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Women in Business Q&A: Pat Cummings, Co-Managing Partner, Citrin Cooperman

15/01/2016 19:46 GMT | Updated 15/01/2017 10:12 GMT

Pat Cummings, CPA, is the co-managing partner of the New York City office of Citrin Cooperman, the 22nd largest accounting, tax, and advisory services firm in the United States. An audit partner for publicly- and privately-held commercial clients, Pat leads the firm's Capital Markets and Private Equity Initiative and serves on the firm's Executive Committee and the Audit and Attest Committee. Pat is focused on the issue of women and leadership in the accounting profession and speaks on the topic frequently, most recently for Baruch College on International Women's Day; Accounting Today; Financial Executive International; and the New York State Society of CPAs. She is a member of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants' Women's Initiative Executive Committee's Champion Task Force.

Prior to joining Citrin Cooperman, Pat spent 17 years at a Global 6 accounting firm. She was previously employed on the staff of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants and commenced her career at a Big 4 accounting firm.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?

I remember my father characterizing a difficult personal situation that I was going through as just another "bump in the road." At the time, I remember feeling that it was a crater that was swallowing me to the point of no return. In hindsight, he was right; I survived, I learned and I moved forward a stronger person. Life experiences and our response to them are of critical importance in how leaders are formed and the kind of leaders we become. Over the years, as I matured professionally, I try to respond to life's passages from a learning stance, looking for the opportunity and lessons to be learned.

Like everyone else, over the years, I have encountered many difficult personal and professional situations. From a personal perspective, I went through a remarkably long and difficult divorce and custody battle. From a professional perspective, I have been faced with extraordinarily difficult client situations. Even more challenging, during my career, I was exposed to internal organizational politics where decisions were being made that were not in-line with my philosophy to promote a productive professional environment and energized culture. These experiences have taught me to cultivate the leadership skills that build strong teams and professionals and let the other noise fall to the background.

All of these life experiences have helped me develop as a leader. I believe I have a quiet confidence in my abilities, skills, and my relationships with clients, prospects, partners, and employees. I also have the confidence to say, "I don't know...what do you think?" which leads to involving others, getting their ideas and coming to a solution together. I believe this approach is an important leadership skill.

True leaders are not afraid to take measured risks and support others who do so. I understand the importance of making mistakes, learning from those mistakes, and becoming a more aware, insightful, and mature professional. Feedback is not always viewed as a welcome gift, and yet it is essential for all of us to grow. I will not avoid difficult issues, but rather seek to deal with them swiftly, fairly, and with a positive, solution-focused outcome in mind.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at Citrin Cooperman?

Citrin Cooperman is very unique -- an extremely progressive, innovative firm where talent is recognized...period... Joel Cooperman, the firm's chief executive officer, is an amazing leader who simply recognizes and rewards talent.

However, putting my current firm aside, based on my past experience, I am not convinced that the tide is changing for women in the profession in general. Despite the fact that women have represented about 50 percent of new CPAs in the accounting profession for the past 20 years, women account for only 19 percent of partners in CPA firms nationwide. The percentage of women in top leadership positions at these firms is much lower - and I fear that some of the women in top management are tokens - to check a box.

Lately, we have heard lots of advice about "leaning in." But I honestly don't accept the notion that the current lack of women as partners and top leaders in accounting firms is due to women not "leaning in." Women partners do lean in at these firms, raising their hands for leadership opportunities including office managing partner positions and senior leadership positions. I have personally seen countless instances where qualified women are bypassed with these positions going to their male counterparts. Many women run hard against the glass ceiling only to realize that their efforts to rise to top management positions at these firms are fruitless. I believe that it is fair to conclude that structural and organizational problems in certain firms, often combined with other economic and societal pressures, have contributed to this outcome.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Citrin Cooperman?

I never thought that I would be changing careers at this point in my life, after spending 17 years established at a firm. However, I had to be true to myself and acknowledge that my vision and leadership style were no longer in alignment with my former firm and it was time to seek a new opportunity. It was scary contemplating the change, but when I did start seeking other opportunities, it was truly eye opening. There were wonderful opportunities available to me in the marketplace where there was better cultural symmetry.

