First Focus: Women Leaders Paving the Way for Change

In the ‘80s, as a woman in the accounting industry, you’d be lucky to find more than one or two other female counterparts at an industry event. And it was even more unlikely that you’d be seeing her onstage or leading a discussion. Historically, accounting, like many other professional service areas, has been a very male-dominated space. The women who were in the industry knew they were just as smart, capable and driven as the men who significantly outnumbered them, and they wanted to increase the representation. But it didn’t happen overnight.

In 2007, leaders at Eide Bailly, including the COO, director of HR, director of leadership development and several partners, took a step back and analyzed the role of women in leadership at the firm. What they discovered was that, while the average hire rate of male to female was 50/50, females at the senior associate level were leaving at an accelerated rate compared to their male counterparts. This left an evident gap in the ratio of women to men within the ranks of managers and senior managers, which, in turn, narrowed the pipeline of women moving on to partner or other leadership roles. These stats made it clear that something needed to be done to increase the retention rate of the many qualified female accountants who offered so much potential.

After about a year of discussion and collaboration, the firm launched an initiative called First Focus with a goal of leveling the playing field. The vision of First Focus is “to nurture a firmwide culture where women are as likely to succeed as men.” The purpose of this initiative was three-fold: 

  • First, create an atmosphere where women could transparently relay their concerns, frustrations and drawbacks to First Focus leaders. 
  • Second, outline an action plan to firm leadership of steps the firm needed to take to effectively respond to the issues raised by initiative participants.
  • Third, provide training and resources that would better facilitate the success of female associates and senior associates, leveling the playing field with their male counterparts. 

Then-COO Dave Stende, who now serves as the firm’s CEO/managing partner, strongly supported the initiative and encouraged the committee to take steps to roll out a firmwide program that focused on 120 senior associates and first-year managers. 

“Being a facilitator opens the door for collaboration and connection,” said one facilitator.

Accompanied by the strong backing of firm leadership and the First Focus committee, “Focus Forum” sessions began. In the first year, these 120 participants met six times via Skype to discuss a variety of topics, such as the importance of taking responsibility for your career and supporting your female peers, techniques for growing in confidence, navigating the communication differences between men and women, understanding your natural workplace preferences and so much more. These sessions were facilitated by carefully selected, high-potential female senior managers who received facilitation training.

The first year of meetings was wildly successful, with participants submitting positive feedback. It quickly became apparent that more facilitators were needed to maintain a high level of energy and impact. The committee began to recruit senior managers to join the facilitator pool, expanding the number of facilitators to 12.

Facilitators have learned:

  • Talk less & listen more
  • Ask questions and wait for a response
  • Ask follow-up questions
  • Time management skills
  • Collaboration skills

These skills transferred into their interactions with other co-workers and clients.

By providing content along with skills training to effectively lead First Focus dialogues, these new facilitators were equipped and empowered to confidently take on their new role. After each session, a coach would meet with them to discuss how the session went and talk through any challenges they had to help them continually improve. Many of the facilitators have moved up to become partners and credit the program for helping them progress within the firm.  

Over the years, retention has improved, confirmed by the fact that roughly 50% of these women are still with the firm and many of them have been promoted.  

Many facilitators commented on their extensive personal growth, which they had not anticipated.

“We’ve accomplished a lot since 2008,” said Stende. “Currently 31% of our partners are female, where the industry average is 23% as of 2019. We’re making great strides as a firm.”  

Women in Leadership at Eide Bailly
  2008 2013 2018 2020
Senior Managers 21% 39% 45% 44%
Partners 19% 26.5% 30% 31%
Partner data is based on entire partnership and senior managers are tax and audit only.
 

 

Another observation provided an interesting and impactful derivative of the program: experienced facilitators were not only staying with the firm, they were also excelling in their roles. Their presentation skills were being sharpened and honed, and their leadership capabilities were becoming more evident. As their skills grew, so did their confidence. In turn, they pursued new opportunities they may not have before. With confidence, they advocated for specific jobs, higher salaries and opportunities in other departments or offices. They began to sign up for more committees and were  invited to participate on task forces and special projects. 

The success of the First Focus initiative is evidenced by more than just retention of the firm’s senior associates and managers, but also in the increased percentage of female partners, female involvement in committees and task forces as well as overall confidence from facilitators and participants. First Focus continues to transform, and it is now open to staff of all genders, levels and departments. 

“Before First Focus, I would have considered myself to have a timid, quiet voice,” said one member. “Now, I can confidently stand up in front of a group of hundreds of people. This experience introduced me to people I wouldn’t have otherwise met, and we’ve made lasting connections. It’s a great way to bring women to the table.”

There will always be challenges, unintentional biases and barriers to break down, but initiatives like Eide Bailly’s First Focus have been a catalyst for positive change. First Focus also helped pave the way in launching the firm’s Inclusion & Diversity Initiative, which began in 2018. The mission of the initiative is to create an inclusive and diverse environment where we build a workforce that is reflective of the communities in which we serve. We believe that different people and different perspectives help us provide innovative solutions for our clients, opportunities for our staff and the success for our firm. The initiative is led by an Inclusion & Diversity Council made up of staff and partners from across the firm who monitor, discuss and create efforts to further the mission.

We know we have more work to do, and we welcome growth opportunities to provide a place where our staff and clients feel safe and comfortable being their authentic selves.