According to Kimberly Ellison-Taylor, executive director, thought leadership, for Oracle, and past president of the AICPA, the mind-set of “I’ve got my one” is definitely not how diversity and inclusion should work in the accounting profession. Rather, it should be approached as being essential for driving business success, and she thinks the next generation of business leadership is poised to help move this important initiative for the profession in a positive direction. Get more of her insights on this critical topic in our latest episode.
By: Bill Hayes, Pennsylvania CPA Journal Managing Editor
As it is for many industries, the search for diversity continues to be a major issue for the world of accounting. Plus, many firms who have made the right steps toward diversity still must figure out how to build an environment that is inclusive of the ideas of its new personnel. To talk to us today about the need for diversity and inclusion in the accounting workplace we have Kimberly Ellison-Taylor, executive director of finance thought leadership for Oracle and immediate past chairman of the board for the AICPA.
I was reading a piece you authored on Accounting Today. It was titled “Are We There Yet? Diversity and Inclusion in Finance and Accounting.” I want to ask you, and I feel like I may be asking an obvious question here, if we were there we probably wouldn't be having this discussion, are we there and, assuming we aren't all the way there, what sort of progress do you think has been made toward the destination?
[Ellison-Taylor] It is a very interesting question and I can tell you that I prefer to think of things in a very positive way. Because we want to celebrate our achievements as we go through all of the various initiatives, because waiting until you're there to celebrate, one, we may not ever get there, and, two, I think we need to recognize that it's a collective effort and there are peaks and valleys and that we all have to stay committed to getting to where we want to be.
Now, why do I say, "Are we there yet?” No, unfortunately not. That's because we still have statistics that show that we're not as inclusive as we'd like to be. Our profession has amazing individuals in business and industry, public practice, government, academia, not-for-profit, and consulting. We have individuals in organizations of all sizes all around the world, and yet we know that diversity might look different from where you sit.
It could be on physical ability. It could be on geography, gender, orientation. It could also be on your background, whether or not you're English-speaking or not. I think we have to broaden our perspective on what diversity means, and I think we also have to recognize that you can't just do it once. We're human. It requires an ongoing commitment, tone at the top, leaders who are engaged, leaders who are purposeful, leaders who are intentional, and leaders who are willing to be accountable.
I can see the progress. As an African-American female, I can see that progress and certainly I want to congratulate us on what we've done so far to get more women on board and more women as partners and more women as finance leaders and CEOs, but it's not enough, not commensurate with where especially, let's say, women, the population percentage that we are and what we make up in the workforce. We're nowhere near where we need to be.
I am not talking about artificial quotas, not talking about coming up with a number and just throwing it at the sky and forcing everyone to do it. I am talking about building a bigger table of opportunity and access where people who are from different backgrounds can demonstrate and really illustrate their competencies in the marketplace. Diversity and inclusion sometimes gets a bad name, because it sounds like a euphemism for just letting people in. There is nothing in me that is saying that.
We want the best and the brightest, and I just know instinctively if we have any group that is exactly the same we do not have the best and the brightest. Yes, I think we're making progress, but I also know that we have some ways to go.
I thought it was interesting there that you talked about the profession as a whole needs to figure out what diversity means. For that reason, I wanted to ask you what do you think diversity and inclusion means, and how does it ensure that the accounting profession remains successful in the future?
[Ellison-Taylor] It is so interesting, because in that same article I said that diversity was easier – not easy – easier than inclusion because I think some organizations think that as long as they have one or two of whatever population, that they're there. I would say, well, no, that's not necessarily true because, do they stay? We have to look at our retention numbers, not just the numbers of people that we attract.
Diversity is important, and that means to me having the ability to look at different ideas, crowdsourcing innovations, crowdsourcing initiatives, ideas on initiatives that maybe the leader at the top of the organization would not have had visibility to, because there's no way for one person to have visibility across the entire organization. We need every employee, every team member to be a stakeholder, and so diversity means recognizing that diversity of thought is extremely important inside an organization to avoid and minimize disruption, but inclusion is more where we want to be.
Inclusion is an environment where people can stand up and if they don't agree they feel comfortable saying they don't agree. I can't tell you how many individuals I meet with who will say, "Well, I knew that wasn't going to work. I didn't think that that was what we should have been doing." When I said, "Well, did you speak up? Who did you tell? What leader did you let in on your viewpoint?" They did not feel comfortable.
That tells me that they did not feel that it was an environment inclusive of their ideas. Inclusiveness means we can all sit at the table, we can all add our thoughts and viewpoints. We all are stakeholders. We're all actively engaged and, when we're doing that, that means our retention numbers will at least – I would hope they would increase – but they wouldn't decrease.
