Inspirational women

To coincide with International Women’s Day, I asked four trailblazing female accounting partners to share their thoughts on personal development and gender imbalance.

Michelle Olckers, Bindi Palmer, Wenli Wang and Luz Montse overcame multiple challenges to achieve success in a profession where men dominate senior roles*.

Their stories underline the importance of believing in yourself and knowing your strengths to achieve your goals.

The inspirational women urge female professionals to seek support and encouragement from peers, especially on how to achieve a good work/life balance to avoid burn out. They stress firms have an important role to play in nurturing and supporting female talent, developing a gender-balanced culture, and encouraging more open dialogue.

Michelle Olckers
Co-CEO Mazars South Africa & Managing Partner Mazars Cape Town

Michelle started out as an article clerk and progressed to audit manager and Partner. She works with clients ranging from privately held to large owner managed businesses and her expertise includes manufacturing, property, professional services and hospitality. Michelle has significant involvement in practice management and employee relations and is passionate about learning and development. She also serves on the Group Governance Council (GGC) of Mazars Group.

What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you started out in the profession?

“I wish I knew that it was okay to fail and that each and every disappointment would ultimately make me stronger and more resilient.  As I look back on some of those really tough times when the pressure was so great and the end seemed impossible to find, I realise that I managed to find the strength to keep going and this was when I learnt the most and moulded myself to become the professional woman I am today.

“I also wish I knew how diverse the opportunities within the profession were going to be, as I never thought I would remain in Public Practice, but the work becomes more and more interesting and your perception of what you can achieve within a firm changes as time goes by, so it is important not to give up too soon and head into commerce.”

What advice do you have for women entering accounting/audit today?

“This is never going to be an easy career choice as the work is demanding and the environment pressurised, but it can be extremely rewarding if you find the right firm, one that lives up to your expectation in terms of cultures and values. In the right space, you will find opportunities, but it is your job to make the most of what you are presented with and to prove that you are as capable as the next person. The most likely person to hold you back is yourself, so believe in yourself and what you are capable of.”

What can be done to increase the number of female partners in accounting firms?

“There certainly is greater acceptance of women today and the profession has adapted to understanding the needs of women. Firms are providing greater flexibility and opportunities to work from home. For this reason, the path to partnership is more attainable.

“Talented women should be identified by the leadership of the firm early on in their careers and given access to programs to develop them to bring out their unique value as women. Mentorship and coaching are critical to this development and should be a key focus area of the firm. Talent lists should be closely monitored to ensure that all potential future partners are constantly being identified, so that no-one is forgotten when it comes to promotion. Women also need to support and encourage each other.”

 

Bindi Palmer
Senior Partner and Head of Audit & Assurance, Rouse Partners, UK

Bindi is on the Management Board and Governing Council of Praxity and was Chairperson of the Alliance’s UK Audit Working Group for 11 years. She has extensive experience working with UK and global companies and is a specialist in Group Reporting, International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS), US GAAP, FRS 102 and Sarbanes Oxley requirements. Bindi is also lead Partner undertaking due diligence assignment on acquisitions. In 2016 she was winner of the British Indian Awards for services to accounting.

 

What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you started out in the profession?

“This is a great question and if I had the chance to talk to my younger self there are probably two main learnings I would pass on.Firstly, it would be to appreciate the enormity of what you are getting into as a chartered accountant and partner within a firm. Being flexible and adaptable is key to embrace the many opportunities that the profession provides not just in your immediate role but beyond, such as the ability to influence and guide individuals, businesses and even government policy. The rewards are immense but so is the responsibility.

“Secondly, I would advocate self-care from a mental and physical health perspective. Working in a high-pressured environment means that an element of balance is so important over the span of your career. It is easy to underestimate those things that give you joy and relaxation outside of work, but they are important to enable you to achieve success in both respects of your life. As the world moves forward, it’s equally as important to ensure that no one should have to work 3 or 4 times harder than their counterparts due to their gender, heritage or social class.”

What advice do you have for women entering accounting/audit today?

“It would definitely be to set up a support group both internally and externally of your firm. This will include people who you can identify with on challenges you may face and how to overcome them. However, it shouldn’t only be comprised of those who have made it to the top or gender based. It should be a group of individuals with whom you can have an open, honest and supportive relationship with, in the good times as well as when the going gets tough, both professionally and personally.”

What can be done to increase the number of female partners in accounting firms?

“In recent times there are more women than ever entering the accountancy industry and assuming roles with increasing responsibility. But there is still some way to go towards true equality in the profession. We must embrace diversity and inclusion to recognise skills and talent regardless of gender or social status. However, this needs to go beyond a “tick box” exercise in ensuring there are more women leaders. It needs to be more of a cultural shift and built into the DNA of firms. There needs to be more collaborative working between our female and male leaders to better understand what needs to change in order to achieve this. I do however recognise that this will take time but at least today we have an open platform to discuss these matters.

“The COVID pandemic has shown that we can change the way we work. With flexible working now more viable from a commercial perspective it also makes it possible for working parents (both male and female) to work on par with their counterparts and have equal career opportunities.”

