Moss Adams chips at gender barriers

  • By Debra Smith HBJ Freelance Writer
  • Wednesday, December 19, 2012 4:12pm

EVERETT — In college, Noni LaLone sat next to plenty of women during accounting classes.

When she went to work as a certified public accountant for Moss Adams in Everett, she noted that about half of the company’s hires were female.

But something happened by the time she made partner: most of the other partners at the firm were men.

It’s not a phenomenon unique to Moss Adams, a public accounting and business consulting firm with multiple offices around the country. Women remain underrepresented at the highest levels of the accounting profession everywhere.

The reasons are complex. Typically, the tug of family obligation pulls women off the career ladder.

“It’s not all about having babies,” LaLone said. “It’s a trigger. Women start thinking, ‘Is this something I want to do the rest of my life? Do I want to give up my time with my family at home?’ ”

Executives at Moss Adams view the female exodus as a business problem. They don’t want to lose talented employees mid-career. The company also recognizes that more of their clients are women, and matching that diversity would help the firm be more competitive in the marketplace.

In 2009, the company made a conscious effort to recruit and retain more women. It’s working.

Today, Moss Adams has one of the highest numbers of female partners in the industry. This year, 24 percent of the firm’s 243 partners are women. That’s a 4 percent increase since the inception of the program. Similar size firms average 17 percent female partners.

The business world is taking notice. “Working Mother” magazine named Moss Adams one of its 100 Best Companies, and the Accounting MOVE Project named the firm one of its Best Accounting Firms for Women.

The program is called Forum_W. It initially began with leaders listening to women talk about what they wanted from their careers and what they needed to be successful. Almost universally, women at the firm said they wanted more mentorship. They also wanted help establishing business networks that are so necessary for sales and marketing.

That’s important because bringing in new business is a crucial step toward partner.

“There is a necessity to go out and get business,” said LaLone, who serves on the firm’s Forum_W board. “What we’ve found is, for many women, that’s scary and challenging. For some reason, it doesn’t come naturally.”

Those skills can be learned. The firm began offering more educational opportunities, for instance, sessions on delivering a successful elevator pitch and developing better presentation skills. Last year, Moss Adams’ offices hosted more than 110 events focused on mentoring, networking, serving the community and education.

The company also pairs young women with more seasoned colleagues. In one event, called Path to Partners, young female professionals can ask questions of women who have made partner at the firm.

Perhaps Moss Adams has been successful in part because of a long-standing culture that supports families and employees’ other important commitments. Even before this program, Moss Adams offered flexible work schedules, something both women and men take advantage of.

LaLone, employed at Moss Adams 15 years, works a modified schedule to better balance her work and family life. That means she works four days a week most of the year. However, she still is there for her clients when she’s needed most. During the firm’s busiest season, between the New Year and tax day, she works up to 70 hours a week.

“I wanted to be a mom, but I also wanted to have a career,” she said. “I wasn’t able to sacrifice being a mom so I had find a way to make it work.”

She was the first Moss Adams employee working a modified scheduled to be promoted to partner.

She doesn’t draw a bright line between work and family. She suggests women who want to be successful in their careers shouldn’t be rigid about time spent at home or at work. For instance, she’ll keep tabs on her work emails at home, but she’ll also check on her kids occasionally by phone from work. It’s a balance.

Moss Adams’ family-friendly culture initially attracted Jenny Keeney and it’s keeping her on a path to partner. The CPA is now 31 with two young children. As a senior manager, she’s on track for being considered for partner.

“I can only speak for myself, but I do think moms intrinsically feel there is something competing for their attention,” she said.

In many families, mothers remain the primary caregiver of children, she said.

Like LaLone, she works far more hours during tax season — as many as 70 hours a week. The rest of the year, she works fewer days a week and she tries to go home at 5 p.m. She accepts it may take her a little longer than someone else who isn’t on a modified schedule to reach her occupational goals.

“I view this as a career that will take 30 years plus to build,” she said.