SNH19: Jina Etienne, CPA, CGMA, takes a holistic approach to diversity

David sits down at Scaling New Heights with Jina Etienne, CPA, CGMA, and Director of Diversity & Inclusion at Grant Thornton LLP. In her role, Jina is responsible for developing and implementing Grant Thornton's firm-wide D&I strategy. She shares GT's approach to diversity, why firms need to approach diversity holistically, as well as tips for smaller firms seeking to benefit from greater diversity in their ranks.


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Jina Etienne: Diversity has to be true for all of us, and so far, the diversity conversation tends to exclude white men. I think we need to include white men, and we need to talk about diversity holistically and get beyond the superficial, because the visible stuff is easy. It's the invisible stuff that's hard, and we have more invisible stuff than we have visible stuff. 
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David Leary: Welcome to The Cloud Accounting Podcast. I'm your host, David Leary.
Jina Etienne: And I'm Jina Etienne. 
David Leary: Jina, welcome! Thanks for joining us today. As I was configuring, getting our tech checks done, you started to talk about the diversity topic, which we'll discuss a little bit today. Before [00:01:30] we jump in, please introduce yourself. I think a lot of our listeners may not know who you are. You mentioned this your first Scaling New Heights. 
Jina Etienne: That is correct.
David Leary: So, who are you? How'd you get here? We'll start from there. 
Jina Etienne: Who am I? What a great question. I'm a CPA, and I live in Maryland. I had a 26-year career in public accounting. I started out in the Big Eight. I started at Touche Ross, and then I had my own firm for about 17 years. Left there. I was Director of Taxation at the AICPA for about five years. Left there. I was CEO at [00:02:00] the National Association of Black Accountants for two years. After I left there, I started a consulting business with my husband that led me to my current role, which is Director for Diversity & Inclusion at Grant Thornton.
David Leary: I was going through the list of speakers here this year and trying to figure out ... There were only so many people I could pick to interview. I was like, "Oh, here's somebody. I don't who they are, and it's a topic that we talked about on the podcast a lot - diversity." It's fairly broad ... What does that mean when that's your role at Grant Thornton? 
Jina Etienne: You know, I don't really have a good answer for that. You'd think [00:02:30] I would, because it's my role ... Most people think of diversity and inclusion in a very narrow way. They think of it in terms of what other work we're doing to get more racial diversity in our pipeline, like hiring in diversity, ethnicity, race. What are we doing around gender, or what are we doing about policies for LGBTQ employees, or things like that? That's the way most people look at diversity.

I look at it more [00:03:00] broadly. At Grant Thornton, we talk about bringing your whole self to work. Well, I like to talk about diversity and inclusion in that space, because diversity is really just counting difference. That's all it is. That's easy. I can do it five minutes - sorta, not really. Inclusion, on the other hand, is all about culture. It's about the company's intention for people to feel like they're safe, and can show up, and belong and be included. It's also my ability to show up and navigate a space that says I can be myself.
In business, at [00:03:30] least when I was growing up ... I'm a little older now, but when I started in business, it felt like this is not the place for ... This was business, not personal. Leave your personal stuff at home, and just come to work. You would only bring a certain part of yourself to work. Today, people want to bring ... They just want to come to work without having to cover. They want to come to work without having to leave part of themselves behind.
David Leary: If I hear you correctly, diversity is more of not assimilate, and just being like every single other person [00:04:00] at work, or at a company. 
Jina Etienne: Correct. 
David Leary: It's being your individual self, and that's going to lend to diversity, regardless of skin color, or any of the other ways we like the measure that. 
Jina Etienne: Right. There's a really great model that I looked at, that looked at what does inclusion really mean? It's a mix of belonging and uniqueness. If you belong someplace, but you're covering up, or you're hiding, or you're not bringing your true self, you're really just assimilating, which is what you were just talking about.
The other extreme of that is you respect me for my subject matter expertise. I [00:04:30] stand out, and people see me, and they know me, but I don't belong to any group. That's called differentiation. Both of those are more common than inclusion, which is I get to be my odd, quirky self and still be part of the group. You still invite me to go bowling, or you still invite me to go to the bar, or you still invite me to do the things, even though I wouldn't ordinarily be included in your group, because, based on some of the old rules, if it was the thing that only the guys do, they don't invite [00:05:00] the women.
Looking at diversity and inclusion is how do we get people to feel comfortable enough at work to relax, because then they're gonna bring us their best thinking. Then, they're going to do their best work. It's also about companies, though, talking more about their value as a company and their vision for the culture in their company, or in their firm, so that I, the employee, or the prospective employee, know that that's a place where I want to work, because it aligns with my values, or my goals, and my vision. D&I [00:05:30] covers all that stuff today. The old versions of D&I were more like EEOC stuff-
David Leary: Numbers and counts.
Jina Etienne: Yeah, it's race, it's religion, it's gender, it's sexual identity, it's veteran status, it's disability, or not disability.
David Leary: Do you help run management programs and management training, so people can pull those best selves out of their employees, or just ... Do you have official programs? How do you run that?
Jina Etienne: We have eight business resource groups for different categories of diversity to allow people to connect [00:06:00] across the firm. Mostly gay firms, at least for the bigger ones, are going to be organized - audit, tax, consulting - so people tend to stay in those silos. With our business resource groups, you can break across the silos. We're connecting because of a common area, whether it's race, whether it's ethnicity, or gender, sexual identity, regardless of business line, regardless of service, regardless of role. 

