“We have a much better chance of creating an inclusive culture throughout our company if there are purposeful and consistent communications about the benefits.”
Diversity and inclusion is a no brainer. Every employee gets a seat at the table regardless of age, race, gender, sexual orientation, disability or other ‘difference’.
But there’s a long way to go when it comes to equal opportunities in the workplace, especially in traditionally slow-to-change professions like accountancy.
That was the message of a powerful keynote speech by Kimberly Ellison-Taylor at the virtual global conference of Praxity, the world’s largest alliance of independent and accounting and consulting firms.
Kimberly is one of the most successful women in public accounting and one of the world’s leading advocates for the business benefits of inclusion. Her personal story, rising from humble beginnings to become the first person from an ethnic minority to serve as chair of US and global CPA organisations, is inspiring.
She told Praxity conference delegates “inclusion matters” because people like herself have had to fight twice as hard to reach the top. Now working as Executive Director of Finance Thought Leadership at Oracle, her message to accounting professionals from Praxity member firms around the world was to give everyone a chance – at every level.
A seat at the table
The US-born accountant urged firms to place inclusion and diversity at the heart of their management and people strategies to ensure everyone has a seat at table.
This wasn’t simply call to action. It was an insightful, deeply personal account to demonstrate how inclusion can change things for the better.
Kimberly told delegates the accounting profession is still “under construction” and the people part of business is the hardest thing to get right. Hinting at unconscious bias, she said: “We are human. We are all under construction. We all have our biases and that impacts how we operate.”
Describing how bias can show up everywhere, from recruitment and teambuilding to partnering, she said firms need to look at who is selected and why, and who isn’t on the team.
Evidence is mounting that firms need to take diversity and inclusion seriously:
- 67% of job seekers consider workplace diversity an important factor when considering employment opportunities (Glassdoor)
- The millennial and Gen Z generations are the most diverse in history (CNN Money)
- 45% of American workers experienced discrimination/harassment in the past year (Gallup)
- Companies with higher than average diversity had 19% higher innovation revenues (Harvard Business Review)
- 78% of employees say their organisations lack diversity leadership positions (Harvard Business Review)
Diversity of thought
Making the business case for inclusion, the torch-bearing accountant said it was important to involve a diverse range of people and encourage different ideas in the boardroom. This, she argues, will help firms respond to, and lead on, the biggest issues in business today, from Covid-19, natural disasters, and financial challenges to digital transformation, talent management and succession.
Commenting on the rapidly increasing pace of change, she said: “We have to change with the pace of the world around us. The next growth area is sitting in one of your team leaders’ hands but we haven’t asked them. We need everybody’s ideas the table.”
She continued: “We need leaders that lead from the front, who are bold and who realise we can all rise together. We need to continue with leadership initiatives. We have to have the best and the brightest around the table. Diversity of thought is non-negotiable in today’s world.”
It could be argued inclusion strategies made no difference to Kimberly’s rise to the top. Indeed, she stresses she never used her ethnicity or gender to advance her career. It could also be argued few people have her belief and determination to succeed.
Describing her journey, she revealed her parents played a big part by insisting she could do anything she wanted to do, but they also warned “you are going to have to work twice as hard to get half the credit”.
This gave her the belief to take on anything, knowing that with the right attitude and a willingness to learn and apply new skills, she could add value.
Education levels the playing field, she says, urging firms to invest in training and provide the resources necessary to help everyone reach their potential without the need to work twice as hard for half the credit.
Calling for equity, she told delegates that leaders need to give their people the resources they need to be “the best version of themselves”, adding: “We have to believe we can make a difference. We have to have a level of trust. We have to be vulnerable. We have to be willing to listen.”
How to create an inclusive culture
So, what can firms do to drive positive change? Kimberly recommends 12 steps to foster an inclusive culture:
- Acknowledge the challenges faced by diverse members of the firm.
- Conduct a “listen and understand” inclusion council with ideas crowdsourced from team members across the organization.
- Review the data.
- Ask periodically for honest feedback on the culture of the organization, and communicate transparently about the results and action plan.
- Establish appropriate funding that is aligned with outcomes expected.
- Communicate the vision.
- Encourage allies to join the affinity groups, and create new groups based on hobbies and interests
- Determine ways to promote individual and collective accountability for the inclusion culture and the organization’s core values
- Journey-map the employee experience of various employees.
- Conduct deeper diversity and inclusion training.
- Review what additional support and training can be provided to people leaders based on various scenarios and exit interviews.
- Move inclusive leadership to the main stage.
In a virtual Q&A session following Kimberly’s rallying call, Partners at indendendent accounting firms within Praxity Global Alliance, quizzed the keynote speaker on some of the challenges that lie ahead.
- “How can leaders from privileged backgrounds understand the DNA of those from less privileged backgrounds?” Bindi Palmer, Head of Audit & Assurance at Rouse Partners, UK.
- “We have to put ourselves in the day of the lives of the people that come from humble beginnings. Then link to the resources they might need and what they need on day one.”
- “How can you demonstrate as a leader that you believe in inclusion and at the same time get commitment to client service delivery?” Sunil Kalra, Mazars, India.
- “Ask how they are doing, build trust, foster teamwork and move on to shared purpose and values.”
- “Is affirmative action part of the answer or should we only focus on aptitude when promoting, for example?” Thierry Labarre, Managing Partner, Mazars, China.
- “I am sure I have benefited from affirmative action. It’s a combination of both. But I have never led with being black or female.”
Leading by example
Many Praxity member firms already have well-established diversity and inclusion strategies, including Plante Moran, DHG and Mazars. Other firms are now following suit.
Praxity’s Chairman Gordon Krater has admitted the Alliance needs to do more and new initiatives are currently being developed to lead by example. Praxity’s collaborative approach, where firms share knowledge and expertise on best practice, will be key to embedding a culture of inclusion across the Alliance, changing accounting for the better.
As organisations seek to adapt to the so-called ‘new normal’, now is the ideal time to make inclusion a priority, not just in accounting but in every profession and industry.
I originally wrote this article for Praxity Global Alliance, the world’s largest alliance of independent accounting and consulting firms. I have updated it for my website.