Diversity and inclusion are often spoken hand in glove, but I think we as a profession and as individuals should focus more on the inclusion side.
The accounting profession, it's becoming more and more technology-centric by the day. How does ensuring that the profession is diverse and inclusive connect to this and alleviate the dilemma of acclimating to technology?
[Ellison-Taylor] It's related, and it's kind of different. From a pipeline perspective, I can tell you, and having grown up in the inner city of Baltimore, my concern is about the chasm that could happen, and we used to talk a lot about digital divide. Today, I'm concerned about the technology haves and the technology have-nots, and that would impact us from a pipeline perspective.
Because everything that we're doing in the profession, I think, is leading us to an environment where there is a synergistic relationship that we will not be able to detect the accounting person from the technology person. We will have what we call today a digital CPA. Instead of that being rare, that will be the norm. What does that mean to our pipeline from different diverse communities and populations that do not have access to the technology that we're talking about?
I'm certainly not talking about consumer-based technology, because I am aware that various communities use smartphones, they use mobile devices, and some of them are using tablets for sure, but I'm also talking about cyber-security, Big Data. I'm talking about virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and machine learning, and how you leverage basic business processes to automate them so that businesses can achieve double-digit, year-over-year growth.
Technology does have a part in diversity and inclusion, because we've got to be concerned about that pipeline and making sure that everyone has access to the technology we're going to be living, working, and playing with in the future. At the same time, technology is also offering windows of opportunity for communities who would have been left out of the whole age of machines.
It's a double-edged sword, I think, and so we just got to be mindful and careful of how we leverage it, making sure there's access and opportunity and that we don't unknowingly leave out populations. Because we're moving so quickly, I could see that easily happening. I am comforted by the numbers of young people that I get to speak with on a pretty regular basis that whether I was in Poland or whether I'm in South Carolina, or in California, or I could be somewhere in Canada, the young people are leveraging technology and are more exposed to information than we ever were and more than we ever were.
I am comforted by the notion that they will be able to adapt, but only if they have the access and opportunity to do so. That's why I say it's related and separate.
You had mentioned this point earlier, because it was one of my big takeaways from your article as well, the article that was in Accounting Today. Diversity is easier than inclusion. I found that really interesting, and I wondered, you talked about it a little bit, but do you have any more to elaborate on that and just explain why you think this is and how you've seen it borne out in your experience?
[Ellison-Taylor] What happens is…and I am delighted this year to be the vice chairman of AICPA's National Commission of Diversity and Inclusion. I get to take my passion for having an inclusive environment on the road and speak with our members along every generation. I have found that in speaking to women they have had certainly some unique challenges with being promoted and advancing through to the top levels of the organization.
I have found that similarly with different people of different orientations or physical abilities or whether or not they're African-American or Hispanic or Asian, every group has its own challenges, and so one size does not fit all. I just can't emphasize enough that organizations seem to be looking at diversity as a risk management thing. It's a risk management initiative.
It's sitting under the legal team or somewhere sitting in the back-end of HR, something that they have to do. Not something that they really see as a way to connect more with their clients, customers, and business partners; not as a way to reduce complexity and reduce the cost of regulatory compliance, and automating their supply chain, and creating a frictionless environment for how people interact with them.
They really think of it as something that they have to do, not something that they get to do. Because of that, diversity shows up as “We've got our one. We're done.” I hate to say that, but that's how it shows up. Love is as love does, and so I implore our leaders to really take a look at how they recruit, where they recruit, who do they send to recruit. Who's on the interview panel? When people say, "Well, Kimberly, we couldn't find this particular person or that person." I stop and I say, "Where are you looking?” Because everywhere I go I meet the most amazing individuals across every spectrum of diversity you can imagine.
Then it kind of makes me think we're not trying hard enough to be as diverse as we need to be, because it's easier to do what we've always done. Then we want to do just enough so that if someone were to ask us what we were doing on diversity, we can pull out the one or two people that we have and showcase them. When I speak to the individuals who have left these various organizations because they didn't feel like it was inclusive enough, and I say, "Well, what did you need? What could they do?"
Because people make mistakes. Sometimes they don't get it right. They need help. If you're not in that group, you won't know the lingo. You won't know how to say it. We have to not also be so PC that individuals are afraid to be in a diverse environment. I mean, that's a whole other topic for sure, but I'm like, "What can these organizations do?" They'll say, "Well, Kimberly, we need more." Having one or two people is not what most of them would say is a diverse environment.
Having one female VP and, let's say to keep it simple, 10 men. Now maybe it's that those 10 men were the best and the brightest and that was what you could find. Maybe that is the case. I'm going to assume positive intent. What I think would give more of the individuals that are in that organization some comfort is that they see your effort, they see that you tried. If you hired a man, you hired a man. That was the best person that was for that position at that time. But where are your grooming initiatives? Where are you being very clear about what it is you want? You're being intentional.