I joined Citrin Cooperman on October 1, 2013. It would not be honest for me to represent that the transition was easy; it was not. Starting at a new firm, getting to know the partners and staff, clients, prospects, value proposition, policies, procedures, methodologies - TOUGH DAYS! Now, 18 months later, I think that I know the drill.

I was drawn to the firm for many reasons including the strong leader and his leadership team. The firm recognizes talent. The firm is very cognizant of the unique issues that women face at various times in their professional lives. The firm wants to be at the forefront of the issue and the solution.

As one example, Joel Cooperman recently conducted a staff satisfaction survey to provide additional insights and knowledge to continue to build positive employee relations and a positive work environment. Based on the input, the leadership team has developed committees to address many of the identified matters over the next two months. The firm is nimble, quick, and focused on reinforcing employee satisfaction and enrichment.

What advice can you offer to women who are seeking a career in accounting?

When speaking to women entering the accounting profession, I like to reinforce two areas: first, don't be afraid to take risks and second, speak up, if you want something or need something, don't be afraid to ask. Good or great job performance does not naturally lead to rewards. Don't be afraid to advocate for yourself!

How do you maintain a work/life balance?

In all honesty, I do not think that I was successful in maintaining a good work/life balance. Perhaps this was a function of the time when I was coming up the ranks but I never felt comfortable saying "no" and setting boundaries. I felt that, in order to keep a level playing field, I had to be better, more responsive, more skilled, and more available than my male counterparts.

Over 20 years ago, when I did have a child, I was fearful to take time off as my superior at that time reminded me often over the course of my pregnancy that my position could be replaced if I took an extended maternity leave and there was no guarantee that a comparable position would be available when I returned. Therefore, I took a record-breaking, short maternity leave out of fear of losing my employment. Even after I moved on in my career, I felt "guilty" about leaving the office early to attend my daughter's school or sports functions. My experience was certainly not what right looks like!

My advice to women is that it is very acceptable to set boundaries. Attend your child's school outings, sports events and dance recitals - my mother told me that I will blink and my daughter would be leaving for college; she was right. Don't follow my lead and spend what should have been quality time with my daughter in the Magic Kingdom running to find a quiet place away from Mickey and Minnie to take a call from the office or a client. It is not only acceptable to say no; it is respectable!

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?

My view is that mentorship and having qualified women in leadership roles is an imperative. With staffing and succession planning at the top of firms' minds, it would seem obvious that hiring talented women and cultivating promising female leaders would be one clear answer to accounting firm staffing concerns. These women need role models and mentors. People tend to gravitate toward individuals with whom they can identify or have common interests. Advocates can offer promising women valuable insights and help them gain visibility and take on assignments that enhance their skills and experiences. In addition, marketplace demographics are shifting, with increasing numbers of women business owners and decision-makers leading companies and other organizations seeking the services of accounting firms. Those firms whose leadership includes women will have the advantage in competing for the business of women entrepreneurs and business leaders.

One other major issue that I want to see changed is the male/female stereotypes that still exist today and drive me crazy. We hear it constantly - in business, in politics and in the media. The ABCs that describe women who assert power; they are Aggressive, Angry, Bitchy, Cold, Calculating, Careerist. On the other hand, powerful men are described in a positive manner with words such as: strong, decisive, confident, and assertive. A women leader is bossy; the man is simply a leader.

The solution is to talk about how we talk. If you hear yourself described in a way that makes you cringe, ask the person this: "Would you describe a man that way?"

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?

I think that having a mentor is critical for success in the profession. Throughout my career, I have had different mentors who have provided me with guidance on getting assigned to the higher-profile client engagements, obtaining promotions, and providing me with assistance maneuvering politics.

My most valuable mentors have taken the time to deliver some tough messages, helping me to identify areas where I needed to improve in order to reach the next level. For example, I am not an extroverted person (actually I was always shy growing up) nor was I a gifted, natural public speaker. My mentor took the time to work with me to develop and improve in these areas - torturing me by filming me while I was speaking so I could critique myself, standing on tin foil to prevent my nervous habit of rocking on my high heels and attending public speaking courses. These activities were not my dream come true, but certainly did help me develop these necessary skills.

