Ladder or Lattice? The Climb to the Top
How one CPA Women to Watch award recipient established herself as partner of a Big Four firm.
March 17, 2011
Jo Ellen Helmer serves as the first subject in a series of Women’s Initiatives Executive Committee (WIEC) interviews focused on “Women in the Profession.” As an established partner at a premier global CPA firm, we wanted to share her experiences, from embarking on her career in public accounting to how she successfully navigates her career to the present day.
Helmer leads the Midwest Health Services Industry Sector at Ernst & Young, LLP. Diversity and inclusiveness are priorities for her at the firm, serving on the Inclusiveness Advisory Council for the Americas, the Midwest Inclusiveness Steering Committee and the Professional Women’s Network. In addition to her career at Ernst & Young, she is married with two teenaged children and serves on the board, audit committee and executive committee of the Illinois Biotechnology Industry Organization. She volunteers at her church, St. Thomas More, and its affiliated school, serves as a Girl Scout Camp CEO volunteer and is a member of the United Way’s Tocqueville Society.
WIEC: When you started college, did you know you wanted to be a CPA? What went into your decision to focus on a career in accounting?
Helmer: Believe it or not, I did go to college knowing I wanted to be a CPA. I always loved math and numbers. It all “gelled” when I took a bookkeeping class in high school.
I began to research schools that had strong accounting programs where I could continue playing sports. I chose St. Joseph’s College and graduated with my bachelor’s in accounting.
WIEC: What sort of professional goals did you set for yourself early in your career? Do you feel goals are an important part of career planning and progression?
Helmer: At our firm, we have a very robust and formal goal-setting process. We work with our counselors to set our goals at the beginning of the year; we have a mid-year review as well as an annual review process; and we have several ways to receive and give feedback on performance throughout the year. From my earliest days at the firm, I worked closely with my counselor to map out a short-term plan and a long-term plan, knowing it would evolve over time. Whether or not your firm has a formal process in place, I’m a huge supporter of goal setting every year for anyone in any profession, at any level. Even as a partner, I set goals for myself. Being systematic helps me stay accountable to myself and what I really want. While I’m a partner in a leadership position, I’m constantly seeking new opportunities to expand my skill set and gain new experiences. I don’t want to ever stop learning. When I do, I know it’s time to leave the profession.
WIEC: What role did networking with other professionals play in your advancement and success? How would you rate the importance of networking over the course of your professional career?
Helmer: Networking both inside and outside Ernst & Young has had a profound impact on my career. Having a broad base of contacts, especially those in leadership positions, is vitally important. These relationships help you “get noticed,” and working with people in leadership positions also exposes you to other leadership styles, from which you can pick and choose the traits you admire and find the most valuable. Becoming active in the community (board seats, committee roles, etc.) enhances your network and can deepen your fulfillment.
WIEC: You mention leadership style. What leadership styles do you admire? How have you developed your leadership skills to effectively serve as a role model for those who work with you?
Helmer: As a leader, I feel it’s my responsibility to “serve” the people who are at a lower rank. What I mean by “serve” is to help them remove barriers, create opportunities and develop their skills. The most successful leaders at Ernst & Young are those who can lead diverse teams … those who can bring the best out in others, build consensus, solicit contributions from the entire team and team effectively with other people. These are the leadership styles that I value and admire in people. Likewise, I don’t enjoy working with people who are non-collaborative. When you consistently make unilateral decisions, you’ll overlook opportunities to take in different perspectives and viewpoints … and potentially overlook the best solutions. I think I’ve gained the most as a leader by watching others.
WIEC: Do you have any best practices to share when it comes to work/life balance?
Helmer: The best thing I ever did was integrate my personal and work calendars. That way, I know what I have to make a priority on any given day, and my family and my engagement teams are on board. I also quickly scan my email before I go to bed during the week and on Sunday evenings so I am prepared for the next day. Avoiding surprises keeps me more balanced at home and at work. I also advise people to over-communicate when it comes to achieving work-life balance. The trick to working in client service and with teams of people is being a good communicator and being as flexible as you can be.
WIEC: What do you feel are the most important issues facing women in our profession today?
Helmer: Many of the young women I see today seem to lack the confidence they need to achieve their potential, especially in a competitive environment like public accounting. Women need to be true to themselves and not act like someone they’re not (a man, for instance) in order to reach their goals. The trick is to feel comfortable in your own skin and be who you are. Play to your strengths! Nurture your own confidence and help instill a sense of confidence in other women.
WIEC: What specific initiatives in your company/firm have made a difference in your career path?
Helmer: The Inclusiveness Leadership Program is a formal program that pairs high-potential partners and principals — across all dimensions of diversity — with an executive coach, as well as with members of the firm’s America’s Executive Board who serve as mentors. While participating in that program, I gained confidence, learned from other leaders and developed strong mentoring relationships. Years later, I still have these strong mentor relationships, and I continue to call upon my mentors for advice. Another program, Career Watch, has made a difference in my career path. It’s a program designed to help ensure our high-performing females and ethnically diverse professionals receive the experiences and opportunities they need to achieve success. While I didn’t take part as a participant, this program has helped me be a stronger mentor and coach to other professionals (reverse mentoring).
WIEC: Describe your personal career path at the firm. Was it a straightforward rise through the ranks? “Ladder” or “lattice?”
Helmer: I’ve climbed the “lattice” at Ernst & Young. Throughout my career, I’ve taken on multiple new roles, some upward (getting promoted) some outward (building extensive networks across the firm, i.e., a rotation on Americas Inclusiveness Team) that have helped fuel my success. A great example of outward advancement is a global assignment that can set you apart in the marketplace. Bottom line: The more experiences you have, the more marketable you’ll be.
Erin Booth is an assistant director at Ernst & Young, LLP and is currently serving as an executive recruiter focused on the Advisory service line. With Ernst & Young, she has experience as both a client-serving professional for several years in Tax and internal-facing roles within the recruiting organization. After witnessing the positive changes in flexible culture within the Big 4, Booth moved into a diversity and inclusiveness role in the firm and helped found the New Jersey Affiliate of the AWSCPA where she serves on the board. She has been involved with WIEC for over two years.