You will go out and recruit the individuals that you need inside your organization because they may not say it this way, and I certainly grew up with parents from the South, they would say, "Love is as love does." Any organization that says they're going to be working toward diversity and inclusion, it is not an “add water” thing. That's the thing, because everything feels like it's the same today. That's the new lingo, and everything's “the thing.”
D&I feels like a thing today, but it's got to be here for the long haul. It can't be a fad. I'm looking forward to more inclusive initiatives and more inclusive, I would say, best practices that organizations can adopt.
When we talk about something not being a fad and becoming ingrained, that's where maybe next generation leaders can come in. Can you take us inside what you mean when you say that Next Gen leaders and things like technology will be catalysts of that more inclusive environment? What about those entities, those things, that we can call them, gives them that power to change the landscape?
[Ellison-Taylor] I have to say the next generation of leaders give me hope. I am just so amazed at their ability to process and their ability to very quickly come to conclusions. They know what they want as far as mission, purpose, and values. They're holding organizations accountable from a corporate responsibility perspective, and so I have great hope for them.
I say that because if I just use my sons as an example, and my sons are 15 and 16, soon to be 15 and 17, we were in a retail store. We were walking down the aisle, and I looked down an aisle and I see two guys holding hands. I think my older son was 12 at the time. We saw two guys holding hands. I had my speech together. I was ready because every parent, regardless of where you are in the world, there comes a time where you've got the speech that you've practiced in your head and you're ready to say it to your kid when the time comes. Not too early, but when the time comes.
I was ready. I was ready with my, "People are people. People love who they love. Everyone's the same inherently. We all want to be safe, healthy, happy, whole, and we feel loved, feel a sense of belonging." I'm ready with that speech in my head. We walk one aisle. My son doesn't say a word. We walk to the next aisle, he doesn't say anything. Finally, by the third aisle I couldn't stand it anymore, and I said, "Well, do you want to talk about that?" He said, "What are you talking about?"
I was like, "Didn't you see the two guys holding hands?" He was like, "Mom, so what? It's not a big deal." Then he said so and so has two moms. I was like, "So and so has two moms?" He said, "Yeah." I said, "You didn't tell me?" He was like, "What for?"
That’s kind of what gives me amazing confidence about what our young people are thinking. I have had the ability to speak to young people all over the world, and I can tell you they will stand there and wait to speak with me. It has never given them a pause that I'm an African-American female. They would stand there and talk to me just as if they were talking to a Caucasian male. I appreciate that so much.
I would certainly say that's been the case from my colleagues around the world as well, not to say that they haven't done it. Young people, they don't seem to latch on to older notions. Probably it's because they didn't grow up in that era. Because technology, whether it's Fortnite or Dungeons and Dragons and all these other games that they seem to be playing. When my kids were six, they were playing Club Penguin. I was like, "Who are you playing with?" They were playing with avatars with kids from all over the world.
Because they're exposed, they feel passionate and are committed to human causes. They see people for people that they are. I just think that our leaders will be compassionate. They'll care about the environment that they're in. They'll care about each other, and I think we'll be in a much better place when they're in charge.
They will definitely make more time for their families and more time for quality time in their lives and work-life integration and balance. Those things come a lot more easy for them.
I just think technology is going to help that. Technology is going to help them. They can work wherever they want to work. They can live wherever they want to live. They will develop new patents and new initiatives and ways of doing business based on convenience, based on opportunity, based on lessening pain and working with different environments. I am very confident that they will do exactly what we need to do.
Will they make mistakes? Absolutely, but I think every generation learns, hopefully, from the previous one. Now, I've got to say, yes, that is a rose-colored view of the world, and I know that people listening to this will say, "How could she say that in today's environment?" Because there's so much going on. But I would so much rather wake up every day excited and looking forward to the possibilities instead of thinking that it's doom-and-gloom all day.
I wear enthusiasm every single day, excitement every single day, passion for our profession and all of the wonderful, amazing things that I know we are capable of. I tend to want to think that way. While being realistic about the realities of the environment that we're in, I still recognize that we will learn, make mistakes, get up, try it again, and we will still be better off for having done it than if we had never tried at all.
As you said, diversity and inclusion shouldn't be about "I've got my one," or a risk-management program. These are business essentials, that if you're a diverse, inclusive environment you're going to be doing well both with your staff and with your clients who are diverse themselves. Is it fair to say that at some point diversity and inclusion, people have to look at it that way, because those that don't have the concepts ingrained into their practices, they're sort of closing themselves off from the best talents. Is it fair to say that you agree with that?