Over the last three years, I have been working with an executive coach who has helped me tremendously with some difficult situations and challenging decisions. She has become a valuable mentor and confidant. As a leader, we are at times expected to have all of the answers. Unfortunately, I don't have all of the answers and it helps to have someone "help me listen to myself" - if that makes any sense. It also is very valuable to have someone help me keep things in perspective. I am not a doctor and I don't make life or death decisions - it only feels that way sometimes!

It is also very important for me to act as a mentor. I am an Executive on Campus for a university in New York and it gives me great satisfaction to mentor accounting students as they are finishing their education and evaluating options for employment. There is a great deal of satisfaction that comes with seeing the next generation of leaders begin their respective journeys.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?

There have been so many great female leaders; I will answer this question by choosing three female leaders - past, present, and future.

Past: I learned a lot about Eleanor Roosevelt when my daughter was in 5th grade - I somehow became responsible for "some" of the research. Prior to that, I must say that I did not know much about this great lady, a symbol of independence and political power, "The First Lady of the World." Eleanor's personal life from childhood through her adult life appeared to be ideal but, in reality, it was often devoid of love and happiness. In spite of it, she devoted her life to gaining rights for others at a time when it was a very unpopular thing to do. Historians will continue to debate the issue of whether Eleanor should be called a feminist. It does not matter, as the proof is in the pudding; Eleanor was one of the early proponents for women's equality. How she triumphed over the adversity in her life is what makes her such a powerful role model for generations of women. Eleanor summed it up when she said, "I think the key is for women not to set any limits."

Present: In terms of a current leader, I would have to say Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's chief operating officer and the author of "Lean In." Although I admire Sheryl for all she has done for women, leadership, and work/life balance, it is the dignity that she has displayed recently dealing with her husband's death that has impressed me beyond words. In her recent post on Facebook at the end of her 30-day religious mourning period, Sheryl showed the world that it was okay for a powerful female leader to be vulnerable, sad, and to ask for help. It also demonstrates that when terrible things happen, when there are obstacles and unimaginable impediments, we have choices - give in or try to find meaning. We should all try to find our "inner Sheryl" when dealing with adversity and challenges; we can learn so much from her dignity and strength.

Future: I am so proud to be the mother of Samantha, my 23-year-old daughter. At an early age (I call her an old soul), she is independent, strong, and displays the independence, confidence, and ability to be a future leader. Sam's upbringing would be best characterized as "untraditional." She is an only child of what I can nicely characterize as an "awful" marriage and a "War of the Roses" divorce. Her "father" has not been part of her life, financially and/or emotionally. My parents played a key role in helping me provide Sam with stability, emotional security, and confidence. Sam beats to her own drum, is open to friendships with everyone and is secure in spending time alone. She has an incredible work ethic and has set lofty goals for herself. She has one more year of law school before entering the work force on a full-time basis. But I expect that we will see Sam making a difference for the women of the future.

What do you want Citrin Cooperman to accomplish in the next year?

We are currently refining Citrin Cooperman's Women's Initiative. The firm recognizes that it has lost a number of very talented women professionals over the last several years, as these women could not achieve the work/life balance that they needed and wanted. Although there will always be turnover at any firm, Citrin Cooperman will continue foster the type of work environment where women thrive. We will continue to revise and formalize policies to make it more conducive for women to excel at our firm including: offering flexible work schedules where professionals are also eligible for leadership positions; providing state of the art technology that allows working at home; for external-facing professionals, offering client schedules that fit with a professional's life commitments; offering leadership training and mentoring; and access to firm leaders.

At Citrin Cooperman, our leadership team talks the talk about diversity, inclusiveness, and the upward mobility of women in the work force; their actions echo these words. The firm is cutting edge and innovative in its approach to promote and support the success of women. The firm has a strong culture where everyone feels valued; this, in turn, results in employees delivering high-quality, valuable services to our clients.