Life Lessons, Leadership and Learning from Mentors
Our Interview with the AICPA’s Chair Kimberly Ellison-Taylor
It’s not often that you hear about an 8-year old girl in an inner-city school declaring her intention to become a CPA when she grows up. But when you are fortunate enough to meet the very engaging and super accomplished Kimberly Ellison-Taylor today, it’s not hard to imagine that the spark to reach high and strive for great things was lit many years earlier for the girl who would become the first African-American female Chair of the AICPA. Kimberly has recounted the story about how a career day in her third-grade classroom set her on her life’s path many times during her yearlong tenure as Chair. She recently brought her inspiring story and message about mentorship and female leadership to Rhode Island as keynote speaker for the RISCPA Women’s Council Fall Roundtable on Mentoring, Coaching and Sponsorship, held on October 26.
Prior to her presentation at the Roundtable, held at the Marriott in Providence, Kimberly sat for a luncheon interview with Women’s Council Co-Chair Jacquelyn Tracy, Operations Director Sue Breen and Newsletter Editor Donna Perry. The following are excerpts of the conversation.
“If you start with a core foundation, everything is built off that cornerstone. When we look at strong structure in our lives, for me it was my parents,” is how Kimberly characterizes the solid family background her parents provided to shape her life. “I received mentorship very young, as my parents taught me that as a black female, I would have to work twice as hard to get credit. My parents gave me the sense that although I was growing up in inner city Baltimore, I didn’t have to stay there unless I wanted to.”
Though Kimberly did not stay there, the life lessons from her parents stayed with her as her remarkable career began to take off. She credits her rise in the worlds of both accounting and technology, which eventually led to her current position as Global Accounting Strategy Director for Oracle America, to transformative mentor experiences she had early on. In her first significant job, she was working in the procurement division of NASA, but knew she had training and great strengths in IT. Her humorous retelling of what happened next taught her the lesson that sometimes a significant mentor opportunity can emerge where you least expect it, including at the company Christmas party. “I was going to skip the Christmas party and a co-worker at the time said ‘You can’t miss the NASA Christmas party, you have to go!’ That got me there and at the party I had a chance conversation with the head of the entire IT division and within the next few days, I was interviewing in his office! I was a bit nervous about the job duties, but he was a mentor and said, you can do it, you’ll learn it. That’s how I ended up over in IT and that led to other opportunities.”
Jackie asked about the challenge facing women’s initiatives and mentoring programs from a younger generation of women coming into the profession who sometimes reject them for fear of being “singled out” as women, even though the programs are designed to support their own growth. “You have to tell them the stats and real data, and that should give them pause,” Kimberly replied. “The reality is though women make up 50% of accounting program graduates, they’re still only at 20% of top leadership levels. These programs and initiatives are needed because we still have a long way to go. Mentorship is an invaluable element to propelling a career.”
Kimberly observes that women need to appear willing and interested in being promoted to leadership positions and not be afraid of a new and perhaps daunting opportunity. “Don’t ever say no,” she advises even if you think it will never happen. “Stay open to opportunities.” Kimberly says the process of her becoming Chair was a combination of her staying open to the opportunity and being ready to take a leap when the moment arose. “I wasn’t angling to do it but you have to be visible, volunteer at the national level, and appear willing to do it,” she urges for those who want to participate on the national stage. Jackie brought up another issue that can be a difficult work challenge for many women: getting proper recognition for your work. “Don’t be afraid to toot your own horn! Don’t always say ‘we’ if it was really you doing it. If it was you who provided the ideas, the structure, the timelines, hit the deadlines, then you deserve the credit! We as women sometimes have a hard time with that.” She also encourages women to push to know where you stand in the organization if you feel unsure. “Push for feedback sessions on a regular basis, don’t let it go to once or twice a year.”
As for molding yourself into a corporate leader, Kimberly says the importance of a woman’s professional appearance should not be underestimated. “I can’t stress enough the importance of executive presence. Women still can fall into stereotypes unfortunately,” she observes, “and that’s just a reality. I always wear hose, even in hot weather! I always wear a jacket if the men are going to be in a jacket.”
Sue asked how Kimberly views the future for individual state societies as their original core mission of providing in-house certified professional education (CPE) continues to decline year by year. “Societies can do more to expand to a wide range of skills development,” she stresses. “The learning market is a billion-dollar market, so learning has a lot of opportunity, but you have to evaluate what is being taught.”
We asked her view on an issue that is a universal challenge for women in not just this profession but in all careers: the juggling between career and family/children. “Own your own truth on what is best for you,” she urges. “You have to assess and do what feels right for you, and don’t try to mirror the impossible lives we see portrayed in news shows or on TV or on-line or wherever!” As the mother of two boys who are now teens, Kimberly says she worked a bit from home for a few months for the first baby and took a few months fully off when her second son was born before returning to work. “Some women end up staying home more than returning and if that’s best for them, that’s great. Some women choose not to have children at all and that’s ok too,” she says. “But I have learned that children are resilient even if they have a very busy Mom. You have a right to do what feels right for you.”
Sage advice from the woman who decided very early on what was going to be right for her, and we are all so fortunate she followed her own instinct!