Mary Bennett

Retaining and Developing Diverse Talent

How to attract, retain and develop employees who represent the change your firm needs for the future.

February 17, 2011
by Mary Bennett, CIA, CEC

Jill is an African American woman with 10 years of experience in public accounting. She is certified and versatile in the areas of practice in which she might contribute now and in the future. She has deep community roots in the major metropolitan area in which she works and she has shown great promise in promoting her firm in the market. She has demonstrated ability to target in on very valid and significant business-development opportunities. She is liked by her peers and develops the people on her teams. She also plans to leave the firm and possibly public accounting altogether. What is wrong with this picture?

Jill feels as if she works tirelessly to stay connected in the firm and to expand her network. She has been successful in this regard and is networked and capable of tapping into opportunities. She feels she has to prove herself every day when she walks through the door and again if she is working toward a significant opportunity in her firm or the market. She feels when she speaks she must work much harder to be heard and taken seriously than her white male peers. She feels that her superiors are not connected to her and that she is not on their radar screen. She has observed the favoritism or advocacy circles that drive the assignment of opportunities, promotions and pay increases. She has managed to tap into these organizational circles from time to time, but also notes that she has to assimilate in order to stay connected. She is uncomfortable with the degree of assimilation required. She understands that this assimilation also limits the value she may bring to the firm. She has come to the conclusion that the energy she is pouring into trying to fit into the organization could be better applied to her work if she was in a more inclusive environment. Her exploration of the public accounting marketplace has turned up few options upon deep research. She knows she has many career options. She cannot envision herself on the outside trying to gain access daily for the undefined and long-term future.

The sustainability of CPA firms is dependent upon attracting, retaining and developing the best talent. A significant portion of this talent is represented by individuals who represent something different than our current partner ranks. Today, a CPA firm’s ability to develop and bring new solutions to new markets is dependent on their success in creating an inclusive culture that supports a very broad level of diversity. This includes diversity in thought, lifestyle, ethnicity, gender, education, socioeconomic experience and much more. Creating an inclusive culture can be accomplished with targeted effort. How do you attract, retain and develop the individuals who represent the change your firm needs for the future while you continue to work on your culture?

Targeted Advocacy

What can an organization do now to retain and develop top talent like Jill? One of the most important strategies that an organization can employ is targeted advocacy. In the accounting profession, advocacy relationships drive talent development and career navigation. These relationships are a natural part of our organizations and have been so for decades. Advocates not only understand how to navigate through an organization to access key opportunities and networks at the most appropriate junctures of a career, but they also use political capital to facilitate these moves for their protégés. Advocates also help the protégés to become visible in ways that individuals cannot do for themselves. These relationships exist and drive our profession. These relationships are essential for election to owner, which is one of the ultimate career destinations in our profession.

It is critical to note that for individuals who represent something different from the norm, the advocacy relationships do not form as naturally as they do for the majority group. Human beings are drawn to individuals who remind us of ourselves, those we can identify with. This is especially true of advocacy relationships that may form naturally in public accounting firms. This is significant and an important element in Jill’s story. How can a person like Jill reach the conclusion that the price to pay for success in public accounting is too high?

As a partner in a public accounting firm, I am the first person to acknowledge the road is long and challenging. We expect to work hard to attain this goal. What is lost on those of us who may represent the majority is that the path is not the same for those who are diverse, those who may represent our future. The path is much harder every day. When we hear that these individuals do not want to do what it takes to succeed we must understand that in significant ways we are asking them to do more than we have had to do. This is true in many firms for women, minorities, those with different educational or socioeconomic experiences, different lifestyles or represent any significant difference that currently requires the individual to suppress in order to assimilate and be accepted. If you are a member of the majority and dominant group, the need to suppress fundamental elements of who you are to succeed may sound like fiction. Those who represent diversity in the ranks of your firm would assure you that the energy it takes to try to be a fully accepted and engaged member of the firm is significant.


Advocacy relationships must be in place for all of our top talent. If left to chance, the relationships will most likely not be in place for the individuals who represent a critical part of our future because they represent something different. Targeted Advocacy Programs are not difficult to implement. The ripple effect benefit of these programs is immense. One method of shifting culture is to work closely with those individuals who represent the future. Bias is generally unconscious. Bias begins to break down as we gain personal experience interacting with individuals. Both the advocate and the protégé learn from these relationships.

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Mary L. Bennett, ,CIA, CEC, has over 25 years of experience in the accounting and consulting industry of which 17 has been with Crowe Horwath LLP, where she served as a partner. Bennett’s roles have included practice leadership, market development, business development, client service, engagement leadership, and organizational development. areas of expertise include enterprise risk management, internal audit, sox, leadership development, talent development, inclusiveness programs and women’s leadership programs. Contact her directly for more information on advocacy programming.