[Ellison-Taylor] I absolutely do agree with that. I think that in order to get the best and the brightest for your organization, your constituents, clients, customers, business partners, students, whoever you're working with, your organization has to be a microcosm of the environment that you serve. If you're not a microcosm of that environment, you are going to miss something significantly about what they want and what they need and expect.
I think there is definitely a "Hey, this is a great thing to do" aspect of D&I, but I would also tell you when I speak about it usually I'm talking about revenue generation, the bottom line, and why it's good for business because we're improving decision-making and how we put our goods and services in the marketplace. It is a strategic business imperative, and so leaders who miss that component will be missing a great opportunity.
I can tell you that sometimes D&I feels like a feel-good initiative, but that couldn't be farther from the truth. We have to think of it in terms of why it's good for business, and because your customers who are that generation that I just spoke about, when they walk into your office, do not think for one minute women don't look at the number of women that are in a room. You can probably walk up to any female professional who could walk in a room and probably within about 15 minutes tell you roughly about how many women were in the room.
If you're selling something to a female leader and you bring all of one group, that's not a good sales approach. Even if you wanted to put some discipline and methodology to D&I, you have to consider the fact that those various groups know when they're the only one in the room. Instead of today being happy, and I'm not saying that they ever were happy, but they're not going to be happy if they're the only one. They're going to be asking, "Why am I the only one in this room?"
What's your general outlook about the inroads that are being made in the profession toward diversity and inclusion? Is leadership in the field beginning to get a little bit more about how important it is? What do you think the next few years will need to look like in order to get this going in the right direction?
[Ellison-Taylor] That is a very interesting question because I will tell you, I have the greatest respect for my colleagues. They're brilliant. I have worked with many of our leaders across the profession. It is concerning to me that if we wanted to build a new cybersecurity practice, we would and it would have double-digit growth. If we wanted to enter a new market, we would and it would have double-digit growth. If we wanted to ensure that we were working on new quality methodologies and adding new innovation to our practices, we would.
I don't know if inherently any of our leaders either think we're going to really get there, where we need to be, or do they think it's just impossible, or do they really believe it? Because with the same level of effort that we put into all of these other initiatives it doesn't quite feel that it's trickling throughout the organization why inclusion is so important.
The other thing I would say is that diversity and inclusion, we're talking about unconscious bias. I know more and more organizations are offering the training inside their organizations, but a lot more training has to happen at the middle level. I have spoken to leaders who are passionate about diversity and inclusion, passionate about advancing talent of everybody to the highest levels of their organization.
They're looking at their succession plan. They understand the business imperative, but then when I ask people, "May I ask why you left?" – because every person that leaves, I'm like, "Where are you going? What happened? You were so happy there? – they would say, they'd try to speak in code, but it's middle management.
Why is it then that the top level of the organization, and you could look at their executive round table, and people do, so we're looking at the people that report into you, because if love is as love does and you're leading from the front, you're looking at the people who you hire, who you promote, who's sitting next to you as your trusted advisors. Everyone's looking at that person.
Then we're also wondering why doesn't the middle, or should they be held more accountable, probably, to even just try to figure out what we can do to be more inclusive. It can't be an initiative that is a vertical D&I. D&I is horizontal. It's across every layer of the organization. It has to be more than the CEO talking about it. Every group has to be talking about it. They have to be thinking about it.
Now, it could be that they've thought about it and when they do their interviews they still may not be as diverse as they want, and I always will be open to that possibility that you had the diverse lake, you had the diverse candidate pool. You've got initiatives for growth inside your organization. You're training and mentoring your middle management on a constant basis. You're holding everybody accountable. Even the individuals themselves need to be held accountable because certainly if they don't say that they have a problem how can the organization be held at fault?
Everyone has a role and a responsibility. If you're doing all of that and you're saying, "Kimberly, we did the best we could do. The same effort that we would put into having a cybersecurity practice or the same level of effort we put into our audits or taxes," there's nothing I can say. There's nothing that I don't think anyone in the industry can say.
I would tell you that the D&I professionals who are amazing and they're championing this particular initiative inside your organization, sometimes they feel like they're on an island. They're on an island by themselves where there's not as much support, because it's managed like a risk-management function, not managed as a strategic business function.
The D&I individual could be sitting three, four levels below the CEO. It's not on his or her dashboard inside the organization. They really only think about it when it's time to fill out their EEO report. There is a better way to do it than the way we're doing it. I'm happy to see that organizations are taking a hard look and looking at what's working and looking at what's not working. It does take that kind of safety environment where you can say what needs to be said.
If you think a particular group that comes in isn't functioning at the highest levels, you should feel free to be able to say that. You shouldn't feel like you're going to get sued if you tell people that they're not performing. There's just a lot more we can do, I think, across the board.