Women in Finance group talks building diverse pipelines


One of the core assertions of the Clifton StrengthsFinder personal assessment by Gallup is diverse teams are powerful. A recent lunch and learn explored how to get to this place.

The Association for Corporate Growth Western Michigan, or ACG Western Michigan, a nonprofit membership organization for business and finance professionals, on May 22 hosted a panel discussion, “Build a Balanced Talent Pipeline” as part of its Women in Finance luncheon series.

The event was held at Hungerford Nichols CPAs + Advisors, 2910 Lucerne Drive SE in Grand Rapids.

Peggy Murphy, CPA and shareholder at Hungerford Nichols; Hillary Mullennix, human resources specialist at Hungerford Nichols; and Dori Danko, accounting instructor at Grand Valley State University, were the featured speakers.

The interactive event drew audience responses, questions and insights as the panelists discussed why diversity is important in the workplace; how to guide young people into the accounting profession; what organizations are doing to attract and retain diverse talent, including older adults; and how organizations, once they have a diverse team, can learn to work together.

Murphy, who moderated the discussion, said the primary audience was accounting and technology professionals, but much of the content could be applied to banking, insurance, law and other fields.

Diversity benefits

The panelists agreed diversity is crucial to an organization, including differences in age, ability, ethnicity, national origin, cultural background, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, religion and more.

A flier handed out at the event listed five main benefits of diversity in the workplace: It gives the team a variety of talents, skills and experiences; it creates innovation; language skills can open doors for a business; it grows the company’s talent pool; and it improves employee performance.

Murphy said Hungerford Nichols has been trying for years to hire Spanish-speaking CPAs that are at manager, senior manager and partner level to work with Latino business owners who don’t speak English. But the pipeline is lacking, she said.

The firm has been “figuring out how to communicate very well” with Latino clients for the past 10 to 12 years, but bilingual CPAs still are needed, she said.

“As (clients) want to refer others in, that’s the question that comes to the table — who can speak to the business owners, so they don’t have to bring in their child or their employee to interpret on these sensitive business matters?”

Guiding young people

To address the need for a more diverse pipeline, Hungerford sees value in starting very young, even before college.

The firm has partnered with a number of organizations, including Workforce Intelligence Network/MI Bright Future; Junior Achievement of Michigan Great Lakes; GVSU Career Services; AG Collaborative; West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce; Grand Rapids Pride Center; and Grand Rapids Public Schools’ Innovation Central High School.

Mullennix said the partnerships have provided opportunities, including reverse job shadows, where Hungerford employees speak to students about careers in their profession; and signing up for an email list through MI Bright Future, where students from many schools can reach out to a pool of interdisciplinary professionals and ask questions about future careers.

“The whole theme for our involvement has been trying to target a younger and younger population because, as you guys all know, recruiting is very competitive right now,” Mullennix said.

Danko said her goal at GVSU is recruiting students into the accounting major, which takes some work because students have to unlearn negative, inaccurate ideas of what accountants do.

GVSU hosts an annual event called Accounting Backstage Pass organized by several firms and held on campus. Students get a free lunch and can attend audit, tax and corporate breakout sessions.

“We always have a wonderful grad student who helps us with that, because in the classroom, we found having the professor go, ‘Wah, wah, wah, come to this event,’ it just (didn’t work), but then we have a very invigorating grad student come in who has this great story, and they really sell the program,” Danko said.

While Backstage Pass is not specifically a recruiting event, it helps firms participate in creating a future talent pool. The school hosts other career fairs, and Mullennix, who is connected to GVSU Career Services and the accounting major for recruiting purposes, said Grand Valley does a great job of equipping students to be successful prior to meeting recruiters.

Grand Valley also is in the process of starting a five-day residential accounting camp for economically disadvantaged high school students. The pilot will start with 25-30 students from The Potter’s House in the Roosevelt Park neighborhood of Grand Rapids and expand to other schools in future years.

Finding diverse talent

Murphy said when she started her accounting career in the ’80s, the only women at accounting firms were secretaries, and the business clients were almost all men.

After encountering a woman who started a business as a divorcee in the ’60s, Murphy decided to devote herself to building up a practice serving woman-owned businesses. About half of her clientele are now women.

“I’ve helped them start, grow, transition, bring in their kids, sell,” Murphy said. “We just did an acquisition, a $50-million company purchased by a woman. And so, these are great businesses that now are taken seriously by the banks.”

Taking those steps opened the door for more diversity within the firm and cultivated a diverse pipeline of potential employees among her clients, she said.

Mullennix added building genuine ongoing relationships is important for organizations, even if they aren’t looking to hire at the moment. That includes staying in touch with someone who might not be right for the job they applied for but could be a fit for another role later on and making sure to follow up with them periodically.

Danko said employers need to be more open to returning students who may be 35 or older, veterans, women returning to work after raising children, etc.

Several in the audience agreed returning workers oftentimes have more life experience and soft skills than a recent college graduate who is young and green, and employers should take the time to explore their own implicit bias surrounding age.

Others pointed out West Michigan Works! and Women’s Resource Center help older adults looking to reenter the workforce or transition careers. The latter helps many women of color and citizens returning to the workforce after incarceration.

Perhaps one of the best ways to attract diverse talent is to offer flexible schedules to employees — including generous time-off policies, flexible working hours and the option to work remotely — and then heavily market those offerings, according to Heather Halligan, marketing manager at Hungerford.

Danko advises job-hunting students who care about that benefit to ask the question, “Who at your firm is taking advantage of flex schedules?” to make sure the company is walking the walk.

Working together

Hungerford Nichols has had employees take the Clifton Strengths assessment to understand teammates’ strengths and differences and learn how to work together.

Tessa Keena, a senior manager at Hungerford, said she has benefited from the strengths-based assessment as well as from mentorship opportunities at the firm, which have helped her transition from owning a hair salon to working at a CPA firm.

Mullennix said Hungerford has a diversity, equity and inclusion program in which a benchmarking survey was administered up front to all employees to identify their opinions and knowledge levels, then unconscious bias and DEI education sessions were held. The initiative has included training managers and leaders on what questions are and aren’t acceptable to ask in interviews and how to reduce bias in hiring.

Collaboration is built into Grand Valley’s Seidman College of Business, Danko said. She tells students who are worried about being randomly put on a group project with a slacker to see it as preparation for the future.

“You will when you leave Grand Valley, be on a team with a slacker,” she said. “Learning how to collaborate (with all people) is just so important.”

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