Mary Cheaney

Barb Aasen

Business and practice development advice for women professionals

Take these steps to increase your visibility and gain attention for your contributions.

October 9, 2012
by Mary Cheaney, CPA, and Barb Aasen, CPA

While women CPAs have gained ground in business development, they often face a competitive climate where male colleagues retain the upper hand. While this imbalance may be considered par for the course for experienced women professionals, young women entering their careers often find it quite shocking. Millennials and Generation Y women have been raised in a peer culture that has made strong inroads in leveling the playing field. Finding that their careers may require more effort than male peers in an established organization can be an eye-opener to them.
As women professionals who have worked in a male-dominated profession, we’ve learned through experience the do’s and don’ts to advance our careers. We’ve made mistakes, watched other women succeed, and, like many, have continued to do what is needed to keep our careers visible and moving upward.
Based on our experience, we’ve compiled some advice on what women can do to develop their public accounting practice and build business that will advance their careers.

Practice development

When you are first developing your career, moving to a new firm, or establishing a private practice, the following tips can help you build your place in the practice and gain visibility:

  • Establish your worth in terms of the revenue you generate. It doesn’t matter how smart you are, how efficient you are, or how fast you catch on to procedures, your compensation and your track to ownership is tied to how much money you can bring in. Keep a good record of what you accomplish, and express it in dollars. If you cannot determine the correct dollar value to the firm, ask someone how to measure it.
  • Your image speaks louder than your business card ever will. Executive presence is just as important today as it was generations ago. If you look like an owner/partner, potential clients will treat you like an owner/partner. Don’t follow the crowd in this—be a leader. Get assistance from other women professionals in your network or attend a professional image seminar at your favorite department store (they’re free). Business attire for women has come a long way, but wearing today’s casual style can send the wrong message.
  • Don’t overlook small talk as a way to influence people. Being able to have a conversation with strangers is an important skill that can be developed if you don’t possess the innate ability. Keeping up with current events, following sports, or asking about hobbies are good ways to form instant connections to people so they remember you. If they remember you favorably, they will be influential in promoting you to their peers and colleagues. This applies not only to partners in your firm, but also to potential clients. People do business with people they know and like.
  • Credit equals reward. Take credit for what you accomplish, but be sure to include all members of your team if they deserve credit, too. Likewise, don’t let someone steal your thunder. Make sure you get recognition for success when working with someone else. You have to crow like a rooster. Do not assume your achievements will be discussed equally among your partners or supervisors. This is not bragging—this is making sure the people who can promote you understand what you are doing. If you do not tell them, they will not know. Do not downplay your accomplishments when you are discussing them. Be proud and confident.

Business development

Building your business takes commitment, drive, and mindfulness. The following tips can help make this process easier, more focused, and successful:

  • Network, network, network. Make connections with your clients and their other professional service people (attorneys, bankers, insurance agents, and brokers, etc.); in your professional organizations; with friends and neighbors; and with the people in your life. Make sure they know you are looking for business; don’t assume they know. We can’t stress this one enough. Networking early on in your career will pay off later. People at your level now will most likely be in a comparable position of power or influence when you are a partner or manager. It bears repeating—people do business with people they know.
  • Being a good public speaker sets you apart from the crowd. It takes confidence to stand in front of a crowded room, speak with authority, and have the people in the audience accept you as a business leader/partner. Some people are born with this skill; but if you are not one of those people, find the courage to develop this on your own. There are dozens of ways to get this experience in a friendly, nonthreatening way. Join a Toastmasters International organization, lead a study group, be a master of ceremonies at any of your network group’s events, or volunteer to read to children or the blind at the public library. All of these activities are building blocks to future success. 
  • Be an authority on something you can sell … and sell it. Finding a market for what you have to sell is the key to developing your business. It is difficult, if not impossible, to be an authority on everything. So pick the area(s) that interest you the most and become the leader in those areas. Use your networks, your public speaking skills, and your firm’s culture to do the advertising and marketing so you can sell your expertise to the right clients. Even the smallest area of expertise can lead to big revenue generators if it catches the right attention.
  • Remember you are a trusted business adviser. You have a valuable skill that can assist your clients through difficult times. Talk to your clients about what is happening in their business. During that conversation, multiple opportunities to help them will be discussed. Identifying those opportunities and letting your client know how you can help is the best business development opportunity you will have. Don’t hesitate to pursue those opportunities with your clients. These are issues they need and want help with—you are not trying to sell them something they do not need. When clients recognize you as the person who helps to solve their problems, you become their trusted business adviser—and will be their first call when they have an issue.
  • Time is money, but not always cold, hard cash. Learn effective billing techniques; and do not be afraid to bill what you are worth. It has been said that “if you don’t bill it, you can’t collect it.”  However, not every chargeable hour can be recovered immediately. There are times when it pays to invest in a client with your time.

Ultimately, managing business development requires a proactive strategy. Think about how you are perceived in your firm and beyond. Strive to be a solid performer and remember that business is business. Your male colleagues assume that their careers are a priority, they focus on business matters, are not afraid to compete for their place, and respect other people who demonstrate confidence, competence, and authenticity. You should do the same.

While it is a competitive field, remember, too, that your male colleagues are not your enemies—but professionals who want to grow, develop, and achieve authority within the firm. You want to gain their trust, respect, and admiration. Treat them with the peer respect you would want and acknowledge that you all work as part of a firmwide and industrywide team of professionals.

We would like to point out, too, that while you are competing for business and authority throughout your career, the goal is not to deny the fact that you are a woman. Women bring inherent skills, strengths, and perceptions that are invaluable to a firm’s overall success. Do not be afraid to honor your unique insight as a woman and allow that to be part of your firm’s strengths.

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Mary Cheaney, CPA, is principal of Mary Cheaney, CPA, and has served in numerous roles with the American Woman’s Society of CPAs, including national president in 2008–09. Barb Aasen, CPA, is partner-in-charge for Eide Bailly LLC’s Bismarck, N.D., office and a member of the AICPA Women’s Initiative Executive Committee.