Four takes on success for women CPAs, by women CPAs

Fiona Ma and other women from different walks of the accounting profession talk about turning points in their careers and key decisions and traits that helped propel them.

  ·  American Institute of CPAs   ·  Link to Article

One way for women to address the challenges of the accounting profession is to seek out advice from successful female mentors. I have had the privilege of meeting many such women over the years—women who possess distinct opinions on everything from advancing a career to obtaining higher compensation. Here’s a look at what some of them learned from their successes and how those lessons can help you. 

Jillian Phan

Partner with Meloni Hribal Tratner LLP 

As a partner in a CPA firm, do your “female characteristics” influence your style of leadership?

I lead by example. To be specific, if there is an urgent deadline that must be met, I expect to see everyone from each level, including myself, participating in order to complete the project. I am there with my team to support, mentor, guide, train, and motivate. The team members reciprocate and work harder to complete the work. I am also a good listener and encourage a culture where people are free to disagree and express their thoughts. Many great ideas and resolutions are uncovered when an issue or challenge is opened up for discussion. 

Do you have any suggestions on how women can get better work assignments and progress in their career?

Volunteer to take on assignments other than your routine duties. Step outside of your comfort zone and don’t be afraid to make mistakes or be challenged. That way, you show that you are both ambitious and a team player. When you complete the assignment well, you build credibility and earn the respect of your superiors. Then, when a challenging assignment becomes available, you will be the preferred choice.

Michele Heyman

Recently started her own firm, Michele M. Heyman PLLC 

On the critical choice preceding the establishment of her firm: 

One of the most difficult decisions I’ve made that has impacted my career in several ways was to accept one more position in the consulting department of a large local accounting firm. Even though this decision postponed the launch of my own firm by five years, it was time well spent. In addition to performing my job, I took advantage of every opportunity to learn management skills and also created new service areas. I realized the importance of, and began developing, my own personal brand. I actively expanded my network. These experiences proved very valuable and taught me a lot about the type of firm that I envisioned having. As a result of the decision to remain with that firm, I now run my own firm in the form I visualized, with a well-known brand, good set of clients, and specialized core service areas.

Can you give some examples of the things you learned that helped you succeed?

First is personal accountability. Second is to have a solution in mind before bringing a problem to someone’s attention. Third is following through on commitments. Follow-through goes hand-in-hand with trust and confidence. When [someone is] given a task, the person assigning the task should be confident that it would be completed in a timely manner. Fourth, be a “servant leader.” Fifth, be an active listener. True listening builds teamwork, trust, and a sense of belonging. People deserve to be acknowledged and understood. Finally, learn good conflict-resolution and negotiation skills. It is important that we as women learn these skills and avoid acting as a peacekeeper. Conflict is inevitable. We should see opportunity in conflict, and use conflicts to hone decision-making skills. 

What about negotiating and the gender pay-gap issue?

Appropriate compensation and asking for it can be perceived as rocking the boat, causing conflict. The answer is to ask for more, using conflict-resolution skills and negotiation skills. Do not expect that others will take care of you. Do your research and ask for what you are worth. It will not always result in what you want; however, it is good for your employer to know that you know the value of your skills, knowledge, experience, and education. 

Fiona Ma

CPA and former California State Assembly speaker pro tempore 

What are some of the hallmarks of your leadership skills?

Being on time or early and never late, if I can help it. Multitasking. Responding as soon as I can to emails and text messages. … Being able to commit early and stick by my commitments—sometimes I schedule out six months in advance. Flexibility and always being prepared for the unexpected or a change of plans. Care about people and treat people with respect. Positive and can-do attitude, which comes from my dad. Delegating work and not expecting perfection, or else I’d do it myself. And, I don’t complain…I figure out how to fix the problem and move on.

Do you have any suggestions for others who want to “get ahead”?

Don’t be late. Professionals value other people’s time. Dress for success.  Appearances do matter. Go beyond what is expected of you as an employee; get involved in outside activities and take on leadership roles. Be positive. Be helpful to others. Treat others as you’d like to be treated. Be generous with your time. Don’t say, “I don’t know,” but if you don’t know say, “I will find out.” Be there when the boss needs someone to do something. Be dependable, reliable, and resourceful. Pick a boss who will mentor you and learn from him/her.

Kristen Contreras

Corporate controller for a medical device company 

How did you make the conscious choice to develop a career? 

The most important decision of my career was in choosing to have a career and not just a job. So many people around me seemed to be interested only in doing their jobs and no more. They weren’t unhappy; they just lacked passion. I had a steady accounting job, but it became clear to me that if I didn’t change the way I thought, I would remain at more or less the same position for the rest of my life. I decided to find out what makes a job a career and go for it. It struck me that passion and a deeply committed interest were the essential differences between a job and a career.

What leadership skills are necessary to be a leader in modern business?

I feel that in order to be a highly effective leader, especially as a woman in today’s world, it is important to be completely prepared, or prepared to wing it, with absolute confidence. Women do tend to be more introspective and therefore tend to dwell on the fact that they don’t know everything. The key is to know that nobody knows everything, bite back fear, and take on a challenge or speak up.

The paths of these women are all different, but certain themes recur in their stories of success. I encourage you to have your own discussions with friends and business contacts about these issues.