Q&A With Cheryl Foster on DEI Initiatives Headshot

Q&A With Cheryl Foster on DEI Initiatives

Cheryl Foster, director of practice growth for St. Louis-based Brown Smith Wallace, leads the firm’s integrated marketing and business
development function, in addition to being an active committee member of the firm’s Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) program. She also
serves as co-chair of the Association for Accounting Marketing’s recently formed DEI Task Force. We asked her some questions about the task force and DEI initiatives in general.

AAM’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Task Force recently surveyed AAM membership. What were some of the most eye-opening findings?

I was encouraged to see most respondents are doing something to advance DEI in their firms. It means they understand the importance of building a diverse workforce and addressing the broader issues about diversity, equity and inclusion as it relates to underrepresented minority groups. The findings show most firms are just getting started. The entire world witnessed George Floyd’s death, making it impossible for anyone, including the business community, to ignore issues of DEI in our society. This summer, many business leaders felt that they had to take timely action. It’s a great start, but much more can be done.

The good news is the momentum for DEI is turning into action within the accounting profession. How can marketers contribute to advancing DEI initiatives within their firms? Marketers put a voice to their firm’s DEI initiatives. They can champion brand alignment on how the firm addresses DEI internally and externally. While human resources generally is the function that most often leads DEI within the firm, our survey findings confirm marketing has been predominantly cited as a key committee member to support the cause. Communicating what the firm is doing around DEI and its progress along this journey will help fuel internal participation and support.

What obstacles hinder accounting firms in building a more diverse workplace?

Lack of executive support can really hamper DEI efforts. It may be a lack of understanding for the need, concern over what clients might think depending on regional views, or discomfort with the subject and not knowing where to start. From the survey results, we also found one of the biggest challenges for firms is finding diverse talent. This can be particularly challenging in more homogenous parts of the country.

Firms are looking for creative ways to reach a diverse talent pipeline, such as recruiting within historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and creating awareness of career options at the high school level or even earlier. Seek out diverse populations that already may be present in your firm. They are great evangelists and can provide referrals from their own networks. Help tell their stories to authentically show your firm welcomes an inclusive workforce. Being more intentional around building these strategies and learning from other firms is what we hope to offer as part of AAM’s upcoming DEI programming.

What can firms do that are just starting their DEI journeys?

Getting buy-in from your managing partner is the optimal first step. It’s much easier to get the resources you need to kick-start your initiatives if there is commitment to the cause from the top. Not getting that level of support right away doesn’t mean you can’t start at a grassroots level and ask for senior level support later.

And speaking of that, start small. Reach out to peers in the industry and the business community at-large to benchmark ideas that are moving the needle at other organizations. They want us all to collectively advance. Form a committee that meets regularly to set an agenda and develop programming. Assign subcommittees to focus on accomplishing specific goals that make it more digestible for internal folks to manage along with their other core responsibilities.

You mentioned your firm has taken that first step with DEI initiatives. Care to share?

One of the most successful parts of our program is our monthly D&I Connections. These chats are hosted by a D&I committee member and cover sensitive topics, such as religion, in a safe environment. We learned things about our peers that would otherwise never have been discussed. This kind of open sharing has worked wonders to bring us closer together and appreciate the “why“ behind other viewpoints.

About Mary Yanocha

Mary Yanocha, is the Chief Marketing Officer of Global Tax Management, Inc. Mary is a strategic marketing executive with a successful track record leading the execution of marketing strategies designed to increase the visibility and awareness of products, services, and overall brand presence to external audiences.

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