When Armanino LLP acquired BrownSmithWallace in 2021, it got more than it bargained for.
BrownSmithWallace, a perennial on the Accounting MOVE Project Best Firms for Women list, was well established in its hometown of St. Louis with its women’s initiative, The Bridge. The Bridge blended career advancement and business development skills training with a cycle of high-profile women’s events.
Meanwhile, California firm Armanino had been diligently working on advancing women against headwinds of embedded culture. Leaders steeped in traditional values were open to new modes of advancing women but didn’t have the tools to accomplish their ambitions. The firm’s women’s advancement network made some headway, but firm leaders realized that the long game of reaching gender parity in leadership was going to be long indeed.
Then Armanino acquired BrownSmithWallace, and with it, The Bridge. The infusion of fresh perspective and deep authority from the success of The Bridge proved to be just the chance that success-hungry Armanino senior leaders needed.
A rigorous analysis persuaded firm leaders that they needed to clear the way to the finish line.
It was hard to argue with BrownSmithWallace’s track record: In 2020, its final year in the MOVE Project, the firm reported that women comprised 40% of its partners and principals.
“We benchmarked from their success,” says Carol Ann Nash, chief people officer at Armanino.
A diverse group of women leaders across Armanino facilitated frank discussions with executives about why women defected from Armanino’s partnership pipeline. They found that women managers often refrained from voicing their ambitions to rise, and the partners they reported to didn’t ask about their goals. And Armanino’s partnership preparation process often ignored issues of flexibility and sustainable workload, both key factors for women in the demanding stage of raising families while pursuing career ambitions.
The working group retooled The Bridge to concentrate the best of both firms on the partnership prep process. One simple but powerful innovation: Both managers and employees are required to open all performance reviews with the icebreaker, “I am interested in partnership.” By requiring all to address that topic, ambitions for advancement cannot be avoided, a particular benefit to Asian women, who often are reluctant to voice their career ambitions. The other required performance review question: “How are you feeling about work-life balance?”
Together, the two discussion points empowered rising women and their managers to talk about their ambitions and potential barriers. “It makes it visible for both parties who are having the one-on-one,” says Nash. “It creates a platform that makes it easier to have that conversation.”
And acknowledging that it’s the last-minute sprint that propels a distance runner over the finish line, senior Armanino leadership ensured that the firm’s management committee includes three women. Two women were elected to serve as the chair and vice-chair positions of a key firm leadership team and another woman is in charge of growing geography. Armanino’s 2022 class of new partners is 54% women, illustrating the results of building a strong talent pipeline of women leaders, with solid enthusiasm and support from leaders to see this number continue to grow.