We're connecting because we have a different commonality. Then, because of that commonality ... Like women, when they get together, [00:06:30] there are certain challenges we experience as women. Having colleagues and a network that I can talk to people about those issues at work in a way that's safe, it's so empowering. We do that through our business resource groups- 
David Leary: You're going across instead of going in your business unit, or whatever. You're doing across your peer group, or your social-
Jina Etienne: Right. We also look at operational things, like are our policies equitable? Are they fair? We also want to look at things like what are we doing, from a recruiting perspective, to ensure [00:07:00] that we're bringing in just those traditional groups of minorities? That we aren't somehow continuing this pattern of being mostly male and mostly white, which, if you look at the AICPA Trends report, last one I think came out 2017. So I eagerly await the next one. As of that last report, partners in CPA firms were 77-percent male, and 95-percent white. We've got to be doing something, so that 15 years from now, that's different.
David Leary: So, [00:07:30] if you're on the bottom, getting college graduates, the diversity there, and that'll naturally bubble up 15 years from now, hopefully ...
Jina Etienne: That's the assumption. That's the assumption. The work we're doing in D&I - not just me, not at Grant Thornton, but I think D&I broadly - is looking at patterns, looking at trends. For example, is there a challenge in the public accounting space for women to go from manager to partner? Do we notice, across the entire profession, that women tend to leave public accounting, and that's why there are more men at [00:08:00] the partner level? Is there something we can do about that?
From a D&I perspective, that's the kind of conversation that we want to have, and explore, and look, and better understand. I also think that- where I'd love to see the diversity conversation go is looking at the people we have today and asking ourselves, have we really empowered them to really get outside of that box? For example - I've said this before - if [00:08:30] you imagine a room with 100 men in it, people would say that's not a diverse space. I would challenge that, and I would say there is difference of style. There's difference of experience. There's difference of role. There's difference of process in thinking; background. Some of those people might be immigrants. If it was a visible difference, then we would have said, "Oh, there's diversity in the room," but it's invisible. The other thing is, and this is true in public accounting - my bias is about to show, so [00:09:00] I'll admit that-
David Leary: There's no opinions ever on this podcast! 
Jina Etienne: I would argue that when the white guy gets to show up as his self and not some stereotyped version that he thinks he needs to comply with, or align himself with, now we can have an honest conversation, because if the white guy who loves to dance, or a gay man who is still in the closet, or a white guy who [00:09:30] didn't speak English when he was born and only learned to speak English, but nobody knows this ... These kinds of secrets. 

