generation, it’s practically impossible for them to break rank and take the critical steps necessary to make meaningful progress toward a future different from what they’ve known. Even those determined to make change often have many “zero-sum-minded” constituents, aka their fellow partners, to whom they must answer.

How long will we let this go on? Oscar Wilde declared more than a century ago that “discontent is the first step toward progress.” If we as a profession truly believed there was a clear benefit to diversity and inclusion, shouldn’t we be seeing more meaningful results? This profession is filled with so many talented professionals and problem-solvers from four very different generations now; it seems to me that the profession simply hasn’t deemed diversity and inclusion important enough by those who can affect the most change.

Perhaps most only believe in diversity and inclusion as the “right thing to do” rather than a tangible and realizable business benefit. (Hint: Numerous studies document better business performance thanks to diversity and inclusion.) Besides, if you can prepare a tax return or financial statement correctly, what does it matter if you look the same or different than everybody else? [That’s sarcasm.]

Quality work knows no gender, race, or ethnicity. But perspective does. Perspective and diversity of thought is what leads to new ideas and creativity, innovation, and progress. Diverse perspectives, when given and received genuinely, have always been an X-factor for long-term business success and is the antidote for the echo chambers that exist in so many firms today.

Some may call me naïve in thinking that our legacy business model is the problem. But I’d argue it is perhaps the most sensible explanation for some of the difficulties the profession has had in making progress, not only on the topics of diversity and inclusion.

Let’s face it, we can’t expect a business model that’s purposefully designed to force people out at certain career stages to be the same model that promotes inclusion. When the thing that limits progress is the thing itself, then you have happened upon one of the finest forms of riddles. And as with all worthy problem-solving efforts, I think Mr. Einstein said it best: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Ironically, this is perhaps the best business case for why diversity of thought is so necessary in the first place.

The traditional firm model needs a makeover to capitalize on current business opportunities, and to embrace the disruption within the profession that will continue to exist for the foreseeable future. There is no single right course of action to accomplish this. But I believe our best hope rests with the profession’s emerging leaders — give them a voice and a seat at the table.

So, I’ll leave you with a final few crazy ideas and my plea to the standing and emerging leaders in our profession:

• Remain firm in your belief of the business benefits driven by diversity and inclusion and surround yourself with people who believe in diversity and inclusion as an underlying principle.

• Don’t fall into the trap of believing that diversity is the highest virtue of all; this breeds entitlement, and you’ll find little success using entitlement to overcome entitlement.

• Be an original thinker; do not be afraid to challenge unspoken assumptions or the status quo.

• Take risks, stand out, and look different (this might mean talking with your feet). Be you.

• Start or join new firms committed to reshaping the landscape of the profession.

Let’s get serious about the lack of diversity and inclusion in our profession. Or don’t. Our increasingly diverse and socially conscious free market will certainly decide which firms have a future.

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