Mary L. Bennett
Mary L. Bennett

Flexibility at the partner level

Steps to negotiating flex time and succeeding at it.

August 16, 2012
by Mary L. Bennett

Melissa Harman was at a New York firm before joining a California-based office of Moss Adams. In her initial interview at Moss Adams, she told the hiring partner that one of her attractions to the firm was its commitment to work/life integration and the possibility of pursuing a flexible schedule someday. She planned to have a family in the future, and it was important to her to know she had viable choices to continue to progress in her career while raising a family. She also understood that quality of life in Los Angeles, with its transportation challenges, required flexibility.

Harman is now a partner in the not-for-profit practice, and busy season occurs in summer and fall. When her oldest child, now 7, was born, she transitioned to an 80% schedule—a schedule with approximately 80% of the workload in 80% of the hours. She had an important mentor, a woman in the same practice area. Her mentor organized her personal flexibility around client needs and was not on a “fixed schedule.” Harman found many answers in the path her mentor had taken and discovered that sometimes this meant being available for more than 40 hours a week, while at other times it meant less. This is dubbed a “client first” model. She understood that she needed to set a schedule that met her personal needs while also meeting her client’s needs.

Over the years her schedule has changed. “This is a constant line I had to walk. I knew who I needed to make happy (clients and my NFP Group),” said Harman. She regularly conducted assessments with her leaders and asked her clients what they thought of what she was doing. She would always communicate with her partner to ensure she was meeting his expectations. “Lastly, I created a hard stop in my calendar for 4 p.m. every day to help discipline my departure. It doesn’t always work, but it can.” Harman pointed out that though she took Fridays off, there were some Fridays when her staff and her clients needed her and it was not possible for her not to be involved. Still, she “switched to shorter days, every day and even ebbed and flowed as it relates to my busy season. For example, I work 40-plus hours during my summer busy season, but then only work 25 to 32 hours during nonbusy season.”

One of the most important elements of her success was clear communication regarding her career goals. Harman made it clear she did not want to be left behind while she was raising a family. She repeatedly asked for opportunities. She was also careful to maintain adequate firm and client activities to ensure she was getting the necessary experience to stay on the partner track and was vocal about what she wanted. The firm was responsive in return. Harman feels strongly that personal organization and communication skills are essential to succeed on a flexible path.

Harman still works flexibly from home. She finds she is able to be wherever she needs to be for both her clients and her family. She attends events for her children and even finds time to volunteer.

She notes that she has support systems including her husband, who works full time, and a network of others.

Harman has support systems at work as well. She often uses a team approach with clients, keeping more than one partner in the loop on client needs. This ensures that the client’s needs are covered and that the partners (male and female) have options if commitments inside or outside of work create conflicts. They act as advocates for each other. Harman strongly believes that women need a Plan B at work and home because there is always the chance that something will occur to create a serious conflict. It is critical to have a plan for coverage if you are not there. While it is difficult if there are conflicts, stress and worry are much reduced if you know things will not fall apart in your absence.

Harman feels she is fortunate because she works in a group with many female role models who have given her so many options to choose from, including various alternative work schedules—from everyday short schedules to summers off to similar schedules to hers. Role models also assist in creating the culture of flexibility and career advancement as a norm in the firm. She is able to emulate different aspects from each situation or scenario.

She often hears that in an audit practice, flexibility does not work. In her experience, a rigidly defined “flex schedule” does not work. A more fluid approach to flexibility, however, is possible, and it works well for the client and the individual. She is living it, not on a weekly or a monthly basis, but long term. Harman is confident her life is on the right track as she sets boundaries and then removes them as needed. Nothing is static as things change from one year to the next. She is comfortable knowing that no matter what happens in the future, she can meet her clients’ needs as well as her personal needs and that the firm will support her decisions.

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Mary L. Bennett, CIA, CEC, has more than 25 years of experience in the accounting and consulting industry of which 17 have been with Crowe Horwath LLP, where she served as a partner. Her roles have included practice leadership, market development, business development, client service, engagement leadership, and organizational development.