When they can come out and be safe, and when they're accepted, when we allow for the diversity among them, that group ... I'm a black woman - only then will I stand a snowball's chance in hell. Diversity has to be true for all of us, and so far, the diversity conversation tends to exclude white men. I think we need to include white men, [00:10:00] and we need to talk about diversity holistically and get beyond the superficial. The visible stuff is easy. It's the invisible stuff that's hard, and we have more invisible stuff than we have this visible stuff. 
David Leary: That's great, and it's so logical. It's an interesting point of view that I've never heard before. I haven't seen out there before. Thank you, thank you, thank you for coming on to discuss that. 
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David Leary: I think a few weeks ago, Sage had their annual ... They surveyed 3,000 firms of different sizes, and they put out ... I think, if I remember the stat correctly - Blake and I talked about it in the podcast a few weeks back - only 25 percent, or maybe less than 25 percent have even a [00:11:30] diversity plan. Is it important for firms to have that, or not? How do you digest that number? To me, I feel like it's too low in 2019. Just way too low. 
Jina Etienne: Yeah, I find that puzzling. I hadn't heard that stat. So now, of course, I'm gonna have to go back and look that up-
David Leary: I'm sure it's in the show notes, somewhere. 
Jina Etienne: I'm not surprised, and I say that, because even if you just look at the top 50 - 50 - CPA firms, there [00:12:00] aren't that many that have the role that I have. I'm grateful that Grant Thornton even has a role like this. There are two of us, actually, focused on diversity full time at Grant Thornton. I think the profession means well, but we don't yet understand the value of diversity, from the perspective I was just talking about. I don't mean in the traditional, legacy sense. I mean it in allowing people to show up differently, work differently, think differently, provide different types of services. We're [00:12:30] struggling, still, to get people to work in the cloud. We're not a profession that changes quick.
David Leary: We've definitely discussed that on the podcast. 
Jina Etienne: Yeah, and we tend to like to just keep doing ... If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Just because it ain't broke, doesn't mean it's right. I think that getting people to think about diversity, until we get past it being, "We need to hire so many minorities out of the total people that we hire," because I think all firms think about that, but we don't think [00:13:00] about the diversity of thinking that goes into the work that we offer. We don't think about the diversity of teams that show up and serve a client. We don't think about the different ways that we could be leveraging the diversity of style, approach, thinking, methodology, background, and experience to deliver results for clients. We don't think about how diversity will make us better in the results.
I think we just think about diversity in the legacy sense, so I'm not surprised. Long answer, sorry ... I'm not surprised [00:13:30] at the stat, and I think when we get people doing diversity in every firm, not from an HR perspective, which is ... Even my role is in HR, currently. Doing it from an operations, and innovation, and a client service perspective, thinking about how does the inclusive mindset and diverse approaches and styles inform culture, process, service line, output, [00:14:00] branding, messaging? All of that stuff? That's way beyond HR. This is so much more than HR.
David Leary: I think you're right. With this being a numbers business, everybody just wants to count numbers-
Jina Etienne: This is the hardest thing to count- 
David Leary: It's easy math to do, and it's a hard thing to count ... 
Jina Etienne: Well, there are analytics you can do, but there's other data that we're gonna need to start capturing, which, as CPA firms, we haven't always historically captured that kind of data.
David Leary: I think a lot of people that are attending Scaling New Heights, or a lot of listeners of this podcast would be smaller firms. If [00:14:30] you have a solo firm, or you two or three employees, are there any tips you can give to smaller firms, who obviously cannot have a position like you have. They're just not a big enough firm to have that. Ways they can just be more conscious of diversity? Is it a policy? Is it a mindset? 
Jina Etienne: Two things come to mind. First is, one, small firms are at a disadvantage, if you're thinking about diversity, that they want to have different groups represented in their employee base, I say think of it differently. Look at your employees, whether you have two of them, or 10 of them, whatever [00:15:00] the size of your firm ... Look at personality styles; look at background; look at experience. Try to see how different is the group? 
I just had a session this morning on understanding ... She went through the DISC profile, and how understanding personality helps with client communication. Well, part of that required understanding the different personalities in your own office. You could be a group of six women .... If you looked at yourself, in terms of background, style, experience - all the things I keep mentioning - you're probably way [00:15:30] more diverse. Then you can lean into that diversity to use it to differentiate yourself in the marketplace, because otherwise, you're just another accountant. 
This morning, one of the speakers on the main stage said something to the effect of, "If I'm looking out at a thousand accountants and bookkeepers, and all you're telling me is the stuff that validates that you're an accountant, how do I make a choice?" You don't lean into the stereotype of the accountant in the traditional sense. Leverage your diversity, and say, "Accountant? I [00:16:00] do that stuff really well, but here's the type of thinking that I'll bring to you." Give them a why. Share your perspective. Leverage your diversity to develop them. That's one thing.
The other thing I would say is when you're looking at diversity, if you can't find it in an employee pool per se, look outside. Look at your outside contractors. Do you have independent contractors? Do you have any form of mentors or coaches? Do you have any type of advisory [00:16:30] board, especially if you're a small firm owner? Because your employees won't give you feedback, maybe having an advisory board, or a group of trusted clients that you can go to for feedback [cross talk] and looking at diversity there-
David Leary: You've got to seek diversity to give you different perspectives, and points of view, right? 
Jina Etienne: Right, that you wouldn't otherwise get in your immediate pool. Then, just make sure you're not hiring a bunch of people that look, and think, and act like you, because-
David Leary: It's robots, which is kind of the accounting industry [cross talk] 
Jina Etienne: I think we're more diverse than we give ourselves credit for.
David Leary: That's good. 
Jina Etienne: I just think we don't talk about this, because, as accountants, we're [00:17:00] trained and branded to be reserved and quiet, and we keep our opinions to ourselves. 
David Leary: So, Jina, if people want to get a hold of you, get in touch with you, learn more, or maybe share thoughts, what's the best way to get in touch with you? 
Jina Etienne: LinkedIn is good, and Twitter, I'm @MissTaxCat. My former life, I was a tax person for 26 years. 
David Leary: MissTaxCat.
Jina Etienne: @MissTaxCat on Twitter.
David Leary: Okay. 
Jina Etienne: Of course, you can message me on LinkedIn. If you send me an invite, please put in the message something like, "I heard you on the podcast. Want to connect more ..." because-  [00:17:30]
David Leary: Yes, put that in, for sure. 
Jina Etienne: -a lot of people send LinkedIn invites, and you don't know who they are. Happy to connect.
David Leary: Awesome! Thank you for coming on. Those of you who wanna get in touch with me, I'm @DavidLeary on Twitter, and I think that's a wrap for Scaling New Heights! 
Jina Etienne: Thank you for having me!
David Leary: Thanks a lot! Bye, everybody.
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