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5 Tips for Aspiring Women Leaders

Leslie murphy olivia kirtley kathy eddy

Last month, I had the pleasure of attending the very first Women’s Global Leadership Summit, organized by the AICPA Women’s Initiatives Executive Committee, along with sponsors AICPA Private Companies Practice Section, the American Woman's Society of Certified Public Accountants and the Canadian Institute of Chartered Accountants. What an inspiring experience with a group of accomplished, empowered women. Women from all areas of accounting gathered to talk about the business case for creating inroads for women leaders in the profession, best practices for onboarding, preparing and maintaining female leadership and the effectiveness of establishing mentorship and advocacy programs. 

I know many of my peers are striving to stay ahead of the complexities of the profession, build a solid reputation and balance work and family in an increasingly challenging environment. I came out of the Summit feeling energized that more women are assuming leadership roles in accounting.  I thought: “What advice do I wish I had heard from my peers and role models when I was just starting out in the profession?”

Here’s what came to mind:

  1. Be self-reliant and self-accountable. The world of accounting is fast-paced and challenging. The best way to build confidence in this environment is to do the work—and be able to do the work whenever you are called upon to do so. Knowing how to power through the work—whether it’s foundational or more advanced—means you can rest assured that there is at least one fully-capable person on your team who can step up to the plate when someone else isn’t able to. It also means you’re the perfect teacher to instruct others on how to do the job right.
  2. Capitalize on your exposure to leadership. Sometimes, when you’re first starting out, the thought of being in a room among executive leadership—whether it’s a client or the CEO of your own organization—can be intimidating. You don’t want to say the wrong thing; you don’t want upper management to think you don’t know the business. Don’t sweat it. Spend your time among leadership observing the way they operate, recognizing how they make decisions or facilitate a meeting. This puts leadership into context and gets you ready to lead when the time comes.
  3. Embrace leadership opportunities. Have you ever been put on the spot and urged to lead in an unexpected moment?  Even when you feel well prepared, it can be nerve wracking to have to take on a leadership role or be a decision maker in a given situation. Rise to the occasion. Those moments will become easier with practice if you continue to embrace them rather than defer to someone else.
  4. Don’t wish away your nervousness. Feeling a slight sense of unease—those butterflies in your stomach—when you are learning something new is a sign that you’re being challenged and gaining wisdom. Don’t be afraid of that sensation. Acknowledge it and recognize it as career affirming and then keep driving toward those moments of discomfort and continue to grow from them.
  5. Networking and relationship building are key. Yes, it’s true that we all work hard to achieve our own professional success, but relationships with clients, internal stakeholders, partners and staff play a huge role in reaching and maintaining that success. Networking early in your career will pay off in the future. The relationships you build can serve as a safety net as you make your way to the top of your game; nurture them and be willing to support your colleagues in the same way that they support you.

The AICPA has several resources for women in the profession located on this webpage. You can learn more about the business case behind supporting women in leadership with this Educating, Advocating, Advancing brochure. The Second Annual AICPA Women’s Global Leadership Summit is scheduled for Oct. 24-25 in Washington, DC.

What advice do you wish you’d gotten as you began your journey in accounting? What would you tell your younger self, knowing what you know now?

Susan S. Coffey, CPA, CGMA, Senior Vice President - Public Practice & Global Alliances, American Institute of CPAs.

In the photo, from left: Kathy Eddy, Leslie Murphy, Olivia Kirtley



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