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Tech & Innovation

How women can harness the drivers of innovation in the tax & accounting industry

Samantha Mansfield  Founder of Samantha Mansfield LLC

Samantha Mansfield  Founder of Samantha Mansfield LLC

In almost every aspect of the tax & accounting business, the status quo is being challenged, or at least, it should be — and much of the challenge is coming from women driving further innovation.

From the adoption of hybrid work environments and managing the Great Resignation, to meeting the evolving expectations of customers, tax & accounting tax firms should be looking at all aspects of their business and prioritizing which innovation will have the greatest impact.

Often, we think of innovation as developing a new widget, but there are actually 10 types of innovation, according to Doblin, a Deloitte business. Process improvements, services, and client engagement are just a few of the types, and ones being heavily looked at in the tax & accounting industry. In short, innovation is looking at what exists around us and creating something better, according to industry innovator George Blankenship.

This charge needs to be led by someone, and women seem to be stepping into that role quite naturally. Previous research revealed that women leaders are more prone to “challenge the status quo”, and more specifically will champion change, drive results, solve problems, and innovate.

Further, Harvard Business Review shared the results of a study that looked into the impact on organizations that promoted women into leadership roles showed such organizations “increasingly embraced transformation while seeking to reduce the risks associated with it.” The study also found these organizations increased the frequency of terms conveying “openness to change” by 10%. This could explain why a number of innovation teams across the industry are being led by women or strategically incorporating the female perspective in their drive to innovate.

I spoke to some of these women who are driving change and innovation in accounting firms and organizations of all sizes and taking a leadership role in the transformation that’s occurring in the tax & accounting industry. They shared their perspectives on the need for change and what is takes to be successful.

The need

The catalysts for change are happening in all facets of the tax & accounting industry, but there are a couple stand-out areas. As Inga Arendt, CPA, partner in innovation and transformation at Wipfli, points out, leaders are not innovating for the sake of innovating, rather, they have a purpose in mind.

Given the current industry talent shortage, the need for greater efficiency is key. Lindsay Stevenson, CPA, CGMA, Chief Transformation Officer at BPM, notes that “the Great Resignation is priming the pump of innovation in the workplace… .”

Gabrielle Luoma, CPA, CGMA, co-founder and CEO of MOD Ventures, explains how she puts the focus on processes, by asking, “How can I do this one thing better?” Firms, and almost all organizations, are trying to figure out how to effectively work with team members in a hybrid environment while keeping productivity high, maintaining quality work, and staying connected with their teams.

Further, technology is advancing faster than ever before, and for leaders to keep their organizations strong they have to be anticipating how this changes the expectations of both their own talent and clients. “Innovation is happening inside the practitioner’s world, not just outside it,” says Jagruti Solanki, CPA, CFO at BitPay, noting that all the automation and process improvements are “moving up the level of review and financial reporting.”

Indeed, consider how mainstream companies like PayPal, Venmo, and others are now dealing in cryptocurrency. In this and many other ways, the questions and needs clients have will be changing. Evolution such as this is why “[innovation] is not a luxury… the pace of innovation has to pick up,” says Arendt.

Clearly, as all these women point out, it’s time to break the status quo of the traditional work environment, and women have a distinct perspective to voice in this transformation.

The mindset

We need to adopt the growth mindset, Stevenson explains, noting that “[innovation is] all about changing the way we think so we can change the way we do.” That includes reimagining the way we teach our leaders, she says, noting that accountants are accustomed to operating within limits and boundaries, so we need to challenge accounting leaders to focus more on opportunities.

Solanki emphasized the need for firms to be proactive in their innovation or their businesses could be disrupted, like many were during the pandemic.

The leadership

Strong leadership that fosters a culture of innovation is imperative for success, and accounting firm leaders need to be open to ideas from all areas and levels of the organization. Leaders should establish a culture where all “crazy ideas” are welcome, and “no idea is dumb,” say Stevenson and Arendt, respectively. Leadership that is open to new ideas and has a team with diverse perspectives ready to vet those ideas will have the most potential.

Of course, this requires two-way trust. During the testing and rollout stages, leadership needs to strongly communicate why the change is being made. Stevenson suggests that leaders need to overcommunicate, so the team understands what is in it for them. In addition, the leaders need to listen to the concerns of their team.

Luoma says such action builds trust with her, so her team can freely tell her when they disagree or when things aren’t working according to plan. The team has to trust that she will “ditch an effort” if it is not going to achieve the intended goal, Luoma adds.

Finally, Stevenson points out that effective innovation leaders also look outside their firm and collaborating with colleagues because many ideas can come from learning about the changes other industries or firms are making. This can demonstrate “proof of concept,” she says.

And listening to customers also can inform your firm’s own planning, but you must act fast given the rate of change in the industry today, adds Solanki.

It is clear that the tax & accounting industry in going through a transformation, and women leaders have a strong role to play in shaping that future. Women have special skills that can be leveraged to identify the problems, develop solutions, and execute the plans that can bring innovative ideas to fruition — and this includes envisioning what their own career in tax & accounting might look like.

“Dream big,” encourages Stevenson — and make your voice heard, says Solanki. And remember, women’s perspectives are not as fully represented at the leadership table as they could be, so mentor fellow women to get more of their ideas heard.

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