FICPA Conversations - Karen Lake

FICPA Conversations: Karen Lake on the true value of mentorship

The second installment of our FICPA Conversations series is, appropriately, a two-parter!

In recognition of International Women’s Day, we spoke with our 2020 FICPA Women to Watch Award winners: Experienced Leader Karen Lake and Emerging Leader Kathryn Horton.

An associate director of tax services at Berkowitz, Pollack and Brant, Lake currently serves on and has previously chaired four different FICPA committees: the CFO & Controller Conference committee, the Florida CPA Summit committee, the FSU Accounting Conference committee and the State Tax committee.

A member of the FICPA since she started in the industry in 1993, Lake has had a front-row seat to the evolution of the accounting business. We touch on her career, the progress women have made in the industry, and the importance of mentorship in the profession.

To read our interview with Karen, scroll down; and to read our interview with Kathryn Horton, click the link below.

FICPA Conversations: Kathryn Horton on ignoring the roommate in your head

First off, congratulations once again on your 2020 Women to Watch Award. What did it mean to you to receive the award, and how did it reshape your views on leadership?

I realized that being a leader means helping others become leaders. That was something I had been thinking about over a few years and winning emphasized it. When you win an award like that, you realize that the award isn’t really a recognition of your individual skill; it’s a recognition of everyone who took time out of their day to mentor you, to guide you along your path. It’s your award, but it’s really an award for everybody who saw something in you even before you saw something in yourself. There are people who said, “I should mentor this person; I should meet them for lunch; we should sit and talk; let’s talk about what leadership is; let’s talk about what leadership is for women.” It’s all those different things that come up in the course of a career.

That’s really what being nominated for the award and winning it brought home to me – it’s the acknowledgement of a lot of people’s efforts.

Tell us a little bit about your journey as a CPA. What made you want to get into the industry?

It was easy! In college, it just made so much sense to me. It clicked. I could see that by helping people get their hands around their life financially, you would better their lives and better their companies. You would give them insight into things that they may not have a complete understanding of. You might be able to impart knowledge or information so that they could look at things from a different perspective. It would really enrich their lives. I see that as part of the career, and that’s part of what attracted me.

Across three decades in accounting, what have you observed in terms of the role women are playing in the industry? What progress has been made, and where do you think there’s still room for improvement as it relates to issues of diversity, equity and inclusion?

I’ve seen a tremendous amount of progress when it comes to accepting that women may be balancing families and home lives and community involvement and careers. And now we’re recognizing: Men have that, too. The profession is more open to recognizing that these things aren’t only a concern for women. Now men get to take paternity leave and spend time at home with a baby, as well. They also want to see the plays and the Little League games.

It first started out where we were losing women leaders from the profession as they had children. It was like a hard line in the sand. People would get married, they would have their baby, and they would leave public accounting. Out the door – gone. There weren’t many women in the upper echelon of the industry. At the time, I was working for one of the Big 4. Those firms started coming up with diversity and inclusion and women’s programs to really get their hands around why women were leaving the profession. They wanted to find out what was happening and how they could change the profession so that women would stay and continue to invest themselves in their organizations and clients. They saw talent walk out the door.

When firms started doing that, and women were leaving work at 5 o’clock to go to a women’s leadership meeting, the men in the office were like, “Wait, what about us? We want to go to the Hard Rock and have cocktails and chat, too!” Firms realized this wasn’t just about women, that men want all the same things – to interact with their children, to have that time to figure out a work-life balance.

It’s been a huge change over time, a natural kind of progression, step by step. Companies started to recognize and appreciate the role that women had in an organization as leaders, executers, decision makers. They recognized that they were losing all this talent, and there was no way they could ignore it. When you looked at the stats, less than 1% of leaders were women. It was a very large attrition rate. That’s why programs were put in place to change it.

I’m glad that you bring that up. In spite of the progress that has been made, there’s still obviously more work to do. We’ve addressed this in our first FICPA Conversation with Ron Thompkins, and I think it’s worth re-emphasizing: A recent study produced by the Association of Accountants and Financial Professionals in Business and the California Society of CPAs revealed that for every 10 of the accounting profession’s most senior leaders, “nine are white, eight are male and very few identify openly identify as LBGTQIA.” We’ve been talking a lot about leadership already. Why is it important to have diversity not merely within a company but at its highest levels?

Any time decision-makers sit down at a table and think about shaping the future – whether it’s for the region or the nation or the firm or the client – different ethnicities, cultural backgrounds, economic backgrounds all bring different perspectives. If you have a table of older, white gentlemen from the Ivy League or other prestigious academic backgrounds, you’re missing other perspectives. Too often, I’ve seen that the people at the table are not even from working-class backgrounds. And there are plenty of people from plenty of other backgrounds that have a lot to bring to that table.

If you look at all the different types of ethnic backgrounds, cultural backgrounds, economic backgrounds, when you have diversity and inclusion, that’s when you get the total picture. When you don’t, that when there’s a lot you’re missing out on.

You didn’t have very much doubt about getting started in the accounting industry, but what advice do you have for young women who now are considering a future in accounting?

Because we’re in a field that’s on the cutting edge, one that embraces technology and looks at how we can make an impact in the world, accounting will continue to be an attractive field. That’s our mindset. We’re going to look at whatever tools that technology can bring to us, whatever big-data tools we can incorporate. We’re starting to have people learn programming as part of their accounting curriculum. We’re embracing what we see coming, instead of waiting to get hit by a tidal wave.

Accounting is going to continue to be a really pertinent field for women. They can have strong careers and develop themselves to be impactful leaders by helping to drive business transformations and modernizations. That’s part of what we do, and that’s what makes it exciting. There’s a kind of positive, disruptive flow. I like to think we’re not just sitting around talking about the temperature in the room, but that we’re in control of the thermostat so that we can change the environment.

I guess my call to action is: If you want to be in a field with impactful leadership, that’s driving technology, that is open to business transformation and modernization, where there’s a positive, disruptive force – become a CPA.

To tie this back to the beginning and the idea that your Women to Watch Award was less about you and more about everyone who helped you reach that height, I’m hoping you might have some good advice about mentoring the next generation, which will invariably chart its own course for the industry.

I’m part of the AICPA Mentoring Program. I’m involved on the FICPA Board of Directors. I’m on Florida Tax Watch’s Board of Trustees. I’m kind of out and about in the community or on lots of Zoom calls; in either case, I’m meeting people. When I see that there’s someone who would be interested in accounting, or if there’s some kind of spark or connection with an individual, I will stop and spend time with them. It’s an apprenticeship profession. You really learn accounting through the mentorship of someone else. That’s what accountants do – we share our knowledge.

And you learn from the people you mentor. You learn just as much from the people you mentor as they learn from you.

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