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August 04, 2014 Blog 2 min read
While Gordon is on sabbatical, he has invited Sue Perlin, a partner specializing in serving many of the firm’s significant foundation and cultural institution audit clients, to fill in as a guest blogger. Sue is known for her active involvement in the attraction and retention of women leaders at the firm and is currently leading the Plante Moran Women in Leadership initiative.

For the last 25 years, more than 50 percent of accounting major college graduates have been women. Yet when you look at the percentage of female partners at accounting firms, it’s typically less than 20 percent. The harsh truth is that, in most firms, there’s a “cliff” where women tend to drop off, to leave the profession altogether. At Plante Moran, that cliff tends to be between the senior associate/manager and partner role.

Two years ago, we developed our Women in Leadership (WIL) initiative to combat this trend. We set out to increase the visibility of female leaders externally and internally, provide targeted developmental career opportunities to retain and advance women leaders, and develop customized career and life integration strategies that complemented the firm’s existing successful work-life programs.

One of the programs we introduced was a female mentoring program, which pairs senior female staff with a mentor who (1) is a partner, (2) has strong staff development skills, (3) has some kind of firmwide leadership responsibility, and (4) is in a different practice area than the mentee. The goal is to give mentees a fresh perspective—a new way of looking at their careers.

We interview mentees beforehand to best match them with mentors. For example, some mentees ask that their mentors have young children or have experience changing office location or practice area. And mentees set the direction for the meetings—anything and everything are open for discussion, from executive presence to self-promotion to relationship building. The program formally lasts 18 months, but most mentors and mentees stay in touch well after its completion.

The program has been tremendously successful. We promoted 18 new partners on July 1—the most in our firm’s history!—and 11 of them were women. Ten of those 11 women were graduates of our mentoring program, which is entering its fifth cycle. As the program has grown, we’ve been able to target talented female staff earlier in their careers and give them enhanced support earlier on.

The numbers are promising, no question, and it’s nice to have that quantitative evidence that our programs are working. But what pleases me more are the stories from these female mentees who have participated and continue to participate in the program. Mentees like Katie Thornton, a senior associate in our East Lansing office who was paired with former Firm Managing Partner Bill Hermann. “The experience was life changing,” says Katie. “For me to be successful, I need that personal connection with people. I had it with Bill immediately. He put me at ease, he listened, and then he told me the truth. I had this idea in my head of what a partner looked like, and Bill said, ‘Wait a minute—we need all types of partners.’ He challenged me to make my career my own and has really pushed me to think about how I handle situations, to work smarter, and to take things less personally. He’s empowered me to have more control over my schedule and decisions and, ultimately, my success. He’s helped me identify what I need to do to get to the next level.”

Stories like that, more than anything else, let me know we’re moving in the right direction.

How about you? What percentage of females occupies top leadership positions at your organization? Is that percentage increasing?  Do you do anything specific to support females in their careers and development?