Wenli Wang
Partner in Charge, Walnut Creek & San Francisco, Moss Adams, USA

Wenli is responsible for brand building, culture and the team’s growth and development. She leads the China team and serves as the cultural ambassador and business advisor for inbound China investors. Wenli has grown from a traditional tax advisor to a seasoned business consultant. She has been recognised on the San Francisco Business Times’ Most Influential Women (2015 and 2016), Working Mother’s Working Mother of the Year (2013), the Diversity Journal’s Women Worth Watching (2011) lists.

What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you started out in the profession?

“Uncover your passion and natural talent early. We all have our areas of passion and we all have natural talent, which I call one’s ‘superpower’. Uncovering that passion and talent early can accelerate what you’re able to achieve in life and boost your sense of self-fulfilment.

“The questions to ask are: What am I passionate about? What is my natural talent?  Am I doing something that allows me to answer yes to both of these questions? When you know where you want to go, and see the path ahead, you reduce detours. You can find great fulfilment when you do something you truly enjoy for a living and you’re able to apply your ‘superpower’.  I am extremely fortunate that I was able to turn what I do into something I love and apply my natural strength into what I do.

“Also, trust yourself. We all have something unique to offer! As a first-generation immigrant, language and culture was a challenge when I first started my public accounting career. I was usually on the quiet side and didn’t like to speak up because I was unsure whether I had meaningful thoughts to offer. I have since learned that even if I’m not deeply immersed in the culture and language, my perspective is unique and can offer something valuable to the group. All it takes is the confidence and trust in myself to speak up! Through participation I can show my engagement and interest. Even if what I have to say may not be the most creative idea, by speaking up I could be offering my support to, for example, another woman in the room.”

What advice do you have for women entering accounting/audit today?

“Building self-awareness is important. We all want to improve ourselves and become better professionals and better people in life. In order to figure out how we can do better, we need to know our starting point. This is the importance of self-awareness. It includes not only being aware of your strengths and areas for improvement but also knowing your passions, your natural talents, and your priorities in life and career. I always feel deeply rooted when I know ‘who I am’ and ‘where I would like to go’.”

 

What can be done to increase the number of female partners in accounting firms?

“The number one strategy is advocacy for women. Everyone needs strong advocacy and women in particular. Advocacy gives women a voice when they are not at the table and can also be a huge confidence booster.

“Number two is mentoring and coaching. This needs to be customized and personalized. Each woman has a different career path and different personal circumstance. Our willingness to design a career path that is customized for them will increase their chance of success dramatically. This may sometimes be inconvenient for employers and may take more time to develop, but it will pay off. Diversity brings creativity and ingenuity. It will help our business thrive in the long run.”

Luz Montserrat Colin Campos (Montse)
Tax Partner, Mexico City, JA del Rio, Mexico

Montse is responsible for leading tax consulting, transactions, and transfer pricing teams in Mexico City. She has 15 years of experience as a tax advisor to national and international companies in Big Four firms such as Deloitte and EY in Mexico, specializing in corporate, international, and transaction Taxes. A member of the Mexican Association of Accountants and the International Tax Committee of the IMCP in Mexico City, Montse has been a lecturer in multiple forums including the American Chamber of Commerce, INDEX, and the French Mexican Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you started out in the profession?

“I would have liked to understand that all my effort, dedication, and hours of work and study would have results, but that it was also extremely important to take care of myself, to be present on important dates with family and friends, and that I should try to maintain a life balance as much as possible as it allows you to work in higher spirits and with a sustainable long-term approach. Nowadays, for me, the best job is not the one that allows me to achieve my professional goals but the one that also allows me to achieve personal goals.”

 

What advice do you have for women entering accounting/audit today?

“I would say that this is a very rewarding career, that effort and dedication give better and better results. Also, to maintain your professional focus in the future to align your efforts. Be clear about what kind of professional and leader you want to be, and work to ensure that your actions are consistent with your goals. We can be leaders at any level and people look up to us and follow our example. That is why it is very important to mind our words and actions in our professional and personal lives, to be creative, avoid dumb questions, always enjoy work and the coexistence with colleagues, and appreciate our growth as professionals every day.”

 

What can be done to increase the number of female partners in accounting firms?

“As a firm, I think it is important to understand both the professional and personal goals of the members of our teams and work so that the job allows them to maintain a balance, which will enable them to achieve both objectives; this is the differential that today’s professionals appreciate and that generates loyalty.

“It is also important to establish new female leader role models, focusing on flexibility, open communication, and clear objectives while maintaining the personal essence. In my case, it was a female Partner who inspired me and who, at the beginning of my career, made me want to be like her until I became the professional I now am. Always having somebody who inspires you seems to be very important to me.”

*Only 23% of partners in CPA firms in the USA are women despite roughly equal numbers of men and women entering the profession.

This article is an updated version of an article I wrote for my client Praxity Global Alliance, the world’s leading alliance of independent accounting and consulting firms. The article was originally published by Praxity to coincide with International Women’s Day on March 8.